Stop Trying to be an Expert

True knowledge is born in not-knowing (or, the value of beginner’s mind in UX research)

Photo by Justin Heap on Unsplash

I don’t know anything about the customers I study.

At least, that’s what I tell myself. Sometimes even after years of researching the same group: I don’t know anything about them.

What if I told you our entire lives we’ve done ourselves a disservice by trying to always act as the expert?

I’m speaking here about a mindset. That of my fellow Type Aers, those who work hard at school and harder at work. I’m speaking to anyone who spends their day with a daily task list, optimizing each moment with “time blocking” or calendars built out weeks in advance. I’m speaking especially to my fellow researchers.

Design research, user research, ethnographic, and anthropological research all are built on coming to novel conclusions through close observation. This varies drastically from something like a traditional consumer survey where answers are predefined and we create the framework upfront in which a consumers’ answer is meant to be understood.

Key to good ethnographic research is coming to it with a beginner’s mind. A concept from Zen Buddhism, also called Shoshin, and popularized by Shunryu Suzuki in 1970, it means approaching each moment without pre-conception. It is a vigorous scrubbing away of the tendencies to approach life as if we know the outcome (Suzuki, S., 1970).

To understand beginner’s mind and why it can be so valuable, let’s start with how we normally process the world.

What we take in is not a perfect picture of reality by any stretch.

It is constructed by filtering through our conscious mind’s frameworks of what we expect to happen. This is also called top-down processing, on top of our bottom-up sense data. We are pattern-finding machines and will tend towards shortcuts to interpret the data coming in through our senses.

For example, stare at an unchanging blurry image for a few seconds and it will suddenly disappear, your brain discarding it as unimportant (Troxler, D., 1804).

Or view a concave mask of a face, even if you are aware it is concave, and your brain will interpret it as convex.

We have so much historical data pointing us to faces as convex, and we use that top-down assumption to color our bottom-up data that our brain simply doesn’t see the truth (Gregory, R., 1970). Interestingly, people who have halted top-down processing see the truth of the mask as convex — those under the influence of alcohol, drugs, and who have schizophrenia (Schneider U, Borsutzky M, Seifert J, Leweke FM, Huber TJ, Rollnik JD, et al., 2002; Wired, 2009).

Wired, 2009

So how do we beat this default processing and obtain beginner’s mind? Why would we even want to?

To illustrate, let me tell you my experience on a recent vacation:

The first thing I noticed after arriving from Seattle to Santa Fe was that time was treated less as money, where the goal was to pack as much experience as possible into 15m increments, to keep ourselves busy, fast moving, and distracted. But rather, time felt like a valuable material to be held and enjoyed, not spent in micro-transaction. It was like liquid gold, that if you ran your hands through too fast it would dissipate.

Photo by Sean Quillen on Unsplash

Cars moved slower, I waited for coffee longer at a restaurant, and my own mind in turn began to settle in the present moment experience instead of expecting and interpreting what would be next.

Why am I telling you this?

Because this state of mind was one of beginner’s mind. Without preconceived frameworks for approaching each moment, more information flooded in and I could see new connections in things. Creative writing flowed more easily, meaningful coincidences made themselves more evident, and problem-solving became an effortless act. Rather than using top-down conscious processing for an answer to a problem, it would marinate and my subconscious would in due time do the work, providing the best solution. The top-down part of my brain worked as the quality-assessor.

I stopped taking shortcuts in my daily life to be the most efficient with time, and instead took in the full experience.

It can be both a help and a hindrance to take mental shortcuts.

In much of the research I do, from the ethnographic stand-point, it is a hindrance.

Many researchers’ likely have experienced the sort of top-down processing close mindedness in the corporate setting: executives who approach any new data with their own confirmation bias, who think they did a survey once many years ago and so now they understand their customers, and those who don’t see the value in research at all.

I’m not suggesting that we ask customers what they want. That’s not their job, and psychology and business examples illustrate that most people are not equipped to say what solution they really want or need (Nisbett, R., Wilson, T., 1977; Ariely, D., 2008).

My job as an ethnographer is to observe and understand the experience of customers, from their perspective as much as possible, to then create better solutions with my teams. It is to understand their pain points and their Job-to-be-Done.

But that comes not from any preconceived top-down processing notions of who these customers are and what they want. It comes from truly observing customers anew, every. time.

That allows the subconscious to make connections we may not expect. This is the lifeblood of powerful innovation.

To do that, we need to get out of our mental rut and into the world itself. We need to approach life, and particularly research, with a beginners’ mind.

So what can you do to put yourself in a beginners mind?

  • Conduct internal interviews… again. Whether of your clients or the company you work for, it’s important to re-approach your internal customers the same as your external ones. Try to narrow in on what has changed since you last spoke to them or conducted research. Perhaps there is a new product about to launch, or someone in marketing has been promoted and is approaching their campaigns differently. The world is dynamic, and seeing it internally will allow you to appreciate newness externally. All of this data forms a new foundation for your upcoming research.
  • Do the secondary research… again. Similar to #1 above, this is a chance to review both what has changed in the industry and competitive landscape with a new lens. Even coming to the same secondary research with new questions can reveal novel insights.
  • Being humble. This one sounds simple but it’s actually one of the trickier ones to put into action. Humility removes the “I” from the equation, the one who is doing the interpreting. Humbleness literally opens us up to understand others better and this is the crux of insight research. Otherwise, you might as well just ask a consultant in the industry.

​ ​ ​​​ ​ ​​​ ​ ​​​How to be more humble?

Before going into research, do exercises that challenge you — try to explain in depth all the touch points someone hits before coming to your website. Imagine trying to explain to that customer. Make it evident to yourself how much you do not know, which puts you in a better place for the next one which is…

  • Be curious, dig deeper. During the research itself always, always go one layer deeper than you might think necessary. Our first impulse when we hear an answer is to add a story to it: “Oh, I know why they said that, it’s because X.” Already then we’ve added our preconceived notions.

​ ​ ​​​ ​ ​​​ ​ ​​​Instead, be curious.

Keep asking why, even if it feels silly. The gold comes from digging deeply.

  • Don’t stick to the script. Even the discussion guides we create, as loose as they seem, can stop us from inhabiting a beginner’s mind.

​ ​ ​​​ ​ ​​​ ​ ​​​Only our top-down processing works in that sort of linear format.

​​​It’s important to know the key points to hit, while being open to proceeding through them in the order most natural for the research. It’s possible some of the questions may be irrelevant or extraneous, and that’s fine. Don’t just go through a question because it’s listed in your scripts.

Another trick here is integrating free association questions and exercises. There’s many examples such as post-it note exercises, card sorting, role playing, or even providing single brand or feature words and asking for a response.

  • Now, review previous data and research again. Ideally, this should be the raw data–listening to actual interviews or examining product analytics without having already been interpreted.

​ ​ ​​​ ​ ​​​ ​ ​​​What do you notice this time that maybe you didn’t notice before?

Now you try. In research, or just in life.

By simply allowing ourselves to feel comfortable in the space of not knowing, we may more often find that is where true knowledge lies.




Ethnographer. Strategist. Storyteller. | Philosopher. Neurohacker. Flow State Advocate. | Mind, Brain, Behavior @ Harvard

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Ethnographer. Strategist. Storyteller. | Philosopher. Neurohacker. Flow State Advocate. | Mind, Brain, Behavior @ Harvard

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