The User Interface of a Thousand Miles Begins With a Single Mistake


Have you heard the expression, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”? It’s an aphorism attributed to 6th (or 5th or 4th depending on which historian you believe) century BCE Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. Lao Tzu is credited with writing a classic text of Chinese philosophy and religion, the Tao Te Ching, roughly translated as “the book of the Way.”  I’ve read several translations of the Tao Te Ching, as, in my youth, I thought of myself as a student of religion. I’d say a C+ student.  I did all the reading, but I had trouble with the tests.  I’ve read the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita (Hinduism), the Dhammapada (Buddhism), and several other important works of the world’s wisdom traditions, including a translation of the Koran, the sacred text of Islam (spoiler alert: Jesus is a very important figure in Islam).  Of all the religious writings I have read, I find the Tao to be the most comforting source of spiritual guidance. It’s true that the Tao Te Ching is very short, but that’s not why I like it so much.  Well, that’s not the only reason.  More importantly, the Tao is intuitive to me. Lao Tzu’s words are a reflection of what I believe to be true about life.

In addition to being a pupil of religion, I’ve been a student of management and leadership.  I’ve done well enough in those studies that I actually get paid to be a leader.  If you read books about leadership, you usually find a lot of discussion about the importance of having a vision.  The philosophers of Leadership propose that if you can, metaphorically, paint a picture of a brighter future, people will follow your lead and help you achieve that vision.  When you combine a good vision with a bit of Taoist philosophy, you just need to take that first step and you’re on your way to a better tomorrow.  Of course, that’s wrong, and my error was pointed out to me last week.

The agency I work for is building a new way for our customers to do their business online. We have a lot of online services available, but users have to access them separately.  The vision is to create a “dashboard” view that brings together all the different interactions in  a single interface.  I helped create the vision of what this interface could be, and we’ve taken many steps on that thousand mile journey. I was discussing the project with some of my technical staff last week, and I learned a frightening truth: the new interface could result in some customers having a worse experience than they have now.

That was the moment I remembered an important lesson from the Tao Te Ching, specifically from chapter 64.  That chapter includes the line about the thousand mile journey. The translations I have read, however, don’t say the journey begins with a single step. Rather, the journey  begins with the ground beneath your feet. That’s an important distinction. To put it another way: a vision of where you’re going depends on knowing where you are.  My study of Taoism taught me a couple of things about journeys and visions:

1. You don’t have to go somewhere else to find truth (or happiness, or enlightenment, or salvation; your choice).

2. If you are going somewhere else, you should understand where you are to better appreciate where you’re going.

The online customer interface is a great vision, a pretty picture of a better customer experience. Unfortunately, it was designed, in part, by people like me who really didn’t know where our customers are today.  I haven’t seen the figurative ground on which they were standing before I got excited about where we could take them.  It turns out, our customers have a lot of good online tools that work well.  The new interface will be great for some of them, but others will find it disappointing, pointless, or problematic.

By forgetting that important lesson from my religious studies, it could be argued I have sinned.  That’s another reason I like Taoism.  In Taoism, sinning isn’t a thing.  Even with that spiritual hall pass in hand, I feel bad.  I need to go back to the start and take a look at what we’re leaving behind before we get much further on this journey.


3 thoughts on “The User Interface of a Thousand Miles Begins With a Single Mistake

  1. …and (3) If you’re going somewhere else, there better be a good reason.

    I haven’t read the Tao Te Ching but now I think I shall. My opinion of religious philosophies, in general, is that the closer they are to my intuitive understanding of the human experience, the less they are interested in controlling the faithful.

    • I like your (3). And, while I appreciate your assessment of religious philosophies, I have long felt that many scriptures are reflective of my intuitive understanding, but in practice in society, everything falls apart. The devout Taoists are the real life embodiment of the hermit on the lonely mountaintop.

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