Wu Wei

Wu Wei

First, I will quote this great note by Andy Matuschak that introduced the idea to me:

“Wu wei” is a Chinese concept which roughly translates to “{effortless action}.”

In a historical context, it’s typically used in a spiritual sense, describing a person who behaves with harmony, spontaneity, ease. But I find it an interesting property to pursue in software design.

The Mac utility Quicksilver introduced me to the phrase in the early 2000’s. Designed by Nicholas Jitkoff, it allowed users to launch programs and execute commands by pressing Command+Space followed by a few keystrokes. It was quickly imitated by LaunchBar, Alfred, and Spotlight. But what matters is the feeling of this design—the effortfulness, almost mindlessness. I’d switch to another app by moving a few fingers, without even realizing that I’d done it. This is a powerful feeling.

This idea feels to me like a pillar of good System Design.

Actions should be achievable at nearly the Speed of thought

I think this is what Andy means when he describes the “mindlessness” of a Wu Wei design.

What’s interesting is that this is in contrast to Space to think. I think this is the difference between action and thought. When we want to act, we should strive for this effortlessness which may come with speed. When we want to explore thought, we need to take a different strategy and slow down, since we aren’t trying to keep up with our thoughts but rather walk around them.

Actions should be as easy and quick as they are simple and frequent

Actions that are clear and done frequently should be especially fast, chunked like our thoughts about those actions are. Speaking is the quintessential action that occurs at the speed of thought. Typing is also very close.

Actions that are controversial, difficult, or infrequent should require more effort. The interface should walk our minds through the difficulty of the choice, presenting friction gracefully and appropriately.

Strategically removing choice

Part of this is not only making actions effortless, but also removing the burden of choice from the user. Operating at the speed of thought includes not getting in the way of that thought with extraneous details or options. This means the user’s thoughts and actions are guided as much as they are respected.

Any General Interface should aim to achieve this feeling of Wu Wei. When this is done, it becomes so much easier for the user to achieve Flow.