Mindful Design: What the UX World Can Learn from Yoga

This article is reprinted from the September 2013 issue of UXPA Magazine.

“Yoga will change your life.” I will never forget these words that my husband, who has practiced a tradition of meditation for 25 years, said to me when I told him I was signing up for yoga teacher training. My intention was not to become a yoga teacher, but to deepen my practice. I had practiced yoga at various times since I was a teenager, but it was only after I sought refuge from my hectic stressful life as an executive at Google and mother of two that I realized the benefits of yoga extended well beyond gaining flexibility and avoiding injury. Indeed, deepening my understanding of yogic philosophy and adopting a daily mindfulness practice were transformative in ways beyond my expectations. Most importantly, I gained a perspective that guides my ability to tend to what is ahead of me. Soon, I started to appreciate how this perspective permeates into everything I do in life. In this article, I will describe how mindfulness practices benefit designers, based on my firsthand experience as a design executive, mentor and yoga teacher.

Mindfulness Defined

Mindfulness is a way of paying attention to, and seeing clearly whatever is happening in our lives. The attention paid is purposeful, in the moment, without judgment. To those unfamiliar with mindfulness practices, consider what it feels like to be “not present,” perhaps when you’re on autopilot or multitasking. When we are “not present”, we fail to notice the good things about our lives, fail to hear what our bodies are telling us, or we poison ourselves with toxic criticism. Mindfulness is the opposite of that: it’s about having the time and space to attend to what is ahead of us, in spite of distractions competing for our attention and our past history that shapes how we think and perceive the world. This focused attention is a tremendous asset to designers throughout the design process and all its activities: from inspiration and ideation, to design and implementation.

Being Mindful When Seeking Inspiration

Design is for people; if you cannot understand people you cannot design. During early stages of design, designers often seek inspiration and stimulate innovation by building empathy with users. The act of combining empathy to understand a problem with creativity during the generation of insights and solutions is at the core of “design thinking.” By uncovering people’s latent needs, we can gain insight into ways our interactions with objects or surroundings can be made joyful.

The methods used to gain empathy in user experience work are by now well established. Field research, contextual inquiry, and usability studies are frequently used to bring attention and awareness to the actions we otherwise take for granted. These unconscious but ordinary acts reveal subtle but crucial ways we adapt to a world not perfectly tailored for our needs. The designer’s work as observer, not participant or judge, epitomizes the work of an empathic mind, not an analytical mind.

Empathic thinking is often easier said than done. Anthony Jack of Case Western University found that analytical thinking suppresses empathic thinking, and vice versa.  There is a brain divide, so to speak, that prevents us from invoking the analytical mind and the empathic mind at the same time. As we are constantly surrounded by computers and immersed in company cultures increasingly focused on making decisions based on data, empathic thinking can become even harder to come by. Mindfulness practices such as yoga and meditation, which have been shown to increase empathy for others, offer a practical way for designers and team members to boost their ability to delve deeper into the mind, body, intuition, and feelings and integrate them into a creative expression that can be shared with the world.  While mindfulness practices can be effective when engaging in design research and interacting with users, the best outcomes arise when there is a regular practice, as empathic thinking becomes a muscle that can be flexed when needed.

Being Mindful When Ideating

During the ideation phase, designers must embrace a divergent thinking mindset. The main goal during this phase is to generate as many ideas as possible, and we give ourselves permission to come up with a lot of bad ideas in order to generate a few good ones. Mindful design during this phase is about abandoning judgment and fear: letting go of judging ideas as “good” or “bad” while brainstorming, and letting go of the need to achieve the One Big Idea.

Yoga teaches us a lot about how to be playful and abandon judgment and fear, and illustrates how mindfulness practices impact outcomes in the physical body. When we stay in the present moment, we stop comparing ourselves to others. Without the ego in the way, we are able to be with ourselves without judgment and can more effectively sink into the poses that stretch the body. When we allow ourselves to be playful and not worry about falling or reaching for a goal, we allow ourselves to experiment and try things we didn’t think we could do. When the mind is present, the shapes we make with our bodies are beautiful. If we stress ourselves to contort into various shapes, the shapes would not be beautiful, but alarming. Similarly with brainstorming, when we let go of our ego and let go of judgment and fear, we become more playful and creative.

Stanford psychologists Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd found that people with an orientation toward the process of making — that is, staying focused on the act of creating, rather than the end product — develop more creative outcomes. “When we are concerned about the product of the process in which we are engaged, we worry about how it will be evaluated, judged, accepted, and rejected. Our ego is put on the line. Worries can then feed back and distort the process of creating new ideas, new visions, new products.”

Mindfulness practices help us focus on the present. When we’re not worried about judgment of ideas, which comes later in the process, we can more easily relax and the creative mind can flow. As ideation becomes fun, joyful, and playful, ideas generated are similarly creative and fun. Thus it’s extremely important for designers to recognize what kind of mindset is appropriate for the stage of design they’re in. During brainstorming and ideation, where divergent thinking dominates, designers should adopt a playful, non-judging mindset.

Being Mindful When Designing Solutions

The thinking mind is not the creative mind. When designers are co-located with cross-functional team members to collaborate on a project, the team benefits from increased camaraderie, rapport, and trust built through frequent informal interactions. Yet, when designers are interacting with team members, conversation and negotiation invoke the thinking mind. In addition to co-locating designers with development teams, providing separate studio space for designers is an ideal way for designers to achieve the quiet contemplation necessary to connect with their creative minds, which is equally important.

Designers need not only different physical space but also separate mental space to design. While engineering and marketing counterparts often seek ways to add more functionality and features into a product, designers need to strike the right balance between features and functionality without overwhelming the user. The secret of good design is knowing what to leave out. Thus mindful design during this phase is about achieving a Zen-like quality of not being particularly attached to anything, whether a feature, a specific design element or solution, or a desired outcome. Ironically, by distancing yourself from the outcome, it becomes more possible to create a great design. This notion of “non-attachment” is a fundamental yogic principle: it is a mindset where you do the best you can and what you think is right, but not allow your happiness to depend on the outcome. As a designer, when your happiness does not depend on whether a pet feature or design solution gets included or not, or whether it’s your idea or someone else’s idea that gets embraced, less is at stake, and the mind is free to be more creative, more open, and more apt to explore.

Once ideation is over and it’s time to design, convergent thinking replaces divergent thinking, and attention shifts towards prototyping a few ideas to test. Mindfulness practices give us the strength to let go of the need to be perfect. Striving for perfection, after all, is about ego: perfectionism comes from the need to avoid shame and blame from creating a less-than-perfect solution. The rise of agile development practices has proven that it’s far better to invest time and energy into prototyping, testing, and iterating, than to take a waterfall approach in which plenty of time is invested in planning and designing a solution that might not actually be what works best. Be OK with testing a less than perfect design, but commit to gathering feedback and iterating to continuously improve.

The Mind-Body Connection: Putting Into Practice

Practicing yoga teaches you to notice what is happening in the body and respond to those cues. Subtle shifts in the mind can lead to changes in posture, energy flow, and the way one carries oneself in the body. Conversely, physical postures impact the mind as well; specific poses can induce surges of hormones that increase confidence, joy, assertiveness, etc. The next time you run a design meeting, consider doing some yoga:

  • Help people shed their ego by having them be in the present moment. At the beginning of a design review or brainstorm, have everyone pause for a few moments to practice focusing their attention and awareness on the breath. It may seem daunting and odd to ask people to do this, but in my experience, having a few moments to pause and declutter the mind is always well received!
  • Movement and cognition are highly related. Get people to move during meetings. Have them stand and gather around to review design mockups. Give them pens to scribble on printouts when they give feedback.
  • When facilitating brainstorms, clearly delineate space for divergent thinking and allow all ideas to flow through, regardless of judgment. Help others overcome their fear of rejection by responding with “Yes” or “Yes, AND” instead of “Yes BUT” or “No”.
Adopting a regular personal practice can help boost your design skills:
  • Consider a daily practice of meditation to boost empathic thinking, adopt a playful attitude, and practice letting go of attachment and letting go of the fear of being judged by yourself and others. Meditation can be as simple or elaborate as you want it to be. Choose to meditate anywhere from 2 minutes to 1 hour per day. You can do this while lying down, walking, or sitting upright with the hips elevated above the knees. To help focus the mind, you can employ a variety of techniques: bring the attention back to the breath when the mind wanders; stare at a mandala, candle, or object of meditation; repeat a mantra. With practice, it becomes easier to quiet the mind and reach a calm, centered state.
  • It is not uncommon for people to report increased creativity when they practice yoga. When there is more openness in the body, there is more openness in the mind. Do a few stretches to open the chest and shoulders at the beginning of design sprints or hackathons; this helps prime the body and mind for receiving new ideas. The hips and psoas are often tight from too much sitting and standing, resulting in having us in a constant “fight or flight” posture; open this part of the body to enter a playful state of mind. Forward folds are introspective poses that are helpful for getting to a place of quiet contemplation.
  • We are most creative when we achieve a “relaxed but alert state”. A daily mindfulness practice, whether yoga or meditation or both, helps us practice putting the body and mind into such a state.

Most important of all is to recognize that you can choose your intention and to actively make that choice. In yoga, we begin each practice by setting an intention for how we are “being” in the present moment. Set your intentions based on what matters most to you and make a commitment to align your worldly actions with your inner values. As you gain insight from meditation and reflection, your ability to act from your intentions blossoms.

Similarly with design, be clear about what your intentions are with your offering, whether a product or service. Internalize your mission and values and let design be the expression of your intent. When your intentions are clear, so too are the fruits of your labor.

References:

1. Anthony I. Jack, Abigail Dawson, Katelyn Begany, Regina L. Leckie, Kevin Barry, Angela Ciccia, Abraham Snyder. fMRI reveals reciprocal inhibition between social and physical cognitive domains. NeuroImage, 2012; DOI:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.10.061

2. Lutz A, Brefczynski-Lewis J, Johnstone T, et al. Regulation of the neural circuitry of emotion by compassion meditation: effects of meditative expertise.PLoS ONE. 2008; 3(3):e1897.

3. Jennifer S. Mascaro, James K. Rilling, Lobsang Tenzin Negi, and Charles L. Raison. Compassion meditation enhances empathic accuracy and related neural activity. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci first published online September 5, 2012 doi:10.1093/scan/nss095

4. Zimbardo,P. G., & Boyd, J. N. (2008). The Time Paradox. New York: Free Press, Simon & Schuster.

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