Mindful user experience

Khai Seng Hong explores mindful user experience.

I’ve been interested in exploring the intersection of mindfulness and UX for quite a while.

I was curious to know if there were others out there in the Singapore community exploring similar paths. I submitted the topic for discussion at a UXSG Meetup and to my surprise it was voted in. Here’s a summary of what we covered during the event.

Initial discussions

The big question in the room was “what’s mindfulness?”

We first went round the room to invite responses. One attendee shared that it came from Buddhist teachings. Indeed, mindfulness does have religious roots and draws from the contemplative practices of all major religions. However, the form it takes on now has been secularized and repackaged through a scientific and contemporary lens from the West.

Equanimity also came up – the concept of respecting everything that happens in life, whether it was positive or negative. It is a tone of stillness and calm without the habitual reactions of grasping for the pleasant and avoiding the unpleasant.

Another person talked about the concept of being present and aware of what’s happening in the current moment. The example he gave was of taking a shower and being able to notice the feeling of the water on your skin or the temperature of the water.

We also talked about the opposing concept of mindlessness where you react, rather than respond, to things that happen to you in life and let your thoughts and emotions drive and take control of your behaviour.

As I write this session summary, I realise this it may appear somewhat fragmented for someone who’s new to the concept of mindfulness, so I’ve taken the liberty of explaining this in more detail.

A formal definition of mindfulness

“Paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Jon Kabat-Zinn

There are three components to this description:
  1. Paying attention, on purpose: Mindfulness involves a conscious direction of our awareness. Let’s use the example of eating dinner. For most of us, we may be aware that we’re eating, but we’re probably thinking about many other things at the same time. We may be flicking through our Facebook feed, talking, or listening to music — or even all three at the same time! Only a small part of our awareness is focused on the experience of eating, and we might not be aware of our body, thoughts and emotions. And because we’re only faintly aware, our thoughts wander in an unrestricted way. There’s no conscious attempt to bring our attention back to eating our dinner. There’s no purposefulness. This purposefulness and focus is a critical part of mindfulness.

  2. In the present moment: A wandering mind “secretes” thoughts continuously, typically focusing on the past e.g. regret, anger – “Damn it, I could have done better” or future e.g. fear, doubt – “I’ve got a bad feeling about this…” The one moment we actually can experience and act upon — the present moment — is the one we seem to avoid most.

  3. Non-judgmentally: With the concept of equanimity – it is about being cognitively aware that certain experiences are pleasant or unpleasant. The idea is to not react on an emotional level or just to notice that it arises, and allow it to pass and disappear.

How does mindfulness apply in UX? When doing research?

If you’ve done user research, you’ll know that many things race through your mind during interviews:

Staying present and connected to who you’re talking to builds rapport and allows you to fully concentrate. The self-awareness to know when your attention is fading is also helpful so you can bring yourself back into the room.

When collaborating with stakeholders/other departments

As UX professionals, a large part of our jobs is to facilitate collaboration between different departments with different personalities and objectives. Mindfulness gives you the ability to respond calmly instead of having knee-jerk reactions in difficult discussions. Equanimity helps to ground you in a calm state of mind, even if your clients/stakeholders are critical of the hard work you’ve put into your designs.

How do you know what’s the right response to act upon?

It’s hard to describe this, other that that it arises from within your body – like a bear in a forest.

If you were looking for a bear, you don’t go crashing through the forest shouting out loud and making a ruckus. Like a photographer, you stay still, silent, open and slowly wait for the bear to cross your viewfinder. Mindfulness allows you to stay aware and open to what arises in the present moment.

It is so simple yet difficult

The practices for mindfulness are extremely simple, but they are hard to commit to over the long term.

Also, trying to understand mindfulness by its definition is like trying to understand what it is like to fall in love by reading a textbook. You might get a general idea, but you’d be missing out on the best part: what it actually feels like. Mindfulness is all about experience, about the actual aliveness, of each moment.

Empathy is not enough

Empathy is a critical factor in UX and design thinking, but sometimes it can do more harm than good if there is a lack of self-awareness. It is really important for understanding others’ emotions and needs deeply, but there is a downside of physical and emotional burnout, especially for care-giving professions, such as nurses, social workers or fire fighters. Cognitive neuroscience is showing how compassion might be useful as well.

Clarifications on non-judgement

“Non-judgement means suspending judgement, it doesn’t mean you won’t have any judgements and you have to force yourself to be non-judgemental. It’s more that you don’t have to judge how judgemental you are. … It’s colossal how ideas and opinions, likes and dislikes actually drive us literally from moment to moment so that we can be lost in thought, lost in our heads, caught up in emotional storms…” by Jon Kabat Zinn on defining mindfulness.

Feel free to continue the conversation and share your experience of mindfulness in the comments section below.

This article was first published on UXSG.

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