Toward a mindful designer: Mindfulness as an essential skill for interaction designers

Authors: Jia Shen
Posted: Tue, August 22, 2023 - 1:07:00

As digital technology designers, our role has never been more crucial than it is now. Decades of technological and commercial advancements have brought computing from research labs to business offices, and now to the homes and pockets of everyday users. Our focus has expanded from computer interfaces to user experiences to design thinking for executives in corporate boardrooms. Despite improvements in user experiences, we have observed that users are often becoming more mindless, joyless, and anxious in today’s hyperconnected world. With the rapid advancement of AI, wearables, and pervasive computing, these challenges are growing.

As designers, what must we add to our toolkit to reimagine and design a sustainable future? This essay advocates for the importance of mindfulness in the skill set of interaction designers. It highlights the specific areas where mindfulness can enhance designers’ abilities, and calls for the design community to work together toward incorporating mindfulness into their practice.

What Is Mindfulness and Why Should Designers Care?
During a visit to Google, the well-known Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh shared a story with Google employees. The story involved a person riding a horse at a fast pace and when asked where they were going, they replied, “I don't know, ask the horse!” Thay, as he is known to his followers, pointed out that our current use of technology can lead us to escape from ourselves, our loved ones, and the natural environment. When we feel empty or unable to confront our inner struggles, we often seek external distractions [1].

Today’s technology creates unprecedented opportunities for us to turn our attention outward and away from ourselves. However, the more we disconnect from ourselves, the less content we become. No wonder that mental health challenges are prevalent and the national happiness index has decreased in the past decade, despite the increasing abundance of material goods and the widespread use of digital technology.

Mindfulness practice is a way of being ourselves in the present moment, and a powerful tool to look inside ourselves. Mindfulness originates from Zen Buddhism. It is as a state of being characterized by a keen awareness of the present moment. The Sanskrit term for mindfulness, smriti, means “remembering.” Mindfulness is remembering to come back to the present moment. The character in Chinese for mindfulness, 念, consists of two parts: the upper part represents “now” and the lower part represents “mind” or “heart” [2].

At the core of Buddha’s teachings lies the concept of Right Mindfulness (samyak smriti). Buddhist psychology states that attention is a universal trait, meaning that we are constantly giving our attention to something. This attention can be appropriate, such as when we are fully present in the moment, or inappropriate, such as when we focus on something that takes us away from the present. Right Mindfulness is characterized by acceptance without judgment or reaction and is inclusive and compassionate. According to Buddha’s teachings, Right Mindfulness offers Seven Miracles, including the ability to be present and fully engage with the present moment, to bring forth the presence of others (such as the sky, flowers, or our children), to nourish the object of our attention, to alleviate others’ suffering, to explore deeply (vipassana), to gain understanding, and to bring about transformation [2].

Although stemming from Zen Buddhism, mindfulness is not a religion itself. Rather, it is a widely adopted practice around the world to improve one’s health, personal growth, and overall well-being. In the Western world, interest in mindfulness practice grew during the 1960s, leading to an era of scientific research on this ancient practice. For instance, Mindful-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the 1970s, is regarded as one of the leading programs for reducing stress, anxiety, depression, and PTSD, with significant and reliable results in various clinical studies [3]. Today, clinicians, business leaders, and educators are exploring ways to integrate mindfulness practice into their respective fields.

In the digital technology design community, there is a growing voice advocating for a new approach to design, one that involves looking inward. In a recent special issue of Interaction, Kentaro Toyama [4] suggests that our focus on external outcomes may be the root cause of our technological problems. He urges designers to turn to faith and inward examination as a possible solution. Meanwhile, Kabat-Zinn encourages designers to practice mindfulness themselves before teaching or supporting others. It’s time for us to consider how mindfulness can benefit us and act accordingly.

How Can Mindfulness Help Designers?
Mindfulness enables designers to see the true nature of the problems they are tackling, and provides the foundations for a paradigm shift in the design process and outcomes. Some initial considerations include:

Design process
Traditional user experience design follows the requirement-design-evaluation framework. As today’s problems are becoming more complex, challenging, and wicked, a mindful designer is aware of themselves and others, and they bring mindfulness to the design process, paying close attention to each step. They deeply observe and listen, resulting in greater empathy and deeper understanding of the problem space before jumping to the solution space.

Design for slow change
In the HCI and interaction design community, Martin Siegel and Jordan Beck [5] sketched out Slow Change Interaction Design, where they called for a paradigm shift in designers’ mindsets in order to create interactive technologies that promote long-lasting attitudinal and behavioral change.

A designer who practices mindfulness understands that problem-solving is not a one-time event, but rather a continuous process of improving the current state toward a better future state. They acknowledge that change is inevitable and strive to learn and grow with their users in a constantly evolving technological environment.

Design for a sustainable future
Considering the interconnectedness nature of all things, a mindful designer takes a systemic approach to their work. They prioritize sustainable and inclusive design, taking into account the impact on individuals with varying abilities, communities, and the environment. They recognize that quick fixes and immediate results are often unrealistic, and prioritize long-term solutions.

Toward Mindful Technology Use Practice
In his book, Peace is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh [6] offers suggestions on how to incorporate mindfulness practices into everyday life. Following his examples, we offer the following mindful technology practices regarding smartphone use to technology designers and users:

Before using my phone, I know what I use it for.

I am aware that happiness depends on my mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that I already have more than enough to be happy in the present moment.

The phone and I are one.

I will practice coming back to the present moment by being mindful of my breathing, posture, and body.

When technology is the horse, mindfulness is the harness to rein it back toward humanity. Mindfulness offers an ancient yet rejuvenating perspective that is crucial to our digital design community. Designers who practice mindfulness can transform problems and bring peace, joy, and freedom to both users and themselves. May you also find joy in practicing mindfulness.

1. Hanh, T.N. The horse is technology. Plum Village Magazine (Summer 2014), 5–9.

2. Ñāṇamoli, B. and Bodhi, B. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. Wisdom Publications, 1995.

3. Kabat-Zinn, J. Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, 15th Anniversary Ed. Delta Trade Paperback/Bantam Dell, New York, NY, 2005.

4. Toyama, K. Technology and the inward turn of faith. ACM Interactions 29, 4 (2022), 36–39.

5. Siegel, M. and Beck, J. Slow change integration design. ACM Interactions 21, 1 (2014), 28–35.

6. Hanh, T.N. Peace is Every Step. Bantam Books, 1992.

Posted in: on Tue, August 22, 2023 - 1:07:00

Jia Shen

Jia Shen is a professor of information systems in the Norm Brodsky College of Business at Rider University. Her research is at the intersections of experience design, cognition, digital innovation, and the latest on digital well-being. Previously she researched social commerce, virtual world systems, and online learning. [email protected]
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