On the surface, mindfulness and UX design don’t seem to have much in common. One’s a design methodology for improving user experience in digital products, and the other’s a new-age mediation technique. Still, a number of UX professionals (including industry heavyweights like Kamala Alcantara and Yegor Tsynkevich) have found that user experience design and mindfulness share some of the same qualities. They’re both based on empathy and observation. They’re both about noticing small details. And they’re both good at breaking down rigid mental frameworks – seeing things from a different perspective.
“In mindful practices, we are taught to focus on each individual moment,” Tsynkevich says. “UX teams can build a solid foundation for their work, just by staying present. By being aware and focussed, we’re more likely to overcome the experience bias and concentrate on the design problem at hand, rather than jumping to future solutions.”
Here's how practicing mindfulness can make you a mindful designer
1. Listen with empathy
In mindfulness, we learn to listen to and observe our own thoughts – not with judgement, but with empathy. And the same can be said for human-centered design. It’s all about paying attention to users, understanding their concerns and motivations; not trying to change their habits, as such, just flowing with them to produce better outcomes. “By practicing human-centered design, we are innately practicing mindful UX,” Alcantara says. “We can dive deeper and notice how we are listening to users, asking the right questions, and observing behaviours during interviews and focus groups.”
2. Actively observe
‘Active observation’ is similar mindfulness technique that can improve user research and trend analysis. It’s about listening with all your senses at once, noting down all the little details, everything you see and feel, without any kind of judgmental filter (this is the tricky bit). For UX professionals, that means “switching off the expert inside”, as Tsynkevich puts it, and ignoring your personal experience, your personal bias. Instead, begin your research with a clean slate and no prior assumptions. Ask a question, reflect on the answer, clarify any pain points, and summarize your findings objectively.
3. Find clarity in design
The big benefit of mindfulness, apart from simple de-stressing, is clarity. It’s a mental discipline that helps you understand how you understand things. And clarity is one of the guiding principles of UX design (if you haven’t read it yet, John Maeda’s The Laws of Simplicity should be mandatory research for any UX professional). By incorporating mindfulness into our UX practice, Alcantara says we can “reduce cognitive overload, prevent user error and pave the way for consistent UI”. In other words, do you really need that extra animation? Be honest.
4. Don’t make users think
The best UX design is basically invisible. It’s so intuitive that people don’t have to think about why it works; they just feel it instinctively. The same is sort of true for mindfulness. The hardest part of mindful practice, in a lot of ways, is training your brain not to think. Steve Krug has written extensively about this idea before, and how it applies to digital product design. He says the quickest way to check if your wireframes are making people think too much is useability testing: watch people try to use your product, and get them to think aloud while they do it. You’ll quickly see if your design is intuitive or convoluted.
5. Break through rigid frameworks
UX has evolved over the years, and these days UX designers are trained to use certain principles, certain rules. But at its heart, UX shouldn’t be about rote learning or mindlessly applying the same framework to every single task. It’s about creativity. It’s playing detective. “The truth is, UX is not a field where tools should be rigidly applied,” Tsynkevich says. “The ultimate goal of any project is to find gaps in the way things are done, and use that opportunity to improve the user’s experience.” The mindful trick of ‘sideways learning’ applies here. It works like this. Instead of approaching UX problems as an absolute, treat them as conditional. Every job is different, there are no fixed rules: only things that improve user experience, and those that hinder it. Try and flow with circumstances, rather than bludgeoning them into submission.
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