How to Practice Mindfulness in UX

UX professionals balance on the edge of art and science, blending analytical skills and knowledge of user behavior with the ability to generate fresh concepts and translate them into original design solutions. When a designer takes on a new project, there can be loads of data to sift through, politics between end-user needs and client expectations to navigate, and draining meetings to attend. This process can be challenging and stressful, which is actually counterproductive to maintaining our creative powers. When we find ourselves creatively depleted, or worse, doubting our competence and the value of our work, no one wins.

This is where practicing mindfulness can come in handy. When I began to adopt a mindful lifestyle, I discovered that along with helping me manage stress and exhaustion, it also brought serious professional benefits, like an increase in my work performance, and a huge creative boost. I found it to be really helpful for team building and maintaining the learner attitude necessary to solve complex UX design problems. Mindfulness is an ongoing process of self-improvement, based on common sense and improvisation. In this article, I’ll explain what I mean by “mindfulness,” and we’ll review some techniques for any UX professional to incorporate into their next project.

My Journey to Mindfulness

My journey to mindfulness started as the personal search of balance. I’d heard about mindful living before from friends who actively practice yoga. To be honest, I considered it to be another buzzword and a popular lifestyle trend. My lifestyle at that time was far from being balanced: long working hours and stress completely wore me down. I realized I stormed through life mindlessly, with my mind cluttered with thoughts. And this tremendously affected my personal and professional wellbeing.

Looking for answers, I stumbled upon Ellen Langer’s book, Mindfulness. Langer, sometimes called “the mother of mindfulness,” is a Harvard research psychologist who has has been studying the concept of mindfulness for over 40 years. Her work is required reading in many college psychology classes and has been influential to the positive psychology movement.

Langer has taken the topic of mindful living in an interesting direction, which is different from the Oriental meditation or Yogi practice. Her definition is more aligned with critical thinking and increased observational awareness. It requires a proactive and engaged presence in the here-and-now, pushing us to question constantly and explore new perspectives even when following a routine.

Langer’s academic point of view helped me to realize that my mind patterns were exhausting me, and causing me not to be present. UX design requires a flexible and constantly evolving process. Often, project constraints or shifting requirements require a certain level of improvisation along the way, so that we can reach our design objectives. A mindful perspective, and some key mindfulness techniques, can help us stop trying to control the outcomes, and become more flexible in accepting alternative points of view and new contextual information. Basically, by embracing mindfulness resources we can reset our minds when exhaustion or routine threaten to impede our creative potential.

What it means Impact on UX skills How to practice
Make a moment matter Focus on the moment Keeps concentration on the design problem at hand Constantly ask questions
Observe actively Look as though from a brand-new perspective Encourages deeper observations during user research Take notes, focus on collecting before analyzing
Cope with rigid frameworks Look at work as a sideways learning process Enables discovery, prevents jumping to conclusions Analyze gaps and opportunities discovered during the research
Work on your headspace Take a break from screens and “busy”ness Encourages working smarter, not harder Close your laptop and go for a walk!

Make a moment matter

In mindful practices, we are taught to focus on each individual moment. I like to make an analogy between UX design process and detective work: both are based on facts, rather than assumptions, and driven by the goal to find the solution to a problem. So, just like detectives, who notice every detail during the investigative process, UX teams can build a solid foundation for their work, just by staying present and paying attention to every detail in the moment. By being aware and focused, we are more likely to overcome the experience bias, and concentrate on the design problem at hand, rather than jumping to future solutions. We become more receptive to a problem we are solving and in general more engaged in the creative process.

How to: Look for novelties and unusual things in your daily routine. Or, with a UX team, bring all the attention to the design problem you are trying to solve. Outline a preliminary scope, and come up with initial maps or process flowcharts. Identify the set of key questions that you need to address in order to hack the design challenge. The questions will help you stay present.

Observe actively

Active observation is another key element of mindfulness. It’s similar to staying present, but goes a step farther, and it’s especially useful during user research and trend analyses. Similar to active listening, which is often described as listening with all senses, active observation requires noting down everything we see and hear without judgement and personal expert opinions. Too often we judge or categorize information according to preconceived notions. But in design, we have to stay open. Active observation is one way to do that. Collect the dots before trying to connect them.

How to: Observe, notice, and then analyze. Switch off the expert inside and try to ignore personal previous experiences. Look at a situation as though it were the first time you were ever seeing it. Try to adopt a question-reflect-clarify-summarize attitude and stay open, as a novice.

Collaborate consciously

UX design is always a work in progress, where processes build up a system that contributes to long-term progress. Each time we take on a new design project, our work processes require adjustments to be actionable and deliver high-quality design products. These adaptations rely on team participation, which can be painfully difficult. When indifference or self-interest take over, it can lead to conflicts and disintegration. One of the ways to improve team collaboration is to bring in consciousness and develop it as a major competence for quality communication. Approaching our team work consciously we naturally shift our attention to the effort we make as a team and put forth our very best. We become aware of sharing our professional resources and responsibility. It’s easier to evaluate how much work needs to be done, recognize blind spots in the process, see our strongest and weakest areas and work on them together. Conscious collaboration facilitates team commitment.

How to: adopt a “sharing is caring” communication style with your team. Build feedback loops and keep track of critical project metrics. Encourage transparency in team discussions.

Cope with rigid frameworks

It is in our nature to seek stability. And often we see it in following or sticking to particular frameworks in our work. We start to act on auto-pilot, and really struggle when something changes and a set of research questions or a tried-and-true mental model no longer works.

In UX we use established UX principles and methods to manage routine tasks. However, the truth is, UX design is not a field where tools should be rigidly applied. Existing UX principles and methods serve as general guidelines and reference points rather than fixed frameworks. In the end, 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 through creative means.

The idea of “sideways learning” that Langer brings in her book The Power of Mindful Learning can be really helpful in overcoming fixation on frameworks. It is drawn from the concept of mindfulness and further expands it in a very specific context of acquiring new knowledge and skills. Every time we work on a project, we learn something. Active observation, together with a sensitivity to context, make us more aware that different situations may require different design tactics and tools. So, if from the beginning we approach all design tasks not in an absolute but rather conditional form, we are more likely to enhance our creativity and visualize different sides of a design issue. Incorporating sideways learning strategy into the design process enables us to spot changes in the circumstances, identify new contexts early on, and use them to the advantage of a design project.

How to: approach any design project not in an absolute form, but rather conditional. Work sideways on gaps and opportunities emerging during the research and analysis stage (models and scenarios based on user goals, tools, environment, stories etc.) to build strong evidence that leads to solutions.

Work on your headspace

Take a break, whatever that looks like. It is always a matter of a personal choice, when, what kind, and for how long. I personally found the way that works the best for me is to switch off from all my devices. All of them. We’re constantly connected over social media, emails, actively using our devices on a daily basis and even during vacations. And with the avalanche of incoming messages, texts, emails, push notifications, it’s easy to be distracted and lose focus. In the life of a UX designer technology plays a significant role. But it does not mean it enslaves us. On the contrary, switching off from digital life space, helps to become aware and focused. I always feel that taking a digital detox makes me more connected to the real world around, my design team, and my family. I feel more rested and productive.

How to: take digital breaks as often as possible; experience real world; practice noticing new things in daily life; and stay open and curious.

Moving forward

There are many ways people can integrate mindfulness into their lives. Some start with yoga, some, like me, look at academic research for initial guidance. For beginners in this domain, I suggest engaging with others to share your experiences and discuss your progress and challenges.

Adopting a mindful lifestyle could be a truly fulfilling experience that offers great benefits both for mental well-being, creative life and ux process improvement. Apart from being a powerful practice to do our mental housekeeping and cope with stress, it’s a mind-stretching technique that gives anyone a chance to reconnect with oneself and look at daily experience from a different perspective. It helps to break rigid paradigms of our perception and experiment more with ideas and various techniques. Bringing in mindfulness to ux design processes offers positive improvements like increased responsiveness and adaptability to changes, flexibility in reaching creative objectives and higher team engagement.

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