Using Mindfulness in User Experience Psychology
Part I – Mindfulness
Written by Leanne Reardon, Nadine Kintscher, and Cynthia Tang
The use of psychological principles within user experience (UX) research and design is a well-established part of our practice. As UX practitioners, we regularly use principles of visual perception, social influence, cognitive biases, heuristics, schemas and memory – just to name a few.
A relatively new area of psychological research has been labeled “positive psychology”. This emerging approach shifts the focus from understanding what is clinically wrong with people suffering mental illness, to the study of what makes people mentally well and excel. The area of positive psychology seeks to promote wellbeing and the creation of a satisfying life filled with meaning, pleasure, engagement, positive relationships and accomplishment (Gable and Haidt, 2005).
The birth of positive psychology can be traced back to the prominent psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman. In his 1998 Presidential Address to the American Psychological Association (APA) Seligman stated:
“I realized that my profession was half-baked. It wasn’t enough for us to nullify disabling conditions and get to zero. We needed to ask, “What are the enabling conditions that make human beings flourish? How do we get from zero to plus five?”
The approach above is very similar to what we do in UX. We don’t just settle for designing an interface that is possible to use, but strive to make it meaningful and pleasurable, moving from zero to plus five. In this article, the first in a three-part series, we will explore how we could incorporate into our daily work as UX consultants some of the lesser-known concepts emerging from positive psychology, starting with mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a way of purposefully paying attention to the moment. It is fast becoming a mainstream concept, having been featured on the cover of Time Magazine in 2014.
A mindfulness state of mind is in the present moment, and aware of all experiences both pleasant and unpleasant. It is focused on being non-judgmental, allowing things to pass and accepting them for what they are.
Mindfulness can be summarized into 3 key components:
1. Purposeful attention
2. Being in the present moment
Mindfulness can be a valuable asset to UX practitioners throughout the whole UX lifecycle, and adapted into all UX related activities. As UX practitioners we can adapt a mindfulness state of mind when creating assets but it can also serve as a reference point to creating environments that help our users become more mindful.
Using Mindfulness at work as a UX practitioner
When we run workshops, interviews or usability testing sessions it is often difficult to provide 100% of our attention to the user. Our minds may be running through a variety of different questions (e.g. Am I going overtime? Did I just ask a leading question? I forgot what they said!). Because of this, we may miss important information or cues from the user during the session.
In order to get the most out of our research, we need to purposefully attend to the user and their actions. This can help us stay present and fully understand the user, their behaviours and insights. It also allows us to be more in tune to the highs and lows of the user’s experience that might normally escape our attention.
Aside from this, mindfulness can also help us establish greater rapport and show the user that they are valued. This allows users to feel more at ease, making them more likely to share honest and insightful information.
When designing, mindfulness can help us let go of our ego and develop more empathy for the users we are designing for.
So how do we achieve mindfulness? Like all forms of meditation, it takes time and practice. Outlined below a few simple techniques to get started with:
1. Be aware of your body
If possible, find a comfortable chair to sit in, and establish a posture with an upright spine, with the crown of your head pointing towards the ceiling. Try to avoid slumping, but don’t sit up so straight your body feels strained. The aim is to feel alert but not strained. Also, if possible, place your hands on your knees with palms facing downwards.
The simple of act of assuming a particular pose has powerful effects, and the ability to put us in the right frame of mind. Amy Cuddy has conducted pioneering research in this area, showing how our non-verbal behaviour has the ability to govern how we think and feel about ourselves (Cuddy et. al, 2012).
2. Focus on the breath
A powerful way of achieving mindfulness is through breath awareness. Focusing on your breath and the movement within your body, allows you to stay centered and in the moment.
If you are finding you are anxious or unfocused, extended out breathing can be a great way to calm your mind before proceeding. All you need is 2 minutes of alone time (the bathroom will do!) Time your breath, and make the out-breath longer than the in-breath. For example, if your in-breath is 2 seconds, make your out-breath 4 seconds. This type of breathing activates your parasympathetics – which control your rest, relax and digest response. It slows your heart rate, drops your blood pressure and puts your body in a state of calm and healing.
Facilitating mindfulness in our users
While the above-mentioned techniques may help you assume a mindfulness state of mind during work, we can also turn our attention towards creating environments that will help our users become more mindful. Imagine a user that can focus their full attention to your message, be it a product or an interface that serves a specific purpose. If we manage to create an environment that helps our users be aware of the task in the moment and without distractions, users are likely to fully take in the message you are conveying in a non-judgmental way and with the increased focus will likely be able to reach their goals faster.
Here are a few design ideas that might help you provide a mindful environment.
1). Reducing distractions
When designing an interface, try to reduce the amount of content and actions the user is exposed to at once. Evaluate your design and determine what the key messages and actions are that you want your users to view. Use white space and don’t be afraid to let your users scroll.
Especially in some businesses it can be hard to provide a distraction-free interface, especially when advertising is being used as a source of revenue. A UI element that is used by some video players and is also available as a browser extension provides a work around for the requirement to include potentially distracting content by allowing users to dim the background of their screen while watching a video. This “turn off the light” feature allows users to focus their attention on the video without the distraction of other elements on the screen and without having to switch to full-screen mode.
The extension Turn off the lights lets users focus their attention on video content without being distracted.
2) Encourage deliberate actions
Mindfulness is about being aware of the moment and doing deliberate actions. Interfaces that use a mindful design approach should therefore facilitate this by avoiding automatically triggered content. This doesn’t mean that there can’t be smart defaults, but the user should ultimately be in control and be able to decide what they want to do. The Sydney Morning Herald for example automatically plays a video on most article pages, giving users a 5 second window once the page loads to stop the automatic playing. Oftentimes however, the article has already loaded before the user can cancel the auto play option, meaning that they may start reading the article, then have to divert their attention away from the text to disable the video and then try to focus on the article again. Giving the user the option to start the video themselves would allow users to focus more easily, therefore contributing to a more mindful experience.
3) Use light and decluttered interfaces
More and more offices are being designed trying to facilitate mindfulness and reduce distractions like noise. One design principle that is being suggested (http://humanspaces.com/2015/09/30/mindful-offices/) is to use natural light to help people have a greater awareness of the present moment. This can be adapted to visual design by using light colours and high contrasts to help users distinguish between elements on a page easily. Similarly, interfaces should appear de-cluttered to minimise distraction and should keep the user’s key tasks as central elements.
Have you practiced mindfulness? What are your tips to stay mindful at work or to create interfaces that encourage a mindfulness state of mind?
Gable, S., and Haidt, J. (2005). What (and Why) Is Positive Psychology. Review of General Psychology, 9, 103 – 110
Black Dog Institute Fact Sheet –http://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/docs/Positivepsychology.pdf