Designing for Mindfulness with Wearable Technology

A few years back, I took a mindfulness meditation course and got into practicing it almost every day. My understanding of mindfulness is that it’s all about paying attention to what is going on with a spirit of acceptance. This practice gives us an opportunity to get to know our own mind. To know one's self better.

Around the same time, I started exploring the concept of life-logging and the quantified self through Nicholas Felton’s annual reports. This eventually led me to experimenting with his Daytum app, tracking things like how many coffees I had consumed and how many times I had exercised in a given time period. It produced beautiful graphs and charts and was somewhat interesting, but it never became a habit, perhaps due to the effort it took to remember to track things; take out the phone, open the app and manually enter the data.

At Christmas 2013 a generous friend gave me a Jawbone UP 24 as a gift after a conversation we had about wearable technology. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m quite enthusiastic when it comes to new gadgets so I eagerly put it on my wrist and connected the app, gleefully watching the charts change as the day progressed. Unlike Daytum there was no need to manually input data, everything is captured automatically. After a few days I noticed how inactive I was on an average day and how my sleep patterns weren’t great either. It wasn’t a huge revelation and probably just confirmed what I already suspected, but it was interesting to see it in an easy to understand graphical format that could be played with and explored on screen.

As designers it is paramount that we come to know those we design for as intimately as possible. We search for bright spots, pains and patterns, we observe and search for insights. We can do this for others and we can do this for ourselves. By enhancing our mindfulness through observing our current situation, it helps us to devise courses of action to change this situation into a preferred one. Through being able to see visually how I was doing I was able to drastically improve my fitness, and even improve my sleep by being aware of how late I was staying up. Wearable devices that track our activity reveal our rhythms and help us to create new rhythms that may serve us better.

The wristband itself is little more than a pedometer and I did get tired of wearing it after a while as it can be uncomfortable at times, but this is not important. What is important is the transformative effect that being aware of our actions can bring. Sensors are becoming cheaper and more sophisticated and devices are becoming more discreet. The data-points and types of information we can track will continue to expand. Moods, stress levels and other subtle measurements will help us to build an increasingly detailed picture of ourselves, but is there a limit to the level of fidelity we can achieve? Is there a limit to what is quantifiable? Is there anything about ourselves that will remain forever unmeasurable?

Through measuring our bodies and minds, and what we nourish them with, we can collect vast amounts of information. However, it is how we interpret this information and what we choose to do with this data that can make a difference. As Einstein famously said “Not everything that counts can be measured, and not everything that can be measured counts”. Collecting the data is just the beginning, we need to find ways to make it count.

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