Designing Mindfulness — how to make technology which takes care of the people who use it

It’s been a good year here at Mindfulness Everywhere. We’ve launched two apps, the UK edition of my book and buddhify continues to help a lot of people around the world. My wife and I even launched our first human.

But we’re not done yet. We have two more projects to announce by the end of the year and the first of those is called Designing Mindfulness. Designing Mindfulness is a manifesto for how to make technology which takes care of the wellbeing of the people who use it and it launches today. Let me explain where it came from and why it’s so important.

Designing Mindfulness and why it matters

This is an exciting time to be a maker of mindfulness apps. Interest in meditation is at an all-time high and the principles and practices of mindfulness are being applied in a remarkably wide range of contexts. Conversations about and mental health are losing their stigma and the growth in popularity of mindfulness apps is part of an overall trend of people using accessible digital tools to self-manage their wellbeing. That’s the good news.

But as bullish as some of the mindfulness world may be about its potential, we have to face the stark reality that even the most popular mindfulness products are only ever going to be small scale relative to the landscape of mobile technology use overall. Therefore if the scope of mindfulness and technology is only ever understood to be that of either internal employee wellbeing programs and apps that explicitly train people in meditation then the impact will only ever be relatively limited. There is however a much bigger opportunity and is best summarised by the questions that led to our starting the Designing Mindfulness project in the first place: given that only a relatively small proportion of people will choose to use specialist mindfulness training products, what if we took the principles and practices of mindfulness and wellbeing and built them into absolutely everything?

Currently, the general conversation about mental wellbeing and technology is relatively immature. Yes there are pockets of products which explicitly support wellbeing but the most common narrative is that mobile technology is bad for us — training us in distraction, stoking self-judgement, and causing anxiety and FOMO. This has led to the fashion of the digital detox where people spend periods of time away from devices. While these practices do have some value, as a solution digital detox is highly unsustainable and indeed regressive given that it leads to the further pathologisation and demonisation of mobile technologies, technologies which are increasingly central to our lifestyles, economies and societies.

Another way in which people advocate improving the relationship between mobile technology and wellbeing is to learn how to use our apps and our devices more ‘mindfully’. This too is a valuable approach and one that we have explored extensively, confident in there being many ways in which our technology use can be incorporated into a mindfulness practice. However these two approaches — both that of digital detox and of the mindful use of technology — make it the user’s problem. They imply that all the technology we use are broadly neutral and if we are addicted to them or they are causing us anxiety then that is our fault. This is simply not true.

It is certainly true that users are responsible for the content that they post to technologies such as messaging apps and social networks and in that sense those platforms are neutral. However where they are not neutral when it comes to attention. We live in an attention economy. Companies which seem to be search engines, news sites or platforms which connect us with other people are at their essence advertising companies, making money through the selling our attention to third parties. The most biggest mobile game companies succeed by making sure enough people are so addicted to their systems that they will pay whatever it takes to continue their experience.

Given that user attention is so valuable, ambitious companies looking to convert that attention into shareholder value will do everything they can to make sure they capture as much of it as possible and once it is caught, everything that they can to keep it trapped. Many of the world’s most popular apps therefore employ banks of psychologists, neuroscientists, behavioural scientists and other specialists in order to do just that. This is not neutral. The mindfulness tradition is based on the axiom that our wellbeing is directly affected by the nature of our attention. Therefore if you’re making an app that is part of today’s attention economy and you are not incorporating certain principles that consider a healthy state of mind, then you are at best ignoring the consequences of your product on the people who use it and at worst you are intentionally creating a product that is harming them.

The Designing Mindfulness principles

But this has to be more than a nice idea, it has to be real and it has to be practical. That is why Designing Mindfulness contains a range of principles, tools, provocations and frameworks to help start turning the tanker around. And the heart of them all are the principles — nine practical ways that makers, designers and organisations of all sizes and types can start implementing to improve the impact of their products on the humans who use them.

  1. Value Human Attention. Recognise that any attention-based product impacts wellbeing.
  2. Be Honest About Dark Patterns. Stop tricking your users, and make it easier for them to make their own choices.
  3. Respect Information Zones. Develop sustainable modes of communication between your products and users.
  4. Prioritise Quality. Focus on producing and encouraging high quality, distraction-free content.
  5. Discourage Addictive Usage. Stop cultivating FOMO as a way to establish and maintain unhealthy addictions.
  6. Provide Exit Points. Promote a calm experience by providing a sense of completion and giving users an option to disengage.
  7. Minimize Social Anxiety. Fix the design decisions which are making people feel bad about themselves.
  8. Establish Holistic Metrics. Create ways of measuring success which incorporate more than just the bottom line.
  9. Apply Principles Company Wide. Let every part of the organisation play a role in supporting wellbeing.

And for each principle we have created a concept design of how it might be realised in practice. For example:

[Thank you @mediumdesign for a) your amazing work and b) your forgiveness]

There are more concept designs on the Designing Mindfulness website.

Three things you can do

Designing Mindfulness is an ongoing piece of work for us and alongside continuing to make the best mindfulness-based products we can, we shall refine and build upon these ideas in the months and years to come. This is all in service of our hope is that established companies as well as new startups will start to consider the impact of their products on the mental wellbeing of the people who use their products with as much importance and urgency as the impact they have on the environment. We don’t think it’s ok to live in a world where our attention — and as a result, our mental wellbeing, is being kicked around, degraded, and written off as acceptable collateral damage of the digital economy. There are already some great people working in this area such as Tristan Harris, Amber Case & Anil Dash and as such it is a growing conversation. But it needs to be bigger and by sharing Designing Mindfulness we hope to do what we can to help get there.

If this is of interest then there are three things you can do

  1. Explore designingmindfulness.com - the website contains much more information and background to the project.
  2. Tell us what you think. This whole area will only make a difference if the conversation is live and vibrant, so tell us what you like and don’t like about the ideas so far.
  3. Invite us to work with you. Alongside the manifesto we are also launching our first ever consulting offering. Every year we will work with a small number of companies and organisations who want to understand the practicalities of how best to value the attention of their users. If you would like to be one of them then you can find out about our really very unique offer.
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