How Mindfulness Influences your Design Thinking

Last updated on 
March 17, 2021

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Design thinking is an inherently heavy process. It requires us to seek out a load of people with different perspectives, knowledge and experience to produce something actually useful. But endless prototyping, clashing opinion and intense deliberation can make for pretty frustrating work.

And over time, this frustration can actually kill our projects. Our design thinking is only as good as the environment it operates in – and that critical thinking and creativity can evaporate when too many stakeholders are involved.    

So how do we keep a healthy balance? How can we ensure diversity in our products while keeping our design workflows productive and rewarding? Mindfulness might just hold the answer.

What is mindfulness?

We’re talking about mindfulness as defined by Dr Martyn Newman:

“the skill of paying close attention to what's happening in the present moment in the mind, body and external environment, non-judgmentally and with an attitude of curiosity and openness.”

Given the sheer amount of ideas and people involved, design thinking could seriously benefit from greater clarity and focus. By applying mindfulness practices to our design processes, we can avoid the over-deliberation and creative voids that kill our imagination and limit our products.

How mindfulness benefits design thinking

So, let’s see exactly what it looks like in practice. Here’s how mindfulness can enhance every stage of your design thinking process:

1.  Mapping the problem

Mindfulness lends you one huge advantage in your first conversations with your customers: empathy. In the words of Martyn Newman, it helps you pay “mindful attention both to the very concrete reality that someone else describes, as well as grasping the emotional dimensions of their experience, including what they may need from you.” By immersing yourself in your client’s physical environment, you gain a deeper understanding of the issues and motivations involved, and are better able to empathize with the problem they are facing.

2.  Defining

Then comes the definition stage: taking all that feedback and boiling it down to a single core problem statement. Interestingly, this honing process is actually built into practice of mindfulness itself. We’re taught not to passively ingest the mass of sensory information we take in each moment, but instead focus our attention on a single action before moving onto another. Breathing exercises are a great example of this: while the practice has its own cognitive benefits – like increasing your attention span and ability to focus – it makes it easier to narrow a problem down to a single issue.

3.  Ideating

When brainstorming, it’s important to get out as many ideas as possible. But how do you decide which to keep and which to discard? Well, one of the key experiences during meditation is the sensation that thoughts come and go freely – that we shouldn’t attach strong emotions to them. Applying this idea to design thinking can help us realize that more ideas will arrive than the ones that stick, letting us filter out the less successful ones without bias.

4.  Prototyping

Prototyping is an iterative process, and while you will produce multiple scaled-down versions of your product, many will fail. Staying composed is therefore hugely important, and it’s here that mindfulness again proves useful. How? By detaching you from objects and outcomes, and ultimately freeing you from the urge to immediately pass judgement. Mindfulness help you accept setbacks, and be stoic in the face of negative feedback.

5.  Testing

Testing can be a painful process, where you often jump back to stages 1 and 2 to redefine problems and check the concerns of different users. But you’re already armed for the journey – just repeat the aspects of mindfulness above to soften the iterations process and, ultimately, sign-off your perfect solution.

6.  Project post-mortem

This final key step is often overlooked. Caught up in the detail of each step, it’s often hard to capture the bigger picture of what you did and how your team worked together. Perhaps the final insight from mindfulness for design thinking is to make space for reflection. Consider what you enjoyed, where you got distracted, and how long you spent on each design phase to apply – then apply these learnings to your next project. Remember, you can’t make improvements to your process, environment or collaboration without actually understanding what you did.

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