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How digital wellness is bringing mindfulness to design

Digital wellness aims to cater to the true needs of users, rather than competing for their attention.

Illustration by Shai Glickman.

Profile picture of Lillian Xiao


7 min read

Digital technologies have taken the world by storm, giving us more ways to connect and express ourselves than ever before. We can tune into news from all over the world, or discover answers to any questions that might come to mind. Yet, with so much information available to us, it’s incredibly easy to feel overwhelmed by the amount of time, energy, and attention we spend looking at our screens.

That’s where mindfulness comes in.

As part of a recent movement towards digital wellness, mindfulness is one of the many skills that can help us thrive in the modern world. It gives us the ability to use technology in a more balanced way, in which we appreciate the benefits, while staying attentive to the elements that may lead to unhealthy behaviors.

By cultivating mindfulness in our own use of technology, we can become better advocates and builders of products and services that contribute positively to our wellbeing.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the ability to pay attention to what’s going on in the present moment. As meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg says in a Mindfulness in America Summit interview, it’s the capacity to look nakedly at our own experiences.

When we exercise mindfulness, we’re paying broad attention to what we’re thinking, feeling, and sensing in our bodies. It’s a type of mindset that’s characterized by openness, curiosity, and acceptance, as opposed to the laser-focused attention that drowns everything out. We might notice thoughts as they come and go, or sounds and smells that elicit a certain feeling.

We simply observe what’s going on around us, without being swept away by any single thought or emotion.

Another way to understand mindfulness is to look at what it’s not. Much of our daily behavior consists of automatic responses, writes psychology professor Ellen Langer in her book, Mindfulness, such as apologizing when you bump into an inanimate object or habitually reaching for your phone. She calls this mindlessness, as it contrasts with the awareness and reflection that surrounds mindful behavior.

When we’re mindful and attentive to our own experiences, we can take better charge of our health and wellbeing. Through exercises like meditation, mindful movement, or mindful eating, or simply introducing small moments of contemplation into our daily lives, we can train ourselves to be more present and engaged in the moment. However we choose to practice mindfulness, the important thing is to create space for learning and growth as it relates to our own experiences of the world.

A person practicing meditation outdoors

Bringing mindfulness into design and technology

When it comes to digital technologies, we can embrace a more mindful approach to how we design and use products in our daily lives. We can start by reflecting on our own technology use, through the following qualities of mindfulness:

  • Openness. When we direct our attention to what’s going on, it’s important to remain open to whatever your current experiences might be. As you’re reading this article, what do you notice about the words and type on your screen? What subtle feelings do you observe? How does this translate into your posture or your breath?

  • Non-judgment. When things come into your attention, it’s important to hold them there without judgment. Say you’re feeling overwhelmed by the amount of fun people seem to be having on Instagram. You notice that you’ve started comparing your own life to that of others. When we ruminate or make these sorts of judgments, we can end up feeling stressed and disconnected. It’s therefore extremely important to recognize your thoughts and feelings as they are, without labelling them as being good or bad.

  • Compassion. When we take moments to observe ourselves free of judgment, we can become more compassionate toward ourselves and others. As you’re scrolling through your news feed, you might suddenly wonder where the time has gone. Instead of viewing this as a personal failure, you can take a more compassionate approach, realizing that a news feed might be engineered to hold your attention for long periods of time. By exercising self-compassion, you’ll be able to take a more balanced look at how you can adjust your behavior next time.

  • Non-attachment. Part of being mindful is letting things go, even if it’s something great. Let’s say your newly posted video just got tons of views and a handful of encouraging comments. You’re feeling fantastic and validated. When you take a mindful approach towards this moment, you acknowledge that feeling of exhilaration, yet don’t stay attached to it for very long. Letting go of a feeling means we don’t let it define us or control our behavior in the future.

By examining our personal experiences with technology, we can gain awareness into how we relate to digital products in our daily life. To go even further, we can take these insights and extend them outward into our design practice.

Transforming how we design

Bringing mindfulness into our work can enrich the ways in which we design, and the products and services that we help to build.

We can start by asking ourselves these questions: What do you notice in your own use of technology that you’d like to change? What promotes your wellbeing? How might you take mindfulness principles and build them into a product or service?

Let’s explore some possible answers to these questions:

Giving people more choices to interact with information

A lot of mindless technology use stems from a constant reaction to what’s in front of us, especially when it demands our immediate attention. We fear that we’ll miss out on something important or that we’re failing to fulfill our social obligations. We don’t feel quite in control of the space that technology occupies in our lives.

One way to design for more mindful technology use is to give people thoughtful options for interacting with technology. This means providing options that are well-considered, rather than just more options.

Apple’s Screen Time feature offers added options to users by helping them improve awareness of their behavior. This feature tells you how many times you’ve picked up your phone, how much time you’ve spent on your device, and which apps you spend the most time using. It allows you to set limits for how long you want to spend on certain apps. Similarly, Google’s Wellbeing tools allow you to view your digital habits and pause apps and notifications in order to minimize constant distractions.

Taking cues from Apple’s Screen Time and Google’s Wellbeing, we can brainstorm similar ideas for helping users regain control of how they spend their time. For example, what if you could also set gentle reminders for when you’ve spent too much time scrolling aimlessly in a certain app? Or what if you could schedule non-urgent notifications to be delivered only when you’re ready to engage in certain activities, such as responding to email or engaging in social media?

Some existing products that provide options to encourage balanced and mindful integration of technology into daily life include f.lux, Pocket, and the use of grayscale mode. F.lux adapts your screen display to match the time of day, so that you don’t feel the added disruption of a harsh screen display that contrasts with your environment, especially at night.

A mobile phone interface in color and grayscale modes

Pocket lets you save articles and videos to come back to later, while removing digital clutter around the articles, so that you don’t feel the pressure view everything right at the moment you come across it. Grayscale mode, an accessibility feature on many mobile phones, can help minimize visual distractions that seem overwhelming at times

The key here is not to provide more choices for the sake of variety, but to offer more intelligent choices that allow people to use technology in a more mindful way. Rather than determining what mindfulness looks like for their users, manufacturers can give people the tools they need to set their own boundaries based on their unique needs and lifestyles.

Pocket app website design

Designing space for people to contemplate their actions

Beyond just providing options for people to interact with information, we can look at designing gentle nudges that give users space to contemplate their actions.

One way might be to introduce a bit of friction into products. Part of using technology mindlessly is that we have instantaneous access to almost anything. Because of this, we can put up a post or send something out without a second thought. That’s why we can look into buffers that help create space for people to pause for a moment of contemplation before acting.

Twitter is testing a feature that sends users a prompt when they try to reply with offensive or hurtful language, and Instagram similarly asks users to reconsider before posting unkind comments. Just Not Sorry is a Gmail Plugin that identifies words and phrases, such as “sorry” and “just,” which could undermine the sender’s stance and needs over email.

The important thing is designing pauses or moments of reflection in such a way that doesn’t feel too forceful or intrusive for people using the technology.

Finding meaningful things to measure

It may be challenging to integrate aspects of mindfulness into existing products and services, especially when business models depend on profits from engagement metrics, such as likes, comments, shares, and clicks.

We might explore new metrics that promote mindful use and meaningful engagement. According to co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology Tristan Harris, Couchsurfing established a measure called “net orchestrated conviviality,” which measures the net hours spent with others that wouldn’t have existed if couchsurfing didn’t exist. And Hinge dropped their swipe feature to encourage more significant connections among its users.

As designers, we can look for ways to contribute to both the customer’s wellbeing and the business’ bottom line. And we can advocate for these changes within our own industries and as users of technology.

Seeking design standards that you believe in

As we become more aware of how technology impacts us, we can consider what it means to design ethically, based on the beliefs that guide our work and our lives.

These values can be adopted from our own organization or industry, or they can be values that we’ve identified for ourselves. One example might be taking a stand against dark patterns that trap or trick users into taking actions they wouldn’t otherwise take. Or designing technologies for kids in the same way that we design for adults.

Being mindful allows us to observe what we value in the use of technology, alongside aspects that we feel can be improved. There are many ways to design something, and when you’re mindful of what you believe in, you can choose the rules and goals that guide your work.

Final thoughts

Mindfulness is a significant skill for navigating the modern age of being always on and connected. By exercising mindfulness, we can build our awareness in order to design products that people can use in a more balanced way.

We can contribute to the digital wellness of our society at large by first expanding our own understanding and compassion as it relates to technology, and then extending that wisdom outward into the work that we do.


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