Our Scope - Attentional, Non-Explicit Products
The scope of this project is improving attentional, non-explicit products. This sounds overly jargon-y so let’s break that down.
An attentional product is one where the vast majority of the time spent using it requires our attention. For example, a news website is, of course, attentional. In contrast, virtual private network software is not, since its set-up ensures we don’t need to constantly pay attention to it.
Now to the non-explicit bit. In the context of wellbeing, an explicit product is one whose value proposition is explicitly about improving our wellbeing in some way. Fitbit is an explicit product. A meditation app like buddhify is an explicit product. An attentional, non-explicit product is therefore one that isn’t all about wellbeing, but due to affecting our attention still has an impact upon our wellbeing. This is because of the mindfulness principle that the nature and quality of our attention has a direct impact on our wellbeing.
Most common consumer products that fall into this category include messaging and social media platforms, wearables, mobile devices, news sites, operating systems, mobile games, productivity, workplace applications, and ‘Internet of Things devices’. The scope of this project is to improve the impact these products have on the wellbeing of the people that use them. This includes effectively everyone with some kind of computer, mobile or another device. That is, effectively, everyone.
Target Outcomes - Negative/Neutral/Positive
There will be some makers of products who, for whatever reason, simply do not wish to make the wellbeing of their users a priority or an active part of their overall practice. We, however, are optimistic and believe that many entrepreneurs and companies do what they do so as to improve the lives of the people who use their products and are therefore ready to include attention and mental wellbeing as a dimension of that motivation.
We are also realistic.
In practice, not every product can be improved to the point where it makes a net positive contribution to a user’s wellbeing. But every product should be designed to be as mindful as possible of user wellbeing. For example, if a company becomes aware that parts of its product have a negative effect on wellbeing, it can take measures to turn the product into being wellbeing-neutral when appropriate. Likewise, if part of a product is wellbeing-neutral, it can be developed into being wellbeing-positive. Companies and products that are already well-established and wish to incorporate Designing Mindfulness principles are likely to find that their ability to make a high positive impact is limited by legacy issues. However, new products and new companies have the best opportunity, since these principles can be embedded at an early stage. It is also worth noting that different components of a single product can sit in different parts of this negative/neutral/positive trajectory.
There are many definitions of mindfulness. We prefer to use two definitions, the specific and the general. The specific definition of mindfulness is knowing what is happening in your experience while it is happening, also known by some people as present-moment awareness. The word mindfulness, however, tends to also be used very broadly to cover the whole field of meditation, which in some way uses this present-moment awareness. The second definition of mindfulness is a more general one. The mindfulness-based meditation tradition is a whole family of different practices, but what unites them all is three things: you are doing a technique, it involves your present-moment awareness and you’re doing it in order to improve your life in some way. So, this is our general definition of mindfulness. You’re ‘doing meditation’ or ‘doing mindfulness’ when you are using some kind of awareness-based technique for some kind of positive outcome. One way of categorising these positive outcomes are embodiment, self-awareness, non-distraction, balance, kindness to yourself, and kindness to others.
The Mind-Training Loop
Our general definition of mindfulness and meditation has three components: the attention of the person, a technique which uses that attention, and the outcome the technique aims to achieve. In traditional mindfulness, all three of these elements are owned by the meditator - the person practising mindfulness. Utterly central to this whole project, however, is the insight that when someone is a user of an attentional product, the same three elements exist - but this time two of the elements are owned by the maker of the product. Both the technique by which the user’s attention is being directed and changed is owned by the maker, as is the result they want to achieve (e.g. watch an advert, click a buy button). The only mindfulness element retained by the user is their attention, but now it is being manipulated by the product. So, while using general software is not meditation, it is still mind-training as it shares these three elements. But unlike meditation, now the user has highly limited (if any) control over attention, technique, and outcome. The fact that this mind-training loop operates is the reason so many technologies are detrimental to the wellbeing of the people who use them. Yet, because the elements of the loop can be changed, it is also the reason why it doesn’t have to be this way.
The Three Dimensions
So far we have limited the discussion to be solely about products and users’ interaction with them. Nonetheless, the product - or what we make - is only one part of three dimensions which Designing Mindfulness and its principles aim to address. How we make products and why we make them are just as important as what we actually make. How we make products is as a result of culture. If we were to limit our principles solely to the product, then we would be ignoring how critical culture and the humans who make the product are to its impact. The good news is that we currently live in a time where mindfulness is becoming popular as a tool within employee wellbeing and leadership development. This project represents an opportunity to take that interest and let it break free from compartmentalization as a purely internal practice. Alongside product and culture, the third dimension is mission. If your mission is to improve the lives of people, then it feels sensible that attention and mental wellbeing are included as part of this.
The Business Case
It might be easy to dismiss Designing Mindfulness and its principles as idealistic nonsense far removed from the commercial reality of today’s market and operating environment. We believe that doing so would be both short-sighted and negligent. We see there being four primary drivers for companies starting to adopt Designing Mindfulness principles. The first is quality of user relationships. By applying these principles into your products, people would at best feel nourished and at worst, not-frazzled by using your product. You would be cultivating long-term sustainable relationships, which are precious in a product marketplace where today’s massive hit app can be tomorrow’s graveyard. The second is market positioning. People are becoming increasingly aware of these issues and will actively look to use wellbeing-neutral and wellbeing-positive products. The third business case driver is attractiveness to talent. The talent marketplace has never been so competitive and a company which offers an understanding of wellbeing that runs through product, culture, and mission, will be highly attractive. The final element of the business case for Designing Mindfulness and its principles is that it’s just the right thing to do and there are times when that is all we need to know to take action.