Long Read: Mindful Design

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Oh how we love this: Mindful Design is a book that “examines how human behavior can be used to integrate your product design into lifestyle, rather than interrupt it, and make decisions for the good of those that are using your product.” Yes! We were excited to talk to Mindful Design’s author Scott Riley to learn more.

What inspired you to write your book?

Hi! Thanks so much for having me. 💕A number of things! Firstly, my own mental health issues and the response I’ve seen when I talk openly about them. I suffer with pretty severe bouts of depression and mild anxiety, and even though I’m in a position of palpable privilege, have been acutely aware that there’s parts of the world that just aren’t really designed for people with similar issues. I’ve spent over a decade researching brain sciences in an attempt to understand my own issues and frame my own struggle, and there’s just so much in design that can be made infinitely better with a little of this knowledge and a generous wedge of empathy and compassion. I want design to recognize and empower vulnerable people.

Secondly, I was (and still am) extraordinarily frustrated with the tech industry’s fetishization of vanity metrics like engagement, the generally de-humanizing way the design zeitgeist talks about people, and the celebrity status of behaviorism that tech proliferates. I wanted to show that there’s a different conversation to be had, that the mind can be inspirational unto itself, that often our most empowering moments are products of the same systems that provide our most vulnerable. In this sense, I wanted to offer what could be deemed a ‘humanist’ approach to design, something which I feel is really under explored in favor of behaviorist principles like reward cycles and ‘dopamine fixes.’

Tell us about your book Mindful Design.

Mindful Design was my full-time project last year. It’s all about design’s relationship with the human mind - and by that notion, humans themselves. It focuses on providing a bunch of theory and studies that I think can reframe the conversations around design and the mind; taking it from a weird obstacle-to-overcome vibe to something a little more humanistic.

Tell us about what you do and your path to get here.

I’m a freelance interaction designer and I work with all sorts of companies trying to bring things like compassion, creativity and fun to design projects that need healthy doses of such. I think design is all about breaking down barriers to entry, so people can affect systems they previously didn’t have access to, and that’s what I try to bring to my clients’ projects. I cut my teeth on big-as-heck local government sites here in the UK and soon switched to product and interaction design, which is where I’ve built my career (having alternated between freelance and full-time every couple years). I also spend a bunch of time coding, but that’s a means to an end, and the subject of designers and code is a whole barrel of fun that I don’t want to open right now.👏🏽👏🏽

Mindful Design  author Scott Riley.

Mindful Design author Scott Riley.


What are the key takeaways you’d like readers of Mindful Design to glean?

Design is a responsibility. We’re in a position where we can, to varying degrees, provide or obfuscate access to systems with wide-ranging repercussions. The impact of our work extends beyond screens and devices and conversations and sets a ripple out into the world, and if we’re not knowingly trying to make that a positive thing we’re kinda screwed by default. In a society that is increasingly reliant upon tech solutions that appeal mostly to the white, affluent people who create said solutions, the role of design as a combatant and leveler is only going to become more and more important. By designing with vulnerability, cognitive impairment, worries, anxieties and intrinsic motivation in mind, we’re better equipped to serve real humans in an age of stark disparity. {Editor’s note: 👏🏽👏🏽}

What advice would you give others who are trying to build technology for a better world?

Democratize. People are kept out of systems by oligarchy and purposeful obfuscation. Technology can combat this by simplifying––and even automating––processes and access to previously-exclusive systems. When we talk about disruption, we tend to talk about a company coming in and innovating within a niche or a market. Think instead about disruption as democratizing a system. No one’s ‘disrupted’ the frankly undemocratic prison system in the US. No one’s really disrupted poverty, wealth distribution, or financial control.

In tech, especially in design, we pride ourselves on simplifying complex actions. Our whole field revolves around making things easier for people, and we’re actually really good at it. The question, though, is who do we simplify things for? What actions are we simplifying? Often these are matters of convenience designed for a middle-class, white, homogenous cohort of tech-savvy people. Simplification, more so who we simplify for, is a statement of where our allegiances lie. The world isn’t going to improve by making tech bro’s lives slightly more convenient, it’s going to improve when we start simplifying the tools of political upheaval, when we democratize access to financial growth, social mobility, housing options and myriad other contributors to the disparity we see in the world.

This means providing frameworks that take into account vulnerable people. It means holding ourselves accountable. It means making products that aren’t backed by a broken capitalistic funding mechanism as lucrative as tech that are. It means embracing nonlinearity, intrinsic motivation and rescinding the weird grip of control that tech wants over human behavior.

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I also think, gravity of this responsibilities aside, we’re in a position to bring some much-needed fun and enjoyment to the world. I think this focus on the centrism of convenience is symptomatic of tech playing it safe; neither focusing on sheer fun and weirdness nor on important and difficult systems. We have this kinda milquetoast middle ground where we try and ‘sprinkle’ fun into boring as heck apps, or we try and disingenuously tack political activism and ‘wokeness’ to the side of apps that are the embodiment of a safe bet. The world could do with more fun, more weirdness, more creativity-for-the-sake-of-creativity. Probably a lot more than it could do with another food delivery app.

What can we expect next from you and how can people follow along?

I’m not sure what’s next! And that’s kind of exciting. I’m still finding my feet again with design projects after a pretty intense year of writing. I’ve fortunately got clients that are super receptive to the ideas and frameworks that I talk about in my book, and my main professional goal this year is to further work this thinking into my practice.

On the more public-facing side, I’m trying to find ways to bring Mindful Design’s ideas and content into different formats. I’ve tentatively got a bunch of talks and guest lectures lined up, I’m trying super hard to turn this into an affordable workshop, and I’m hoping to get a bunch of free educational content out on the subjects it covers.

Finally, I’m working on a video course all around getting to grips with design, where I’ll hopefully be covering everything from early stage research through to final design prototypes. I’m trying really hard to keep this free. If you want to know more about any of this then get at me on Twitter!

To find out more about Scott Riley’s book Mindful Design visit this website or to purchase a copy go here.

All images from Scott Riley.

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