Blogging for A Mindful Society

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Supporting Mindfulness Through Design Thinking with Jay Vidyarthi

We are excited to share a blog series with you profiling members of our advisory council! ‘A Mindful Society’ has an advisory council, made up of individuals with a diverse set of backgrounds and life experiences who are all committed to the integration of mindfulness into society. This council meets at least once a month to steer the direction of the conference, beginning each meeting with a mindfulness practice to fully arrive and be present for one another. In the blog series: “Meet our advisory council” we will interview members of the advisory council to learn about their practice and what skill sets they bring to the conference.

Meet Council Member: Jay Vidyarthi, Interaction Designer

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First up, meet Jay Vidyarthi, an interaction designer. We wanted to introduce Jay as an excuse to talk about the ‘design thinking’ model that was implemented at the 2015 conference. During registration, conference attendees were asked to share their thoughts on some of the major challenges facing the integration of mindfulness into key sectors of society. From this data, some key questions were created:
How can we talk about mindfulness to diverse groups while maintaining a unified community?
How do we bring mindfulness into the workplace without it becoming a fad?
What is the best way to introduce mindfulness to youth?

These questions were posted on the walls in one of the conference rooms, and throughout the conference attendees were invited to add a single thought to the wall with a post-it where the question was displayed. At the end of each day the responses were aggregated into sub-categories and new questions were posed the next day based on this feedback. The result of this was an organic overview of the collective consciousness of conference participants. On the final day of the conference community activities were based on the outcomes of the ‘design thinking’ experiment. The results have also influenced the structure and themes of the 2016 conference.

Tell us a bit about yourself and what you have been up to in your daily life?

I consider myself a human-centered designer, which basically means that I orchestrate the way human beings interact with products, systems, and services. For me, design is about a lot more than beauty. It’s about compassion. We cannot create anything of true value without empathy for those who interact with the things we create.

Over the past few years, I have been exploring what role technology can play in inspiring mindfulness. This journey started with a persuasive technology for mindfulness meditation called Sonic Cradle which I built and published academically. Now I’m working with an incredible (and incredibly diverse) team to explore whether a similar concept can work in the mass market with Muse: the brain sensing headband.

“Over the past few years, I have been exploring what role technology can play in inspiring mindfulness.”

How did you become involved in the conference? What interested you about the conference?

I met Michael when we were both working on Muse together. He shared his vision for the conference and over the next little while we jammed a lot on how design thinking methods might orient a mindfulness summit to motivate people to take action in the community.

Michael had been present for a lot of the design thinking workshops I facilitated to help conceptualize Muse, so he immediately saw the potential. I really admire his passion for mindfulness and his vision for A Mindful Society, and so getting involved was a no-brainer. The vision was to include a more actionable element to the event. Something geared more directly to the transformation we both want to see pervade our culture and society.

What is ‘design thinking’?

Design is a pretty nebulous term. You can call yourself a designer and do anything from buying furniture to creating logos to programming websites to city planning. If you look into the history, you’ll find a lot of the early ideas around design in the field of architecture.

In the early 20th century, architects began to see the value in prioritizing function over form – they began to try to understand who would inhabit a building and what it would be use for as part of their process. They began to give human beings a central role in their design process, as opposed to only focusing on material science and structural integrity.

A couple of decades later, a great thinker named Herb Simon re-framed this approach to design to be more general. He spoke about design in terms of taking “existing states” and transforming them to “preferred states”. This intellectual approach to design sparked a whole generation of thinkers abstracting design into methodologies of research and collaboration aimed at systematically producing creative, lateral solutions to complex ambiguous problems.

Today, thanks to the efforts of design thinkers around the world and thought leaders from places like Stanford’s D.School and IDEO, these methods are used in a wide range of industries, where they bring a collaborative structure and research focus to the creative process.

“The design thinking process brings two different things to the table. First, it helps with generating ideas. It provides systematic approaches to collaboration that really work… It also helps with organizing, classifying, and drawing insights from large sets of complex, ambiguous information.”

What are the goals of design thinking?

The design thinking process brings two different things to the table.

First, it helps with generating ideas. It provides systematic approaches to collaboration that really work. If you’ve ever sat around a table with people and tried to work together on something, you quickly encounter all kinds of problems. The loudest person in the room controls the conversation. The group gets off track on wild tangents. Great ideas don’t get documented. People don’t listen to each other. And let’s face it, these sessions are often pretty boring! Design thinking methods help with all this.

It also helps with organizing, classifying, and drawing insights from large sets of complex, ambiguous information. Whether you’re working with the results of several quantitative data analyses, a team’s ideas on the future of the hospital, or a collection of 30 minute interviews about people’s experiences with a given technology, a short workshop can help an entire team of people work together to build a mental model of how to think about the problem. It’s amazing how much a clear, shared understanding can turn a daunting ambiguous problem into an area ripe for creative exploration.

How is design thinking generally implemented?

There are tons of different methods. But they usually involve immersing oneself into the real context of the problem space, collecting data, then bringing that data back for a creative workshop. The workshop is usually a bit of structured chaos. We lay a few ground rules about how people should interact with each other, and then define a playful approach to getting inspiration, organizing information, and generating ideas. Everything from capturing ideas on post-its, collaborative sketching exercises, physically acting out potential situations, and more. Sounds fun, right?

I think the hallmark of a good design thinking process is that it feels sort of like a game. Especially when you’re dealing with really sticky and unclear problems, finding a way to bring a little kindergarten into the mix can help a lot. When we get into a playful flow, we start to get wilder and wilder ideas. We drop our pre-conceived ideas and start to listen better. We become better at drawing inspiration from others.

“I also think that part of what made it work with such a big group was the fact that the vast majority of attendees were meditators. Meditation and design thinking share a heavy reliance on non-judgment.”

Was there anything different about implementing design thinking in the context of a mindfulness conference?

We had a lot of people coming into our shared space and contributing. We enlisted some help from our friends at Pivot Design Group to help moderate the sessions, and they were instrumental to help me facilitate a workshop at this scale.

I also think that part of what made it work with such a big group was the fact that the vast majority of attendees were meditators. Meditation and design thinking share a heavy reliance on non-judgment. Neither of them work that well if you’re in a space that’s judgmental. Usually when I conduct these workshops, I need to take a lot of time with people to help get them in the frame of mind to really listen to each other and to be curious instead of judgmental. At the conference, I was pretty surprised by everyone’s willingness to contribute, interact, listen, and explore right off the bat. I think having a group steeped in mindfulness helped a lot.

Now that we understand a little bit about what design thinking is, can you tell us a bit about how the questions for the design thinking were crafted for this particular conference? Who was involved in coming up with the questions?

Sure. The process was all about listening to what the community was experiencing in the field, and then providing them a space to work together to explore these issues together. So in a way, the community itself created the questions.

First, we crafted a few fields exploring the state of mindfulness in practice which we included in the registration form. We knew our audience were meditation practitioners working in healthcare, education, business, so we wanted to ask them about their experiences trying to bring mindfulness to society.

Once we had collected all that data, the organizing council met and I facilitated our own design thinking workshop. We grouped all the data and found a few major themes around obstacles people were dealing with in their own personal and professional lives. We used attendees’ own language to craft three key questions to serve as central discussion questions to address at the conference itself.

In each group, we looked for those attendees who expressed a willingness to get involved in our process. We reached out to them directly to meet on a Skype call in advance of the conference and discuss the question and introduce them to our workshop plan. We also asked them to come to the conference early.

When they arrived, I introduced them to our guest facilitators from Pivot, and we began with a smaller workshop to start exploring the questions. We used the “affinity diagram” method which involves putting ideas on post-it notes and posting them on the wall.

Once all the attendees arrived, I explained the ongoing process to the whole group in a short talk, and then we watched in awe as so many different perspectives approached these manifestation of current thinking around each question. They each brought their own ideas to help build and shape a common understanding.

The first day we focused on clarifying and exploring the questions, and the second day we began to explore answers to each question. After each session, I took photos of the state of the post-its.

After the conference, we documented these ideas and began the long process of analyzing that information. Based on that analysis, we are going to start producing blogs and reports to share our findings and help guide and inspire mindfulness professionals who are working in society and experiencing these obstacles and questions on a daily basis. We’re also using these insights to guide the 2016 conference program, including format, speakers, and topics.

“It was a really experimental thing, and my heart was warmed by everyone’s willingness to get involved and help.”

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What did you notice about the response to the design thinking at this particular conference?

It was a really experimental thing, and my heart was warmed by everyone’s willingness to get involved and help. The process didn’t run perfectly but we are pretty proud of the output as a maiden voyage. I am super excited to share what we learned, and because we took a human-centered approach, there’s no doubt in my mind it will be useful information for the majority of people in the field.

Next year, I think there’s one thing I think we need to do better, and that’s drive toward action. The initial vision of this process is to have a direct impact in our community. Through the process of organizing and gathering resources to make it happen, we didn’t get as far as I would like toward that goal. I am already looking forward to taking everything I learned last year and really driving the next conference toward having more of a direct impact on our schools, hospitals, organizations, and culture. And if all goes as planned, I will keep iterating on this process until we are consistently creating spinoff groups and organizations to help bring this vital practice to the masses.

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