Design more mindful products that promote digital well-being

Graphic art of a list of Design Principles.

Check out Maddy Beard's free worksheet that helps you design products that promote digital well-being.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen a huge focus on an "attention economy" fueled by AI and other emerging technologies. There have been incredible technological advances which could be used for so much good but are often used to exploit behavioral patterns for business gains. On the other hand, we have also seen a growing focus on sustainability, accessibility, and ethics at the same time. But until now, we have not seen much collaboration between these two powerful movements for the betterment of society and individuals. This is starting to change.

Even before documentaries like “The Social Dilemma”, people were waking up to the negative impacts of the attention economy. As more products and platforms begin to move away from using psychological tactics to manipulate users, instead centering their needs and best interests, we will see more and more people say goodbye to products that are harmful to our mental health.

Companies that truly value the well-being of their customers and design their products and services to prioritize it will be the ones that are able to gain and maintain their attention — and market share in the process.

It’s time to encourage digital well-being through design.

Learn about mindful design and how to design more mindful products no matter what kind of company, clients, or teams you work with.

What’s design for digital well-being?

"Digital well-being" describes the impact that technology and digital experiences have on users’ mental, emotional, and physical health, while design for digital well-being is the concerted effort to hold these health effects to the same level of importance as other business and technical measures. More broadly, it is the belief that technology should be a tool we use to improve our lives, not a distraction from life itself.

There are societal consequences and there are business-specific consequences of not taking the digital well-being of users into account from the start. From a societal perspective, the longer we go forward without laws that govern digital well-being, especially in social media, the more our young generations will suffer from mental health challenges. From a business perspective, the risk is that you will lose your users' trust. People want to support ethical companies — whether it be in the food space, the clothing space, or the tech space. Since technology has made it much easier to foster transparency between businesses and customers, the companies that have a mindful and ethical approach, along with a strong relationship with their users, are going to squash those that do not.

Carry out empathetic research with real users

Empathetic research is key to designing for digital well-being: speaking to users “human to human” and relying more on that qualitative (albeit messy) data rather than the seemingly simple-yet-disconnected quantitative data that drives the attention economy.

Mindful foundational research starts with identifying a need. It sounds obvious, but the more laser-focused you stay on finding a problem and crafting a solution for the humans that experience that problem, the more mindful your solution will be. But real human problems are nuanced and cannot be fully understood through quantitative data alone, so speaking with and observing real humans is always crucial. In product design, this type of research never ends, but it does not have to be done on a large scale. It should be more of a company value than a cut-and-dry, rinse-and-repeat process.

My case studies taught me about the importance of talking to individuals. While it is true that you cannot base product decisions off of just one person, you can have valuable 1:1 conversations that identify patterns and can and should shape your product. For each of my case studies I spoke with 12 to 15 people who met certain requirements based on the project. I wanted to make sure I was choosing people that would truly use the product and had experiences that would be valuable for me to hear about. Not only did I find patterns that helped me make decisions, but I was also able to keep these real people in mind as I was designing. This helped me stay focused on solving their real problems and made the work meaningful.

Using behavioral psychology for social good

Designers will find success through learning about cognitive psychology. For too long many have used what we know about vulnerabilities in the human brain to take advantage of users. Now is the time to flip that on its head and build trust with our users by supporting cognitive sensitivities.

When you understand the innate tendencies of the brain, you have the power to either work with them, or exploit them. Take "social validation" as an example. We know that getting attention on social media apps literally gives the human brain a small hit of dopamine — a pleasure chemical that motivates us to seek more of what’s giving us this reward. Almost all social media apps use this to pull people back into the apps as often as possible. But if we have digital well-being top of mind, we might design a notification system that compiles and organizes your alerts throughout the day and serves them up to you at lunch time, or a time specifically chosen by the user.

If your product solves a real problem with an experience that is easy and enjoyable to use, you do not need to use psychological tactics to hit business goals. There is a to-do list app called TeuxDeux that I have admired for years because of its mindful approach. It is almost as simple as a digital pen and paper, but there are intentional features that make it just as flexible as it is helpful. It feels really human to me, like I can feel the creators smiling from behind the tool when the flying cat celebrates across my screen as I check off my last to-do of the day. TeuxDeux does not even have notifications and yet I open it up and use it every single day, multiple times a day. It fits in with my life the way I want it to, and I am in control of that. I actually pay to use it because of how great the experience is and how much I trust and respect the brand.

Becoming a more mindful UX designer

To start designing more mindfully and also get other team members, stakeholders, and clients on board, I suggest this piece of advice: question everything. If something feels manipulative, stop and question it. Get into the habit of coming up with alternative designs and ideas that challenge the status quo. Just because you see other apps doing it doesn’t mean it is the most mindful solution. If your team is skeptical, ask if you can test it! And if you are working with teams or clients that do not consider digital well-being at all, do your best to educate them without being accusatory. Maybe say something like: “I found this article you might find interesting. I especially thought the part about xxx could be really beneficial for us to think about as a team.”

It is difficult to ignore the detrimental downsides of humans spending more and more time immersed in technology. But instead of letting it get me down, I try to think of it as an opportunity to make our work even more impactful. Being a mindful designer does not mean creating screens and then just passing them along to the next step. A mindful designer stays involved, taking opposing perspectives into account while advocating for the user throughout the entire process, even after the build is released. The role of the designer is so powerful because it is truly the starting point for the direction of a product or user journey. That means, as designers, we have the ability to create a ripple effect across our whole team, product, and even industry by setting the tone to be more mindful and staying true to our vision every step of the way.