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Forgetting to Breathe: Mindful User Research

Discovery

Insights from UX research

A column by Michael Morgan
April 6, 2020

“Thus we are sucked away into the future—and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.”—Thich Nhat Hanh

It’s your last research session in a long day filled with hours of listening to participants talk about their complex systems. Their gripes start to blend together. One person’s complaints about gluing together their data files from multiple systems start to sound just like the difficulties of another participant whose system froze when he tried to click Print.

Fortunately, you have recordings to fall back on. Perfect concentration is impossible. You may forget to listen. But if you forget to breathe and be alive in the moment, you may succumb to an awkward silence, while a participant swigs some water between rants. Meditation guru Thich Nhat Hanh says, “It is only in an active and demanding situation that mindfulness really becomes a challenge.”

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UX researchers are constantly up against tight schedules, squeezing as much content into their tightly time-boxed research sessions as possible. Mindfulness, what Hanh refers to as “keeping one’s consciousness alive to the present reality,” or being in the moment, is the last thing on your mind when you’re trying to ensure that you have covered everything your stakeholders asked you to cover during a session.

Sitting there and paying careful attention—not only to participants’ words, but also their tone and, when in person, their facial expressions—requires being present in the moment. Your brain must not wander. You must focus every neuron on the human being who is participating in your research.

Many of the tenets of mindfulness are prescriptions for better UX research experiences. In this column, I’ll share some insights on mindfulness that could help researchers to unlock the present moment and prevent their brain from wandering off into some remote part of their imagination when it’s showtime—that is, any time you’re engaged in UX research activities:

  • Don’t forget to breathe.
  • Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings, especially during contentious moments.
  • Through the lens of curiosity, try to achieve fearlessness and compassion.
  • Be present in the moment, especially during research sessions and when doing analysis.

Don’t Forget to Breathe

Distractions abound during research sessions. Is recording on? Why does the phone sound choppy? Will that affect my recording? Is the participant talking too low? What did she just say? I missed that!

Hanh says, “Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts.” Even when we’re not thinking about breathing, we’re still breathing. The key is to recognize your breath. It’s this conscious awareness of your breath that anchors you to your present moment, so you can focus on the task at hand: doing your research.

It’s just as easy to ignore your breath as it is to recognize it. So it helps to verbally acknowledge your breath by saying to yourself: I am breathing in. I am breathing out. (This sounds a lot like thinking aloud during a usability session, doesn’t it?) In moments of feeling lost or like a fish swimming upstream that never reaches its destination, just stop for a minute and breathe. Take a long breath in, then exhale, taking the same amount of time to release your breath. A couple of repetitions should be enough to help nudge you back into the present.

During a recent study, I consciously made an effort to watch my breathing. The rhythm of my breath and the conversation flow between myself and the participants provided seamless avenues, allowing me to interrupt and ask relevant questions that arose about the subject. Think about the difference between sliding on ice versus driving over a speed bump. The awareness of my breath let me sense gaps in the conversation that I could then fill with useful probing questions.

Acknowledge Your Thoughts and Feelings

It is particularly important to acknowledge your thoughts and feelings when there are contentious moments. What participants say may sometimes come across as inappropriate or offensive. Being in the moment requires acknowledging to oneself what someone just said without assigning any emotional value to it—remaining neutral, tactful, and simply aware of it. Passing judgment on others—even if they deserve it—need not be part of your interactions with research participants.

During a research session a few years ago, a participant said something rather offensive about a particular ethnic group to which I belong. It was the last session of the day. Since I was already emotionally drained from the day, I just kept my neutral moderator armor up and made no retort to his offensive remarks. Because I was too tired to feel anything at that point or to process anything that he had said, I let those remarks evaporate.

Had I been mindful during that session, I would have acknowledged to myself: This person has said something hateful about an ethnic group to which I belong. In response to hearing that remark, I might have felt angry or offended or perhaps would have wanted to end the session immediately. As a UX researcher—and as a human being—acknowledging what that participant said in that moment would have allowed me to be in full control of that moment. This is what Hanh calls taking “hold of your mind.”

While we should not ignore any negative thoughts or cover them up with happier thoughts, nor should we embrace them or take them on. A UX researcher should simply acknowledge such thoughts to maintain in full control of the present.

Try to Achieve Fearlessness and Compassion

Empathy is at the heart of user-centered design. Look at the people you interview through the lens of curiosity. Achieving fearless and compassion demands that we broaden our point of view and cultivate our curiosity. If we can appreciate how we are connected to the people we are interviewing, we can open a window into their existence and create the means for them to tell us their story.

Hanh describes this connectedness to our surroundings as interdependence. He says, “The subject of knowledge cannot exist independently from the object of knowledge” and “to see is to see something. To hear is to hear something. To be angry is to be angry over something.” Our feelings, thoughts, and perceptions about our research participants—the subjects—cannot be separate from the things we are viewing—the objects.

We can understand our participants, or subjects, only be through the stories they tell, or the objects. Appreciating this interdependence gives us the compassion and fearlessness to get what we need out of our research sessions.

Here is a hypothetical example of how interdependence can help us through a tough situation:

A divorced, disgruntled participant, who works late hours, is staring at his watch every ten minutes, but is waiting to leave so he can collect his honorarium. He may have decided to participate in this interview to earn extra cash to take his daughter out for a milkshake before he must drop her off at her mother’s.

As a UX researcher—and a stranger to your participants—you might not know about such personal details or motivations. You might draw immediate conclusions about what seems to be rude behavior. What if a participant tells untruths during an interview—just to fill up the conversation or kill time? A participant’s worry and stress or untruthfulness could ruin the session—or even the study.

A participant’s behaviors might be coming from multiple sources of stress. By asking participants about their concerns, you are recognizing that they are not separate from their circumstances—their reality. If you realize that a participant is worried about something, give him the opportunity to open up and tell you about his circumstances.

You can connect to his reality by having the courage to ask. He can then provide details and, hopefully, you’ll be able to have a more meaningful and honest conversation about the research topic. You might also be able to demonstrate your empathy by sharing a similar story that could put him at ease.

According to Hanh, recognizing this interdependence can “liberate you from narrowing views.” Don’t be afraid to disarm distracted participants and gain their trust. Being fearless and compassionate might get you further than you think.

Be Present in the Moment

It is especially important to be present in the moment during research sessions and when doing analysis. There is always something that could pull you out of the present moment, especially when there is so much to think about. Many forces are working against you! It is so easy to get lost in them.

Take a look around you on your way to work. More than anything else, what do you see? People walking with their faces to their phones. People sitting on the bus or subway with their faces to their phones. These people are deeply engaged in either what is yet to come or what has already happened. The present moment is nowhere to be found. Author and meditation expert Jon Kabat-Zinn describes experiencing a similar state when watching television as “soaking up time, space and silence, a soporific, lulling us into mindless passivity.”

In Hanh’s book on mindfulness, he relates Tolstoy’s story of The Three Questions, in which a king wants to find the answers to what he considers the three most important questions in life. The moral of the story is that there is no more important moment than the present. This is the time when we can have the most control. The people you are with—in the moment, the present—are those who are most important.

When you are moderating research, all of your focus should be on the participant. When doing analysis, your focus should be on the data and the constructs that are emerging. Nothing else matters. If we can keep the present in focus, this enhances our ability to catch things as they happen during sessions. You’ll catch that fleeting idea about how to organize your findings in the net of your attention. Or you’ll notice a participant’s brief microgesture when you asked for her thoughts about a particular design. All because you’re living and breathing in the present moment.

Conclusion

Mindfulness complements the state in which we exist when we temporarily walk away from a problem we’re trying to solve or understand. This state is what social psychologist Graham Wallas calls incubation. During incubation, our internal mental processes are unconsciously “associating new information with past information.”

The long walks we take to escape the complexities of a problem afford us the opportunity to raise our awareness of the problem. This gives us the psychic space to figure out potential solutions that would not have occurred to us if we had not stepped away from the problem.

Mindfulness complements the incubation stage of problem solving. When we’re synthesizing and analyzing data from research studies, stepping away from the data for a period enables us to view the data from a different perspective when we return to it. We may have read a book that was relevant to the phenomenon we are observing in the data. Raising our consciousness during those moments when we deliberately walk away from a problem gives our physiology an opportunity to locate information that could suggest possible solutions. Mindful incubation might inform a solution or a better way to frame a problem so stakeholders can better appreciate the problem.

Jon Kabat-Zinn says meditation takes practice, but not in the usual sense in which we practice to perform. Instead, practice fully committing to being in the present moment at all times. Doing UX research also takes practice. By practicing non-doing, or being still, we can be more awake and perhaps learn a little more about all our practices. The things we tried that worked. The things we tried that failed—along with the honest mistakes we’ve made along the way. We can better internalize all of these learnings by having a heightened awareness of them through mindfulness. 

References

Carey, Benedict. How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens. New York: Random House. 2015.

Hanh, Thich Nhat. The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation. Boston: Beacon Press, 2016.

Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Wherever You Go, There You Are. London: Piatkus, 2004.

Senior UX Researcher at Bloomberg L.P.

New York, New York, USA

Michael MorganMichael has worked in the field of IT (Information Technology) for more than 20 years—as an engineer, business analyst, and, for the last ten years, as a UX researcher. He has written on UX topics such as research methodology, UX strategy, and innovation for industry publications that include UXmatters, UX Mastery, Boxes and Arrows, UX Planet, and UX Collective. In Discovery, his quarterly column on UXmatters, Michael writes about the insights that derive from formative UX-research studies. He has a B.A. in Creative Writing from Binghamton University, an M.B.A. in Finance and Strategy from NYU Stern, and an M.S. in Human-Computer Interaction from Iowa State University.  Read More

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