When we get too caught up in the busyness of the world, we lose connection with one another – and ourselves.

– Jack Kornfield

As we are nearing the end of the year, I have been starting my year-in-review. The pandemic has made me even more mindful of others in some very subtle but important ways. As product people building digital products, we can learn many things from these mindful moments.

Being Self-aware in Every Day Interactions Matters.

(AKA: The Emotional Intelligence is a Mindfulness Superpower)

I think the pandemic has made a lot of us self-reflect and dig a little deeper in our conscious. Growing up, I remember moments of eating out with my family. I was always taught to be kind, yet I always noticed my mother being less than, to the wait staff. She never looked at them in the eyes (rather she would look straight at me), pretended she didn’t hear them when they would ask her a follow up question about her order. And I would embarrassingly thank them a thousand times. What I realized is in those moments of being extra (possibly even obnoxiously) nice to the wait staff, I was overcompensating for the non-self-aware behavior of my mother. Although, I’m sure she had her reasons, I didn’t want her to be the reason the wait staff had bad experiences. Maybe they would remember my kindness and not that of those who disrespected or mistreated them. Looking back, I realize that’s when I made a promise to myself to never lose sight of how my actions and reactions can impact the people around us.

And here I am in 2020 where human-centered design is at the center of everything I do. From customers’ journeys to every feature of the products we bring to life, we unpack human behavior and emotions to understand what makes an experience lovable. As a product manager, I have a responsibility of helping my team navigate good days and bad days. Having a strong sense of human-to-human awareness has been a true super power that helps me manage the day-to-day while having the ability to react in empathetic ways to everyone’s needs, whether it’s my team or our customers’. I draw from day-to-day interactions to be more sensitive to those needs with human-centered design, too.

“Little” Moments Have Major Consequences.

Today, just leaving my house requires me to make a bunch of decisions about how my actions may affect other people. They happen a lot – so often that you might not even notice. These are decisions that I did not need to make, at least, in the context of mindfulness, before 2020. But the pandemic is world-changing and life-changing.

Consider the decisions and moments that come with our daily activities and notice the interplay between the decision and its impact on someone else’s life:

  • Do I absolutely need to leave the house today? Before 2020, my sole criterion for answering the question was self-motivated. Did I have something more important to do in the house? Was the weather cooperating? How badly did I need to restock on paper towels that day? Those self-centered factors still apply, as well as a new one that I’d never had to consider before: how safe is it to leave the house? But this question applies not only to my health but, more importantly, to the health of others. When we make the decision to venture into the wild, we’re potentially creating a health risk for other people.
  • Wearing a mask when I leave the home is not a decision, per se, but an action I need to be mindful of now. When you leave the house in Chicago, depending on the weather, you remember to take an umbrella, dress properly, or wear gloves – here again, all self-centered actions. Now I include ensuring my mask has a clean filter in it and is attached to my mask chain around my neck as part of my routine – a moment that even in a fleeting moment puts me in a mindful mindset.
  • If I am in a store and happen to get close to a person, I tend to turn my head away, avoiding being face-to face. It doesn’t require much effort to do so.

Small things, are big things. In product design we must be mindful of supporting little moments. A small reach-out to a team member you know has worked late hours and the weekends doesn’t cost you anything. Instead, you create a lifted spirit and validation that they’re supported.

Mindful Everyday Decisions Are Not Always Easy to Make.

There is no playbook on making choices that are mindful every time. It is more about practicing the mindfulness muscle and instilling empathetic approach habits to help you navigate everyday choices with confidence.

For example, when I need to get something from the store where do I choose to go? The easy choice would be a large retailer. They have a big selection and wide aisles that make it easy to maintain a social distance. They even have arrows on the floor intended to help guide everyone to one-way traffic. (Is it a successful outcome when it comes to everyday UX? Questionable, but I digress). Now, I might even consider ordering from an online retailer. However, mindfulness comes into play now. I desperately want to support local small businesses, especially with how they’ve been negatively impacted by the shut-downs. They need my help.

Am I willing to visit one or two local businesses to find what I need rather than choose the convenience of a superstore? And supporting a local business could still put the health of an employee at risk. I know people in retail who have asked their friends and family to avoid going to the store, but at the same time, I want to be supportive, and local businesses don’t always have delivery options.

Similarly, an enhancement to a product feature may be the better user experience choice to get into a development sprint, based on research and testing results. However, there may be too many backlogged bugs that need to be taken care of before accruing technical debt. The user may really want the feature enhancement, but fixing the bugs could be their need, at this moment.

Overall, this is all about being more mindful of present needs. Even when making a choice isn’t easy today, it could open up the opportunity of making this choice easier in the future.

It’s Not About Making the Right Decision Because It Won’t Always Be.

With every mindful decision we make throughout this pandemic, whether it be trying to protect others or helping small businesses, we will never know the exact outcomes. A sort of Sliding Doors moment.

Similarly, with product decisions we may eventually learn the outcomes from setting KPIs and analyzing the data against them. However, consider that each trivial conversation with team members or the addition or omission of meetings all factor into the outcomes, as well.

It’s about being okay that the choice you make in the present moment may not be the right one, but that you made that small effort to make it with the context of your community and your environment.

In Conclusion

2020 has taught us some of the most important lessons of our lifetime. That is, to slow down, to consciously breathe, and to reflect on one’s self.  We can be that difference in the world through little decisions we make. Being mindful in product design requires making many seemingly little decisions that have big impact. We should try to continuously think through the potential downside of those decisions and most importantly, be empathetic to the wants and needs of the customer at the center of product design.