Disrupting the Self : The Mindfulness Continuum

At Startupfest Montreal at the invitation of curator extraordinaire Alistair Croll and his amazing sister Rebecca Croll. Tomorrow’s discussion: Disrupting the Self: Lifelogging, Wearable Computing and Society. I promise a deep, context setting and likely provocative discussion with Dulcie Madden, one of the founders of Rest Devices – who provide “human centered devices that make people healthy and relaxed” – including the launch of this sensor-packed babe onesie. 

The Mindfulness Continuum

The Mindfulness Continuum

I’ve been thinking about life logging since the year 2001 – when I had the opportunity to work on the Stress Eraser with an extraordinary team at Frog Design’s New York studio. I was the Managing Director but thanks to a post 9/11 effort to make the organization lean, I got to roll up my sleeves and do project work. Before there was Quant Self and the Lean Startup Experience, we had been engaged to work with a single company founder to build a product and help devise a business for breathing coach device that measured heart rate variability. We applied design thinking techniques- building a hypothesis of the target persona, and interviewing people directly.

In fact, we helped devise what would now be known as a pivot. Our founder entrepreneur had envisioned designing this device to meet the needs of yoga instructors, who would then recommend this device to their client base. But each yoga instructor we met rejected the idea of a device guiding the breathing and relaxation experience. Instead – yoga instructors sought mindfulness – a state of not having to be data driven, and in fact not having to use cognition to achieve a state of rest.

So we then went to the opposite of mindfulness – people who suffered anger management and anxiety issues, who had actually been diagnosed by a clinician and who were advised a course of treatment. While the tenor of these conversations was challenge – it took a while to establish trust and get to the underlying issues, we realized we had found a deep, truly unmet need. These potential customers were struggling to access a sense of themselves that would provide a window into their condition. When we finally tested the prototypes, it was often the first time this cohort was able to connect the effect their actual breathing had on their sense of stress level and anxiety.

The ultimate health was to never need such a device, but there was a substantial and likely growing group of people that needed this assist to cross the chasm – from non awareness to initial awareness. In systems thinking this is called double loop learning  where participants not only get feedback on their decisions and consequences, but over time change their mental models and decision rules. Yet for someone who has a lifetime of unhealthy breathing, eating, or exercising, it may mean that life change will require continuous support for this learning process. (More on single and double loop learning here in a course I teach at NYU ITP – Bodies and Buildings) and this study of meditation and mindfulness by Jerath Barnes and Wright in Frontiers in Neuroscience.

Flash forward to today, and the next 3 years of massive change in the health care sector, and we will see many startups and large companies repeat this exercise, getting that initial target customer wrong, over estimating the desire of people to be gamified into sleeker, healthier, smoke free versions of themselves, and using the wrong triggers. So how to think about the opportunity? Design for Mindfulness. Erika Carlson at Washington University in St. Louis recently published an excellent study on mindfulness as a goal. Drawing from cognitive, clinical, and social psychology, Carlson outlines a theoretical link between mindfulness and self-knowledge that suggests focusing our attention on our current experiences in a nonjudgmental way could be an effective tool for getting to know ourselves better. We will not truly move to a data-driven, transparent future of reduced cost, improved patient experience, and improved health outcomes (The Triple Aim) until we are first able to reach people at the right point on the mindfulness continuum.