Design research lessons from the yoga mat

August 24, 2017

I’ve been spending a lot of the time on the mat lately – the yoga mat that is – and have been finding some valuable parallels between what my yoga teachers guide me to do and how to approach a good design research practice. 

While for many people yoga is a physical activity, at its core it is a spiritual and mental practice and the foundation for meditation. Much the same, research is the foundation for good design and there are several lessons from the mat we can apply to a design research practice.

“Root to rise”

This is a common cue in yoga that reminds the yogi to set a good foundation with whatever part of the body is touching the ground. It sounds easy enough, but it requires intention and focus.

This has two parallels with design. First, in a broader design sense, “root to rise” is a good reminder that design should be rooted in humans. When we have a good foundation and “roots,” good design follows. Secondly, related specifically to design research, it speaks to good planning. In yoga, there is keen attention to alignment of all parts of the body for a productive and safe practice.  Similarly, we need alignment on the objectives and questions we will answer in research before we go into the field or we risk getting off-balance.

“Make space”

One of the most difficult things to do in yoga is clear the mind. The best teachers remind yogis to set aside the past or the future and be mentally (not just physically) present while on the mat. I try to make the only voice I hear be that of the teacher, not all the other voices in my head replaying past or rehearsing future conversations.

When we have a good foundation and “roots,” good design follows.

Similarly, field research requires us to be more than “there.” It’s not enough to be physically there, we need to let our minds be fully immersed and not distracted by other commitments, e-mails, or fires. I often remind myself and clients before we dive into field research, “for the next two hours, this person is our teacher and we are their students,” to ground us in the task at hand. 

(Side note: One of the reasons Google’s approach to Design Sprints is so powerful – and fast – is because it forces the team to make space)

“Notice what you notice”

It took me a long time to fully appreciate this cue in yoga. It’s a reminder to take stock of how you’re feeling physically or emotionally and then set it aside without judgement. In a hot yoga class, it’s sometimes the only thing that’s kept me from running to the door!

This is great advice to remember for research. Before we begin field work, we should take stock of our assumptions (or biases) and then set them aside so we can be surprised and inspired. During field work or experiments it is, of course, all about “noticing” and we have tools like video, field books, sensors and debriefs to help our brains remember and notice better. After field work, we can take stock of everything and reflect – hopefully without “judgement” in the negative sense, but in a reflective and open-minded sense. Co-analysis with other team members is a great way to find out where we noticed things differently and add richness to the work.

“It’s a practice”

I love it when a teacher reminds me that we are just “practicing” yoga and that there is no “perfect” way to do it.  Yes, there are ways that are more right than wrong, but there isn’t just one way a pose happens because every practice is different and our flexibility is always changing.

Similarly, design research is a practice and every interview or field visit is different. There are “best” practices but we need to be prepared to improvise. Every project, environment and situation is different and we are different each time we meet a new user. Each field visit gives us the opportunity to learn from past experiences and gain the flexibility to find new ways to understand people.

With that all said, take a few down dogs (or the best pose ever – child’s pose) and a Savasana and leverage a few cues from the yoga mat before your next design research practice.

Namaste.