Yep, I said yoga. I’m a yogi through and through, which means I can apply yoga to basically anything in life — but I’m serious when I say yoga teacher training taught me some really practical applications for digital product design.
This year I started my 8-month training program to become a yoga teacher. This is such a great experience as it allows me to deepen my practice, learn essential leadership skills, and gain useful knowledge about anatomy, movement, and overall life philosophy.
One thing I didn’t expect however, was that yoga would also teach me so many great lessons for my day job.
As a Web Content Specialist working on a user experience team, building digital platforms seems like a fixed thing, with specific rules and methods. But the truth is, we’re building experiences, just like yoga teachers do, and the deeper I got into my training, the more connections I started to see.
Here’s a breakdown of some of my most interesting comparisons between yoga and product design:
Accessibility and Modifications
Probably THE most applicable and tangible lesson I have learned from yoga is around accessibility, and designing a class that works for all kinds of people. Accessibility isn’t just about modifying poses for students with disabilities or specific injuries, it’s about designing a yoga class that students can participate in fully and enjoyably and achieve the intended results of each pose, regardless of how they’re feeling in that particular moment (physically or otherwise).
One important philosophy my lead trainer follows is a concept called kramas or levels. This means that he teaches poses in the most accessible way first (the lowest krama), then gradually adds more challenges as the pose is repeated throughout the class. During the process, students are given permission to explore with these additional kramas, or remain at the level that is most comfortable to them. For more complex poses, they are taught from more of a “workshop” perspective, breaking down each movement.
Digital products can be built the same way. Core functionality (i.e. the most accessible version of the pose) should be provided to users in the easiest way possible, right from the beginning. Some more complex features may need to be introduced to users through an on-boarding module or tutorial (the workshop). Then, as users get more comfortable with the application, additional kramas or features can be gradually provided to more advanced users.
Accessibility also has the more common interpretation when applied to yoga. As yoga teachers we are VERY aware of injuries, disabilities and limitations in the classroom. This means that we are hands-on about accessibility. If a posture or sequence is known to be more difficult, we will always provide options and props to make the pose easier for students who need it (e.g. using a block under the hands for balancing folds). If a student has a very particular condition, such as pregnancy, we may offer a whole different posture altogether that stretches the same muscles.
As designers we need to provide those extra options, and alternatives for users that can’t perform a certain task altogether. If a user is only able to or simply wants to use a keyboard, adding proper tab order to pages is like modifying a pose. Sometimes a whole other alternative is necessary, such as in data visualizations where providing a table should complement a graph, even though they provide the same information.
Yoga is very inclusive and is all about adapting to students’ needs and limitations. Digital products should do the same, providing modifications where available, and allowing users to adjust their own experiences to be as comfortable and easy as possible.
The Practice of Non-Attachment
Yoga isn’t only about breathing and postures, but also provides some pretty tangible guidelines for living a good life. One of these guidelines (called yamas) is aparigraha or non-attachment.
Aparigraha teaches us that holding on to things (physical or otherwise) limits us in profound ways. Attaching our identity to certain stories, objects or ideas limits our potential in making decisions or in artistic ventures. Aparigraha philosophy also notes that focusing on the process rather than the outcome leads to better results and provides more flexibility to make changes or discover things along the way.
In design, it’s important to remember that our designs eventually become tangible, physical things. Although design is subjective and a piece of yourself can easily get integrated into each work, ultimately we have to let go of the product, whether it’s “final” or not.
Non-attachment could be an excellent practice for designers, specifically when receiving feedback. By not attaching our identity or sense of self-worth too closely to our designs, we are better able to receive feedback objectively and make necessary changes.
Aparigraha also has a sense of freedom to it and an exploratory nature. Even though product design should be solution oriented, it is also nice to remember that we do have a lot of freedom to explore in our designs and to see what works or what doesn’t without being too attached to the outcome.
Designing Solution-Oriented Flows
Assessing Pain Points
When students enter a yoga class, they often have specific aches and pains. Some of these pain points are injuries that have been diagnosed, but many pain points students don’t actually know how to describe.
Like in yoga, your digital users enter a space looking for a specific solution to their aches and pains in whatever task they are trying to achieve. They don’t necessarily know what the best solution is, and often, they may not even be able to articulate the pain accurately. It’s your job as a yoga teacher, or as a designer, to assess this pain based on what you can see and hear, and design a solution accordingly.
Yoga, and the anatomy behind it, also taught me that aches or pain often stems from a different source than you would expect. The source of the pain isn’t always the location of it, sometimes the pain arises from a peripheral muscle, joint or even something emotional. The same is true for users’ pain points. They may describe a particular issue to you when using a digital service, but the source of this problem is actually elsewhere.
It’s on you, the yoga teacher or the designer, to ask the right questions and to assess the pain based on what your user gives you. Then you need to apply your knowledge and research to explore the real causes of the issue. You aren’t necessarily responsible for diagnosing, but thinking about the source of an issue can help you design a better solution.
Designing your Flow
The second step, of course, is to design a workflow (or vinyasa flow), to address these particular pains. Sometimes we are able to do this individually, but more often than not, we are trying to provide solutions to many users at once in a group setting. When sequencing a yoga class, the teacher’s goal is to design a sequence or flow that addresses common pain points among the largest number of students, and then make modifications for individuals when possible.
I think the same can be said for designing products. When looking at our users’ pain points in the aggregate, we can then start to design a workflow that will address most common problems, then make custom adjustments when possible for those users with particular “injuries” or use cases.
Overall, yoga is about creating a great experience for your students. Some students are seeking relief from pain or stress, while others are simply looking to get a bit of exercise and have fun doing it. Whatever your student is seeking: the goal should always be to create space (emotionally and physically) for students to explore and to leave better than when they came in.
As a yoga teacher, or a designer, the goal should always be to have people leave the space feeling better than when they came in.
Product design has the same goal. Some products are designed to solve particular problems and offer solutions to make daily life a little easier for its users. Design is meant to be easy, solution-oriented, but also fun and exploratory.
If you think of your product as a physical space, like a yoga studio, how should the user feel when they enter? What kind of interactions will they have within the space? What thoughts, behaviour and emotions will arise throughout the flow? Both yoga and using a digital product evoke so much more than just the physical action of clicking buttons or moving through postures. Different things happen during this action that relies on the user/student’s emotional state, context, and past experience.
As a yoga teacher, we must think of EVERYTHING; the lighting, the music, the smells in the room, the texture of the floor, the sequence of poses, the language we use, and the tone and volume of our voice. We should take the same care when building products; consider the visual feeling, the workflows, the tone of your content, and the feeling your users will have when they leave.
Bringing it All Together
Overall, yoga and digital design are seemingly worlds apart, but it’s amazing to discover the connections between the two. As I get deeper into my training and my personal yoga practice, I learn valuable lessons that can be applied to many aspects of my life, including my day job!
At the end of the day, both yoga and digital design are all about creating great experiences for the people you are trying to serve, even if the methods to do so are quite different. Yoga uses ancient and proven knowledge to create experiences, but also creativity and exploration. Design uses evidence-based patterns and user research but also the designer’s own tastes and ideas to create a complete product. Both professions are there to guide the intended audience and create an environment that allows to user to leave feeling peaceful, accomplished and refreshed.