Mindful by Design

Irene Au is a digital designer who has spent more than two decades bringing empathy to the internet.

Photographs by Blake Farrington

Irene Au is a digital designer who has spent more than two decades bringing empathy to the internet. With her background in human–computer interaction, Au and her design teams have crafted user-friendly digital experiences for leading web service providers. In her work, Au has posed and re-posed one fundamental question: “How do we design experiences that work the way people work?” During six years at Google, Au managed a team of 300 designers and researchers. Currently, she is an operating partner for a Bay Area venture capital firm, Khosla Ventures.

Introduced to yoga and meditation when she was a teenager in South Carolina, Au didn’t establish a consistent practice until 2009, when, with a stressful executive role at Google, young children, and a struggling first marriage, she returned to yoga in search of physical well-being. The benefits for her body and emotional life were palpable and profound. Determined to maintain and deepen her practice, Au enrolled in a teacher-training program. Now, three mornings a week before work, she teaches yoga at a studio in Palo Alto. Au’s grounding in yoga and meditation has reframed her thinking about technology, design, leadership, and business.

Victoria Dawson: Let’s start with design. Why does digital design matter, and how does it relate to mindfulness?

Irene Au: Most people think of design as how something looks—color and fonts. I think of design in terms of usability, usefulness, and desirability. It’s in the background, not flashy or showy. It’s humble and modest and hardworking. But bad design sucks the life out of you; it slows people down and makes them sad.

So, good design puts people first?

Really, the basis of my work has been people. We use anthropological research methods to understand behavioral patterns, motivations, and goals so we can design technology that works the way people work. How do you move people through an experience in a way that corresponds with how they think or how they perceive the world? We have a finite amount of energy. Poor design steals good energy from other things that might deserve our attention more.

That’s ironic, because the internet has seized just that—our collective and individual attention.

The only currency we have is our attention. Last year, I turned off the notifications on my iPhone—and in one month I read four books. That’s an all-time high. Just as we choose to drink sugary drinks or not, or to watch TV all day or not, we can choose to resist the streams of information that are coming at us digitally. We can choose how we spend our attention.

Irene Au working in her home office in Palo Alto, California.

What was your first encounter with technology?

When I was six or seven, my parents bought me a Commodore VIC-20 and then a Commodore 64. I was a computer nerd pretty early on, signing in to bulletin boards and programming in Basic. In 1987, my father brought home one of the earliest Macintosh computers, a Mac SE, and it blew my mind. It was so intuitive and playful, designed to work the way people wanted to work. It unlocked my imagination about what computers could do.

I liked gadgets, so I studied electrical and computer engineering in college and spent those years building robots and designing circuits. When I went to graduate school, I became disillusioned by the idea of technology for technology’s sake. I wanted to figure out how to direct the development of technology toward solving people’s problems. Then I stumbled into this field of engineering psychology and human–computer interaction.

What prompted you to return to yoga?

In 2006, I joined Google. The task there was how to bring empathetic research processes to product development and elevate design quality into a coherent experience for users. At the time, Google was famously engineering-centric—very data-driven and masculine. Empathy and qualitative research and design were countercultural. In addition to an executive role at Google, I had two young daughters and a marriage that wasn’t working. The breaking point came when I realized that I couldn’t sit cross-legged on the floor and play with my children—my hips were too tight.

There was so much suffering, and I needed to dig myself out of it. I sought solace in yoga. I was motivated by physical need, but I came out of it transformed.

A portrait of Au’s family

What changed?

My body and my mind changed, and I started to move through the world differently—with compassion for myself and an ability to be present and calm. I became able to respond, instead of react, to the people around me.

During my first teacher training, we were constantly practicing and meditating. I remember adjusting one of my classmates when a wave of love washed over me—a connection to the spirit or the soul—I don’t know what it was. I grew up in a profoundly atheistic household. My father was a professor of physics, and I was a dedicated student of science and math. But I believe there is a deeper connection. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

How has yoga informed your work as a designer?

With mindfulness, when I come to work, I show up with my best self. I see things more clearly and can better figure out what is most important to focus on.

Practices like meditation and yoga can make designers better designers, or creators better creators. To come up with the most creative solution, you have to know what the point of experience is, you have to generate ideas, you have to have the emotional intelligence to work patiently with stakeholders who might have different viewpoints from yours. Mindfulness practices have helped me become not only more empathetic but also more connected to my heart, and that clarifies design.

Mindfulness is about slowing down and noticing, and design is the art of noticing details. As a designer, you’re constantly noticing the things that sap energy. You’re noticing opportunities for improvement. You’re noticing how people behave and what motivates them. You’re noticing what looks good and what feels right. I keep coming back to this word “clear.” That clarity is crucial for designers.

Au doing yoga

Do you use yoga or mindfulness at work?

When I’ve run hackathons or brainstorming sessions, I’ve opened with yoga and a few mindful moments. Opening up the body at the beginning of a hackathon primes people for being more playful and open to new ideas. I actually coax people to get out of their chairs and move around. If they’re sitting down, the ideas don’t flow as freely. If we’re more comfortable in and connected to our bodies we can let the ideas flow more, be more connected to each other, and have more compassion for each other and each other’s ideas. A lot of the work is about letting go of the ego.

Why yoga and not, say, running or swimming or rowing, all of which might also enhance one’s sense of well-being?

I don’t think there’s any form of physical activity that is as comprehensively balanced as yoga. An hour of yoga offers cardio, strength, flexibility, agility, and balance. A good practice will open up all parts of the body and that is critical for freedom of mobility and for getting your body to function optimally. We’re connecting with ourselves and with our breath in ways that other physical activities don’t necessarily teach. Yes, to be an elite runner, you have to connect with your breath, but yoga explicitly teaches people how to do that, regardless of their level of physical ability. And yoga is grounded in a contemplative tradition that teaches you about getting to know yourself and having a deeper understanding of how to be.