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Episode 05

What Do We Really Want from Tech?—Scott Riley

What if technology were designed to work in harmony with what our brains really want? In this first of two episodes with designer and author Scott Riley, host Menka Sanghvi talks with him about his personal journey and challenges with mental health, and what inspired him to write his groundbreaking book "Mindful Design". Warning—Scott speaks honestly and passionately about these subjects, and at times the language in this episode may not be suitable for young ears!

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About the guest

Scott Riley is a designer and developer, an advocate for mental health discourse in tech and the author of Mindful Design: How and Why to Make Design Decisions for the Good of Those Using Your Product.”. He has spent the majority of his career consulting with companies around the world on creating useful, mindful, seamless products that integrate into the lives and lifestyles of humans.

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Episode notes

The conversation begins with an exploration of focus, daydreaming, rumination, depression and the role of intention in all of this. AI Writer is mentioned as a rare example of a piece of software that Scott believes supports the brain in being able to focus in a healthy and natural way. There are several coping mechanisms that help Scott to manage his mind and avoid negative ruminations - including medication, journaling and music. Physical devices that limit options, like an analogue guitar amp, he says also help. “Just being able to have a limited set of controls, rather than the endless digital possibilities has been really grounding!”

Technology, even in its most “accessible” form, is designed to meet our needs only partially and superficially. For instance, if we have a creative urge, or a need for social connection, these can indeed be satisfied by social media but only in a very small way, that is never going to satiate us fully - like snacking on popcorn instead of cooking a healthy meal. Scott is deeply concerned about how this impacts people negatively, not just because of individual differences in capability, but also due to social inequality.

Scott calls for more consideration for all kinds of cognitive load, whether it’s due to mental health, neurodivergence, poverty or racism. In this conversation Menka and Scott take on these complex subjects with respect and humour, inviting listeners to reflect on their own relationship with technology, and consider where design decisions might be harming them.

Menka asks him about his personal journey, and Scott is very open in sharing that mental health challenges have been formative. During his early career in learning design he became fascinated with how our brains work - the two interests coming together in his recent book Mindful Design. He worries that designers are making biased and uninformed decisions, not realising that the products they are shipping are harmful to so many people. Designers assume a level of capability that is not accurate for many people. If their cognitive load is compromised, they’re not as capable of protecting themselves.

Tools and Apps Mentioned

  1. IA writer - a focused writing app.
  2. Orange guitar amps

Resources Mentioned

  1. Mindful Design - Scott Riley’s book
  2. Cocktail Party Effect - The ability to focus one’s attention on a particular stimulus (eg. while talking to a friend in a noisy coffee shop).

Get in touch

Send us feedback, suggestions, or questions about anything you’ve heard or would like to hear:

The Digital Habit Lab Podcast is produced by Menka Sanghvi and Jonathan Garner. Thanks to Jack Fletcher for audio engineering chops and music.

Show Contributors

  • Scott Riley
  • Menka Sangvhi