Season 3, Episode 5: Tech, Meditation, and Leaving a Legacy with Jay Vidyarthi

March 05, 2024

Stephanie Werner: Welcome to FCAT after school, a podcast from SFU’s Faculty of Communication, Art and Technology. In each episode, we join student hosts in conversations with alumni as they explore career journeys since graduation, and gather advice for the next generation. In today's episode, student host Emma Jean speaks with Jay Vidyarthi, a user experience designer and graduate of SFU School of Anteractive Art and Technology. He is the founder of Still Ape, a design firm that only works with organizations with compassionate missions. Listen in for a conversation about how meditation practice influenced Jay’s work, the long arc of time, and how to find what fuels your fire.

Jay Vidyarthi: I went to their office on the first day. And we were starting off this project where we were going to kind of redesign the application and website, and he brought the team together and ironically, sort of just announced to the team that the main goal of the project was to make him rich. And you know, my heart just broke.

Emma Jean: Think about what you want to be when you grew up, before you maybe had to work for people who just wanted to get rich. A firefighter, an astronaut? It probably changed a lot. For me, I want it to be a singer, newspaper reporter, a pharmacist, a politician. A bit all over the place, like any product of a kid's imagination, but looking back, I think I can see a common thread: a desire to creatively reflect the world as I saw it, perhaps as I wanted it to be. Except for the pharmacist bit– I have no idea where that came from. But that thread, that motivation to consider all those different paths is still key to what drives me today. I know that whatever we leave behind on the Earth will be the product of these threads. Today's guest has made his own thread integral to his career and the body of work that he hopes to leave behind.

Jay Vidyarthi: I don't work on anything that isn't related to what I want to see in the world in terms of more well being more wellbeing, more compassionate, more mindfulness. And for those of us who are into tech, that might immediately call to mind the fact that most technology does the opposite.

Emma Jean: That voice you hear belongs to Jay Vidyarthi.

Jay Vidyarthi: I'm the founder and president of Still Ape, which is as far as I know, the world's first UX design firm that focuses exclusively on mindfulness, compassion, and well being. As you might imagine, I'm also meditation practitioner myself, it's a big part of my life. I did a master's degree at SIAT at SFU and that was where I first successfully integrated those personal passions for contemplative practices and meditation, with my growing design practice, and it's just been a kind of joy and kind of beyond my wildest expectations that I would actually be able to have a career like this, and if I can help anyone else, find that integration, it has been a huge source of wellbeing for me and I wish that upon everyone that they can integrate their personal passions with their work in the way that I've somehow miraculously been able to do.

Emma Jean: As a user experience designer, Jay is dedicated his career to cultivating digital designs that connect human beings back to themselves, rather than as tools of escape from our own minds. After all, technology can be a beautiful thing. Jay knows as well.

Emma Jean: What was it that first got you interested in user experience design? What was it that first piqued your interest in that field?

Jay Vidyarthi: I grew up into technology, I was a– I'm like an elder millennial. I'm almost 40. And so you know, I was one of the first generations with all the home console gaming, and I was super into games. Fantasy Three was like one of my earliest memories of just being like jaw on the floor of how incredible this game was.

CLIP: Final Fantasy Three start-up menu 

Jay Vidyarthi: So I'm playing with all these games growing up, and obviously at the time, a lot of the wisdom when I became like a teenager would suggest that I should be kind of into engineering. But there was something else that was kind of happening where I was really into psychology. I had close family members that dealt with mental health issues, significant ones and some of those actually helped me realize, I think, at a younger age than we usually do as humans, that our perception shapes our reality. And so I got really curious about psychology and I was into technology. And so in my high school years, I started reading about cognitive science and some of that abstract intersection between psychology and technology. You know, I did some science education at McGill University in Montreal, dropped out of school to play music for a while, which is a different story, then came back. And I came back with this kind of renewed faith that I need to sort of go for what I'm interested in. And I went hard into neuroscience and psychology, and there was a professor there who taught cognitive science who invited a industry speaker, to come and speak at the school, and that person worked in what was called at the time of usability; they didn't really have the term user experience mainstream, but it was usability. It was like usability engineering. We're gonna, like, make this easy to use. I was really fascinated. And I was also excited because I was like, here's psychology and technology. This is what I was really looking for, not the abstract academic psychology technology. But this is like practical. Like, I remember there was a case study of designing the cockpit of a plane. So it would be easy to use for the pilots and understand and to reduce training time, but also to mitigate errors, which would be catastrophic if they happened in a plane, right? We don't want pilots making errors as a result of poor design. And I was just fascinated. And yeah, I've always loved the empathy of it, the process of understanding people in order to make technology better. That was always something that inspired me and I was one of those designers that looked around the world, and just constantly saw failure in this category. Like, we have a long way to go in terms of usability and design and so I was passionate about that, from the beginning.

Emma Jean: That passion was soon able to evolve into an academic pursuit, which brought him to see Europe and a different stem of usability than he was used to.

Jay Vidyarthi: Just as I was discovering the field of usability, I have gotten an undergraduate thesis project accepted, which was like in very academic psychology. So like, I was just intellectually and personally moving away from that, but it was an opportunity to go like to Europe. And so I'd never been to Europe. And I was like, Okay, well, I've got to go. Right. But thankfully, that professor was really open minded and flexible. And so I went there, I think I was working on the psychophysics of sound perception. This might be useful for people who are undergrads right now, is like, I was doing psychophysics of sound perception because I thought, well, I like music. I like sound. I like psychology, I like technology. If I just add these things together, that is the psychophysics of sound perception. So I'm probably going to love that. But I totally didn't. That's just not how it works. But I went to do the project, I had a great time in Europe. And while I was there, my professor, I kind of told him about this new interest in usability and he gave me the opportunity to work on the usability of the science experiment. So I got a chance to kind of taste usability in that context. So Evan Balaban, wherever you are, thank you so much for that opportunity! And so when I came back, I was even more sure that I wanted to explore this. So when I finished my undergrad, I started looking for jobs in usability. But someone was like, just try to talk with a lot of people and ask for help. So don't try to like apply, you know, because you can get so caught up and just like looking at the job listings. And that's an illusion, because if a job reaches the job listings, it means they've already looked through their networks, and they haven't found someone and now they're desperate. You should just reach out and be like, you know, I'm young, I'm hungry, I'm passionate about this field. And one day, I want to be like ‘can we chat for 30 minutes?’ just get to know them and understand them. And I did that I talked with a bunch of people. And one of the people I talked about was a founder of a usability consultancy in Montreal. And I don't know, we just had a great connection and a great spark. And then she invited me to come meet the team. And I actually came and I presented the work that I did in Italy and they hired me on the spot. And I remember the other founder of the company was like this is like a small boutique consultancy was like, ‘Listen, you don't have any of the skills that we need yet. But we can just tell you're into this. And we can tell that you're smart. And so we're going to do a bit of a pilot period. But your goal is just to learn quickly, and try to be as useful as you can. And then three months or something will kind of assess’ and, within three months, I was contributing realistically. And that became my first job and I worked there for five years before I pivoted and came to SFU.

Emma Jean: Interesting. What did you see as the main differences between designing and working with usability from an academic perspective to when you started working on a hands on kind of entrepreneurial startup sort of consulting perspective?

Jay Vidyarthi: Yeah, I think it's different for everyone but I was really motivated by the direct impact on people both including the users of that technology, who literally are using the technology today. And if we ship an update, it will make their experience better tomorrow, which is just the complete opposite of how things feel in academia, sometimes where it feels like maybe no one will ever read this. And if they do, maybe in four years, it's like, you know, the other thing is like that feeling of direct interaction with a client who's paying you directly to fix a problem. And you fix that problem and you see the smile on their face, and they challenge you. And they say, that's not what we're looking for. And you'd go back and forth, it's just really, it just felt a lot more real and a lot less abstract. You know, understanding yourself is essential to knowing which of these systems might be a better fit. Like, if you are someone who needs that immediate engagement and someone to challenge you, the client is going to run you through the rails. And if you'd like that, that's going to help you. And if that really scares you, then academia is a place where you're going to get space, and more time, but a little bit less direct motivation and engagement as well. So it's up to who you are.

Emma Jean: The Jay in that moment was looking for a little less conversation and a little more action. So he continued his professional life as a designer.

Jay Vidyarthi: Yeah, so fast forward, four or five years at this consulting job in Montreal, worked on a number of projects, still loving the design process. But getting a little bit disempowered with some of the projects I'm working on. You know, there's one that I always point out as, like, I don't know, it was just a very impactful moment for me where a client hired us to do this kind of design, usability, UX work, they asked for someone to go on site to their office, and that someone was me. And so I went to their office on the first day. And we were starting off this project where we were going to kind of redesign the application and website, and he brought the team together. And, ironically, sort of just announced to the team that the main goal of the project was to make him rich. And, you know, my heart just broke. And I was like, he was laughing, and I was laughing was a joke. But you know, I wasn't very wise yet. But I was wise enough to be like, This is not a joke. That is actually the goal of this project. And it's just I'm so not motivated. My view of a lot of these projects we're working on started to crumble, because I realized, I wasn't I didn't really care about a lot of the projects that I was working on. And I was getting skilled enough in design, that I knew that what I was working on was showing up in the world. And I realized that kind of the burden of being a creative person is that you want to put things in the world that you can stand behind, that you're proud of, that you feel like move the world in a direction that you want to move. And in my case, I really wanted to kind of help people I had this– I didn't have the word for it at the time– but this feeling of compassion, where I'm like, I want to design the world to be a better place. That was my initial motivation was like about mental health, like I just want this world to be a better place. And I know we can do better. I don't want to make a bunch of these people rich or help this giant company sell more insurance, or whatever it is, this isn't motivating me. And so that's when I kind of made the decision to explore. And that eventually led me to have some conversations with different graduate schools. And I had a conversation with some professors at SIAT, and they seemed open to me exploring mental health and mindfulness. Specifically, I was growing in my practice as a meditator. And that kind of was I was like, Okay, let's go do this.

Emma Jean: This is when Jay started to pursue UX design work that was in line with his personal commitment to mental health advocacy and meditation, which he now refers to as compassionate work. Looking back at his early consulting portfolio, he realized that these kinds of projects were the only work that truly fueled him.

Jay Vidyarthi: All I knew was that most of these projects were draining me and demotivating me, except for two. There were two projects that I looked fondly upon in those four or five years. One was a project for the United Nations, helping them rebuild their Institute for statistics, so people around the world could get information they need to make policy changes. And the other was for the Canadian Institute of Health Information, which was also an information database for healthcare practitioners in Canada to access what we understand about healthcare statistics. So either I was really motivated by helping people or I really loved statistics. And I certainly didn't really love statistics. So I was like, okay, something about like working on projects, where I feel very clearly like I'm helping people is like motivating me. The other thing I didn't have the lens for at the time, but now I believe fervently. And I believe it for you, Emma, and for all the people that are listening to your podcast, which is like, we need 30 or 40 years of Emma doing her best work and trying to help people. And so if you take on a project this year that puts your fire out that's a problem. That's a problem for our society. And that's what it looked like at the time when I made the decision. I was like, I don't know what's going on, I'm certainly giving up a big paycheck to go to see it. But something over there is an opportunity for me to look into something that really feels like it's gonna light my fire up. It was an essential turning point for my career and where I am now.

Emma Jean: Interesting. What was it that you developed through see it that you think was most important to where you are now? And what you've built in the years since?

Jay Vidyarthi: Yeah, I think there's a couple of ways to answer that question. The first thing I'll say is, you know, all the other people that were in the graduate program with me, I can easily group, our cohort, at least, into the people that, like, came in with a clear mission and agenda. And the people that came in and hoped the school would give them a mission. But there were a couple of people who, like me, came in and were like, ‘I'm here specifically, because this design career is not lighting me up. And I want to apply my skills to something that lights me up. So I'm here to find out more clearly what lights me up. And I'm here to pursue it aggressively.’ That was like my mindset. And I recommend that like, I think it's easy for us, especially with the school system to kind of disempower us about our own fate. But really, the school is just a structure, it's really going to be what you make of it.

Emma Jean: What Jay made out of that structure was a set of fully formed designs in line with his passions.

Jay Vidyarthi: I did a number of projects there. And then the main kind of capstone project was this project called Sonic Cradle, basically, interaction paradigm designed to simulate the attentional loop of mindfulness meditation through design, in a way that you wouldn't instruct people that they're going to meditate, just go try this thing out, go sit inside a cradle. And the interaction paradigm would meditate that you know, and I wanted to measure whether that was possible with technology. And so basically, with a lot of iteration and fun design process stuff, I got to kind of tweak and play and eventually the the final Sonic cradle chamber was basically a sensory deprivation chamber with like a hammock where you'd like comfortably suspended horizontally, and we had speakers around it and a subwoofer under you. And you basically used a breathing sensor to compose music, but the only controller was your breath. The idea was, you come in in a playful, creative mindset as opposed to a ‘I need to get better on my well being and force myself to meditate’, like you just want to play. Your breath is the controller. So you keep bringing your attention back to your breath, as you try to figure out how to play in this curious way. And then eventually, your mind wanders, because you know, it's, you're in there for 15, 20 minutes, the music is going and you kind of relax. But when your mind wanders, your breath changes to a kind of autonomic breathing rate. And the system detects that and starts to get quieter. And then you start to notice of the sound is getting quiet as you bring your attention back to your breath.

Jay Vidyarthi: I was pretty confident I was just going to do this kooky project and then go back to work at the consultancy. But I managed to get a bunch of press attention and academic publications and was able to use that to pivot my career into continuing in this in this field.

Emma Jean: This field being the world of mindful design. In the years since attending SIAT, Jay started working exclusively on projects that work to create the mindful, thoughtful world that he wants to see.

Jay Vidyarthi: I was exposed to meditation at a young age, before I came to see out I was already sort of exploring it a little more deeply. And then going to see it was an opportunity for me, you know, I had space, that's one of the things that SFU provided me with, which was like, I wasn't just under the gun on all these deadlines, I had some space to to learn and explore. So while I was taking classes, I was also going on my first silent retreats and, and reading lots of books about meditation as well as about science and design and technology. Right. So, you know, my publications, I was citing the science of meditation as much as I was citing design work. I kind of proved to myself, that technology wasn't the opposite of meditation that it was possible to use technology in service of awareness and mental health and well being. I started to apply that idea into my career, joined a startup, launched a product called Muse, the brain sensing headband, which was like a brain sensor for meditation.

CLIP: Muse Advertisement 

I understand those benefits of meditation. But when I try it, I'm not sure if I'm doing it right. When I meditate with Muse, I get real time brain sensing feedback to help me improve my practice. Meditation made easy.

Jay Vidyarthi: Muse gives you a score based on your brain state, which is a really motivating thing, but it can also be a tool for self judgment. And self judgment is not helpful in meditation. So I one of my big tasks when designing the Muse experience was trying to figure out how do we motivate people without making them judge themselves because if they're judging themselves, they might begin compulsively into getting a high score, but not actually relaxing in an awareness practice, right? So you fast forward to Healthy Minds program, which is a free app that I've helped create. By the time I showed up there to help, you know, I'm able to kind of thread that needle a little bit better to understand how we can use technology and design and create a user experience that really well serve people and avoid some of the pitfalls and the ideas that might come up.

Emma Jean: Jay grew and his experiences not just in design, but with a budding interest in the business side of UX work.

Jay Vidyarthi: Yeah, so I never ever saw myself as an entrepreneur. But one of the things I said when I joined muse was I was like, this might be an opportunity for me to see what a startup is like, and if I really like it, and I look at the founders and learn from them, and maybe I can start my own business later.

Emma Jean: The project that Jay directs his time into these days to develop products and organizations with the same values and goals that he's proud of stuff is still ape, his previously mentioned design consultancy firm that only works on projects with compassionate missions.

Jay Vidyarthi: One of the theses that I had was, ‘can I support my family without compromising on my values? Can I only freelance and work on projects that aligned with this?’ And as it turns out, not only was I able to achieve that, I started to bring other freelancers on board to come and help with these projects, you know, and I think it was 2020 or 2019 when we rebranded into an agency, called ourselves a team and incorporated the business Still Ape. We only work on projects related to wellbeing, so we amass and come together. When there's an organization in this space that really needs our expertise, we help them bring things to market, we help them test what they already have in market. We help them iterate and design in a human centered design way where we're really making it connect with their target audience more, and helping them clarify who their target audience is and how to find that elusive product market fit.

Emma Jean: These elements of Jay's personal and professional priorities all converge in his upcoming book, which he was in the process of writing as we spoke.

Jay Vidyarthi: Basically, it's kind of like a guide to understand with nuance that technology is not the enemy. mindlessness is the enemy. And technology. A lot of it promotes mindlessness. But we don't have to let it do that. At the same time. If we try to abandon technology altogether, and we lose all the benefits of it, we live a life of shame and guilt and resistance because this is a technological world. Ultimately, what I realized was, I look up to all these incredible mindfulness teachers who have taught me so much about how to be a person, you know how to be in a mind. A lot of them say technology is evil, they kind of like imply the technology is bad and ruining our state of mind. They're not wrong. But they're also not people who grew up on video games, and aren't aware of the incredible joy and connection that those of us who love technology get from it. And so as I started to see this widening divide, where most people are basically, in tech all the time using tech compulsively using tech or even accelerationist, who work in tech, trying to just solve all problems with tech. All the wellness people like my peers in the mindfulness are becoming like anti-tech. And that's where I saw this opportunity to create something that might help people find the nuance those of us who love technology, and still want to live mindfully. That's who the book is for.

Emma Jean: Think of the future. What does it hold? How do you imagine today's technology, its advances cutting edge features, flights of fancy is inconceivable potentials will look tomorrow, my generation will be at the edge of it, the next generation will be at its heart. To close our conversation, I wanted to know how Jay wants his work to shape the future, as in his own and ours as a global collective, and how that changed when he became a father.

Jay Vidyarthi: I find it kind of surprising that a lot of parenting stuff did come out when I was in the writing process. I write in my book a little bit about how like, the lessons that I've learned parenting my child are just as useful for parenting my inner child around technology. And that's kind of what I hope for is that we're all able to find a healthy relationship with technology where we can put up boundaries where we need to put boundaries, we can have the awareness where we know when something is getting too sticky for us and destroying our quality of life, but without sacrificing all the things we love about technology. There should be no guilt for you to go watch a TV show tonight or even watch two episodes or something you shouldn't feel like you're wasting your time. There's some great shows out there and they're really inspiring and beautiful and we feel big emotions and it's not evil to go play a video game or to watch a show or to use social media. But we all know these things can get further. ‘How do we find that middle way’ is something that I want to help. I want to help people find it I want to find for myself I want to help my son find and I write about that a lot in the book.

Emma Jean: The act of writing a guidebook and parenting himself and his son through a technological world aren't momentary concerns for Jay. From his view, there are seeds planted for a future world that he won't see, hoping that they will grow to connect us to ourselves and others, blossoming alongside it growing digital world. Hopefully.

Jay Vidyarthi: So in terms of technology for mindfulness, I have this vision that as technologists, we are going to, I don't know, to put it lightly, get our shit together and stop creating technologies that are destroying our mental health, or pillars of our democracy. We're going to fix the incentives and find a way to create technologies that really serve us. And it's a really lofty goal, it runs counter to a lot of the incentives that are currently out there, but bigger changes have happened.

Emma Jean: [laughs]

Jay Vidyarthi: I know, small goals, right?

Emma Jean: Underacheiver!

Jay Vidyarthi: One thing that helps me stay motivated with these lofty goals is that I really am taking a view, especially when I hit 30, of like, the long arc of time, my new frame is to be a good ancestor is to say that I'm going to do this work, because I believe in it. And I'm going to fully accept that I may die before someone picks up this book, or uses one of these technologies or reads one of these things and has the moment that leads to the change that we need and hit some of these lofty goals. So I don't think these are goals that I'm going to hit by myself. I think that me and an amazing community of peers, as well as peers that are babies now, are going to contribute to this cause that are eventually going to lead to that positive change, right. So I hope that I guess I have a lot of faith in young people, like yourself, and the people at SFU to carry the work forward. And I feel like my role is to just plant seeds, just like the people before me planted seeds. And you know, maybe someone who's not even born yet, is going to be 23 and they're going to pick up my book along with a bunch of other books from so many years ago. And they're going to look at the techno-society they're in and they're going to realize, oh, there was a time before this and something went wrong and we need to undo this and start a political movement and get power and make some big changes, and I'll be in the ground by then. And that vision is something that helps me stay motivated and helps me stave off any self criticism or doubt to work on what I believe in.

Emma Jean: The long arc of time… it’s a grounding idea. How are my actions today contributing to it, for better or for worse? Jay's path to get to where he is today and where it will lead him into the future speaks to it as a sort of north star, a guide. When the here and now seems chaotic, uncertain, perhaps it's best to fix our gaze on what it's all for, even if our focus is figuring out what that should be. Made always guide us to where we need to be.

Stephanie Werner: If you’d like to hear more from Jay and get updates about his upcoming book and ongoing work, check out his Substack: Attention Activist. That’s attention activist, all one word, dot substack dot com. If you’d like to experience what technology-assisted meditation is like for yourself, check out his smart phone app, Healthy Minds Program, wherever you download your apps.

FCAT After School is produced by Emma Jean, Torien Cafferata, and Stephanie Werner, with help from Stu Popp and Tessa Perkins Deneault. We respectfully acknowledges the Musqueam, Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, Katzie, Kwikwetlem, Qayqayt, Kwantlen, Semiahmoo and Tsawwassen peoples, on whose unceded traditional territories our three campuses reside, and where many of the stories shared in our series take place.

If you enjoyed this episode, make sure to leave us a rating and subscribe to FCAT After School wherever you listen to podcasts. You can follow us on social media at FCAT at SFU. That's F C A T @ SFU across all platforms.

For feedback or guest suggestions, reach us by email at: F cat ENG @ All links in the show notes. See you next time.