Dwelling On The Past: The Importance Of Self Reflection (Part 2)

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Victor Yocco, PhD, has over a decade of experience as a UX researcher and research director. He is currently affiliated with Allelo Design and is taking on … More about Victor ↬

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Personal reflection enables us to process and make meaning of all of the great (and not so great) learning and working experiences we’ve had. Everyone stands to gain from engaging in some type of reflection. We can also encourage others to grow through personal reflection. In this article, Victor Yocco will cover some of the benefits of personal reflection, as well as methods of reflecting that you can incorporate into your routine.

Current and aspiring web professionals must continually grow in order to stay relevant. Our field doesn’t allow for stagnation. In part one of this series, I discussed the importance of project retrospectives in facilitating and documenting team growth. We don’t always have the luxury of engaging in team retrospectives, or even of working on teams. Personal reflection provides similar benefits, while focusing on your individual experiences.

Personal reflection enables us to process and make meaning of all of the great (and not so great) learning and working experiences we’ve had. Everyone stands to gain from engaging in some type of reflection. We can also encourage others to grow through personal reflection. I’ll cover some of the benefits of personal reflection, as well as methods of reflecting that you can incorporate into your routine.

Definition And Benefits Of Reflection

Academics in the fields of education and medicine have spent decades exploring the potential benefits of students and professionals reflecting on training and practice, as well as ways to effectively get people to engage in reflection.

There is no one-size-fits-all method of reflection. Similarly, there is no reason to limit reflection to personal or professional experiences.

"Reflection is a generic term for those intellectual and affective activities in which individuals engage to explore their experiences, in order to lead to a new understanding and appreciation." — Boud, Keough, & Walker, 1985

Some researchers argue that reflection is an essential component for anyone in health care. I’d argue that reflection is an essential component for anyone hoping to make the most of their experiences, regardless of field.

Car side view mirror
Reflection enables us to learn from our experiences and to apply what we’ve learned to future experiences.


Researchers have found that reflection can improve understanding of the context you work in, transform perspectives, deepen understanding and help you re-appreciate the job you do (Glaze, 2001). Reflection might also strengthen the relationship between mentor and mentee.

For web professionals, these areas are critical:

  • Improve understanding of context
    We constantly research, design and develop products for use in a variety on contexts. Consultants and freelancers might shift in both context and topic from one project to another. Product teams might have multiple versions or environments of use that they expect users to engage with using their product.
  • Transform perspectives
    Reflection builds empathy, a key component of effective product design and development. Reflection also opens you up to learning from your experiences and facilitating transformation.
  • Deepen understanding
    We work in ever-changing environments, on frequently updating platforms, on a variety of topics. A deeper understanding allows us to effectively understand problems, to design solutions and to communicate our ideas.
  • Strengthen mentor-mentee relationship
    Mentors who model reflection with their mentees might open the way for an enhanced relationship and understanding of each other. Meaningful reflection cannot be forced or faked; therefore, a mentor who advocates for reflection from a mentee will also need to model that reflection. Doing this will encourage more time to be spent together and a shared understanding of what comes out of reflection.

Schön (1983) introduced the concept of the “reflective practitioner,” one who uses reflection as a tool to revisit experiences, both to learn from them and to frame murky, complex problems of professional practice. We can benefit from reflection after critical incidents take place in our projects, when certain milestones are reached or to wrestle with information that we are trying to make sense of.

As web students and professionals, we’d benefit from becoming reflective practitioners. We won’t grow from our experiences if we don’t understand them and make changes based on what we’ve learned. We aren’t able to predict outcomes or solve problems effectively if we don’t expand our understanding of our experiences.

We must reflect on both our successes and our failures. Reflection is not about dwelling on the negative things. Our positive experiences teach us what works well in specific situations and allows us to examine potential transference to other situations.

Reflection helps to ensure that we bring our colleagues into the future with us. We should engage in reflective practice in our roles as mentors with our mentees. We must show the benefits of reflection in a variety of situations in order to develop our reflective practice and to model for others.

Reflection can’t and shouldn’t be forced. Researchers found that college students who are forced to participate in reflective activities often fake it in order to earn credit for the course but end up disliking reflection as an activity.

I can speak from experience on this. I was forced to keep a reflective journal while pursuing my master’s degree. The frequency of reflection (daily) and topics we were forced to reflect upon felt unnatural. My professors did not share with our class the intended benefit of reflection. Reflection was a forced exercise that I engaged in to please my professors. People need to know there are benefits of voluntary reflection in order to facilitate engagement in it.

Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle

Graham Gibbs is an academic researcher who created a model for how effective reflection occurs (see chart below). Gibbs’ model is useful for breaking down the process of reflection into meaningful and manageable steps. The steps are a road map for accomplishing reflection using any form (writing, speaking, art). Gibbs’ model contains six steps, covered in more detail below: description, feelings, evaluation, analysis, conclusion and action plan. You can use these steps to structure an academic-based reflective exercise, skipping and repeating steps as needed.

Steps creating Gibbs reflectives cycle
Gibbs' reflective cycle presents steps that contribute to effective reflection. (Image: Oxford Brookes University)


What happened?

Write a brief description of the event you are reflecting on. Be sure to note significant events in order to reflect on these.

Example: “Today we met with our digital banking client to review preliminary designs. We focused on a workflow for opening an online checking account. We received great feedback on most of the design. The client didn’t like the screens that guide users through depositing initial funds in the account. I suggested we wait to judge it until we conduct usability testing.”


What were you thinking and feeling?

Describe your thoughts and feelings during this time.

Example: “I thought we had nailed the online account opening experience going into the meeting. I was happy with the positive feedback we received. I was surprised the client didn’t like our thinking around funding the account. I was angry when I realized we hadn’t run our designs past a few members of the client’s team before the meeting. I was disappointed in myself for not suggesting this.”


What was good or bad about the experience?

This step begins the critical thinking involved in meaningful reflection. You might see some additional good or bad aspects of the experience, now that you are removed from the heat of the moment.

Example: “It was good that we were able to present most of our design in a way that impressed the client. It was bad that I wasn’t prepared for the client to dislike the account funding screens. It was bad that the experience left me disappointed in myself. It was good that we were able to come to an agreement with the client on the importance of usability testing.”


What sense can you make from the situation?

In this step, go beyond the experience and look to make sense of what happened in the context of other relevant events in your life. Use additional resources that are available from other experiences to make a personal connection with this recent experience.

Example: “After the meeting with the client, I reviewed notes from previous meetings with the same client. I realized they mentioned early on having some specific ideas about how users would initially fund their account. We didn’t specifically address these needs in our design. It makes more sense now why that stuck out as a negative to the client. We also looked over previous designs that we felt were successful in addressing how to fund an account. We might use some of this as inspiration for other options. Other options for this stage include reviewing what other competitors have done or comparative experiences, and getting feedback from other designers not in the project. The hope is to learn from the experience and continually improve.”


What else could you have done?

This step builds on the analysis and prepares you to truly integrate the lessons learned from the reflection. It’s possible you could have done other things, but they would not have been worth the time or effort. You cannot avoid all negative experiences. Understanding what the options were would still be worthwhile, in case you find yourself in a similar situation.

Example: “I could have done a number of things to maximize the design review with the client and avoid the negative aspects of the meeting. I could have reviewed my notes from our earlier meetings and realized that the client had specific expectations around the account funding workflow. I could have brought multiple design examples, to compare options of how different workflows could unfold. I could have met with key members of the client’s team ahead of the review meeting. There are also things I could have done that would not have made sense to do at the time. I could have let the client make all the design decisions, but that’s why they retained our services. I could have told the client that I disagree with their assessment, but I wasn’t prepared with a good argument to support my view.”

Action Plan

If the situation arose again, what would you do?

Now that you’ve reflected, incorporate what you’ve learned, or assess how you would handle this in the future.

Example: “Next time, I might create a document of specific client requests based on meeting notes. This will help me to understand any client expectations that I need to either address in the design or present a case against. I will also make sure to keep the client aware of all design decisions and have a pre-review meeting with key client staff to make sure that what we present isn’t a surprise. Lastly, during the analysis stage, I found a number of experiences — both good and bad — that I would like to bring to the attention of clients. We can use these experiences as concrete examples of things we’d like to accomplish with our design and as examples of what we want to stay away from in our design.”

Gibbs’ cycle is one attempt to explain the process of reflection. You will still need to decide how to go about reflecting.

Non-Academic Ways To Reflect As An Individual

Reflection doesn’t require rules and shouldn’t require much time. Reflection doesn’t have to happen daily, but you should try to include reflection as part of a regular routine. It is something you’ll get better at when you dedicate time and are purposeful. Finding an appropriate time and space to engage in reflection is important and will make the experience better.

Writing is one of the most frequently cited methods to stimulate reflection. You can keep a diary in which you make entries and track your experiences over time. You can engage in written reflection before and after significant events occur, such as taking on a new job or starting a relationship.

Consider using writing prompts, regardless of the frequency with which you write reflections.

Keeping A Reflection Diary Or Journal

Sarah Kauss is the founder and CEO of S’well, the innovative water bottle company. She has grown the company to over $100 million in revenue. She also credits some of her personal success to keeping a five-year journal. Krauss writes her entries on the same page for each date of each year. This allows her to compare what’s changed and what she’s been thinking about over the past five years. She spends a few minutes at the beginning or end of each day recording her thoughts.

A diary is a record of personal reflections. You can review your reflections from the past and add new ones. Keep the diary somewhere easy to locate and use. Create an environment conducive to relaxation and deeper thinking. You might choose to listen to soft music, light a candle, take a bath or follow some other technique to relax and focus on your thoughts.

Picture of a journal notebook and pen
Journaling is a common method of reflection.

Some people keep a diary next to their bed in order to reflect upon waking or prior to sleeping, in the comfort of their bed.

Consistency is critical to gaining the full benefits of reflection. Try to reflect daily, even if only for five minutes.

Using prompts is an effective way to put you in a reflective state of mind. You could use structured prompts, in line with the stages of Gibbs’ model. For example, you could have the following prompts:

  • What is something significant that has happened (since the last reflection)
    • Who was involved?
    • What happened specifically?
    • What were the outcomes?
  • What was I thinking and feeling while this was happening?
  • What were some good things about the experience?
  • What were some bad things about the experience?
  • What other resources can I include in a full analysis of the situation?
    • If I’ve engaged in analysis, what have I learned?
  • What else could I have done during the experience?
  • How would I respond during a similar experience in the future?

You don’t need to use structured prompts. You can free-write whatever comes to mind, and let your thoughts take you where they will. Prompts ensure you have consistency and accomplish the goals of your reflection, but reflecting in less structured ways brings equal benefits.


Ryan Holmes is the founder and CEO of the social media management platform Hootsuite. Holmes has grown the company from seven people to one with offices around the globe. He credits exercise with helping to provide and maintain his perspective as he grew his company. Holmes specifically engaged in yoga, which he calls moving meditation. He says yoga helps him clear his head, process the information he is learning on a daily basis, and come away with a clearer perspective. He advocates for all offices to promote employee exercise as a way to improve health and overall performance.

Researchers have long found mental and physical health benefits to exercise. Taking time away from your daily routine is hard. You will need to schedule exercise at regular periods and stick with it until it becomes a habit. Exercise removes you from the physical space of your desk area, where you might feel tempted to continue working or checking email. Physical movement also increases your endorphins, stimulating a positive mood and facilitating reflection.

The American Heart Association recommends 30 minutes of exercise a day, five days a week. You will need to plan for this time. It won’t happen without forethought. You can choose from a variety of individual and group exercises. Not all require a gym membership or expensive equipment. Greatist has a good list of exercises that you can do if you’re short on time or space.


Marc Benioff, founder and CEO of Salesforce, has grown the company from working out of a rented apartment in San Francisco to a worldwide company with over $8 billion in revenue in 2017. Benioff is an advocate of daily meditation. He has meditated daily for over two decades and has included spaces for meditation throughout one of his company’s newest buildings. Benioff credits meditation as part of what helped him build Salesforce to its current state. During his meditation, Benioff recounts what he is thankful for and tries to empty his mind, opening it up to future possibilities.

Many successful people attribute their productivity in part to time spent meditating. You can meditate solo or as a group. You can use the focus that meditation provides to then channel your thoughts towards reflection once you are done. Or, if you’re like me, your thoughts will drift towards reflection while you are meditating.

Meditation has a large following in both Eastern and Western cultures. There are many resources to help you if you are beginning to explore meditation. Both iOS and Android offer a number meditation applications in their app stores. You might also look into meditating with a coworker or friend, or joining a local mediation group. You can listen to music, use guided meditation, or look for a quiet area and engage in your own reflective meditation.

Spending Time In Nature

Georgia O’Keeffe was an American artist and is considered one of the most influential painters in American Modernism. She created over 2,000 works of art over her lifetime. Her legacy is firmly rooted in the many landscape paintings and drawings she created. O’Keeffe drew her inspiration from nature and landscapes where she spent time. She was known to prefer spending time in nature, drawing both personal solace and vision for new works of art. The Georgia O’Keeffe museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, preserves the artist’s legacy documenting her many nature-inspired works.

The benefits of spending time in nature are well documented. Nature relaxes people, increases positive moods and facilitates a calm state of reflection. Researchers have documented both cognitive and emotional benefits to spending time in nature. They have also documented that we are spending less time in nature than previous generations. We need to make a conscious effort to spend time in nature, away from our desks and computer screens.

You can spend time journaling in a park, hiking a trail or sitting with your thoughts by the side of a river. Wake up early to watch the sun rise, or take your lunch outside of the office. My personal favorite is to have a walking meeting with my colleagues, where we stroll along a path next to a local canal. We combine exercise and nature to stimulate our reflective conversations.

Personal Take: Reflective Journaling

I have a colleague who’s kept a reflective journal over the past few years. They keep their journal on a nightstand next to their bed and try to find 15 minutes a day to journal. Their main purpose in keeping the journal is to track significant events and decisions they make, as a way to document and reflect on their experience.

This colleague has used the journal to reflect on their growth over the last few years. They are now in a more senior position, mentoring junior staff. One benefit they’ve found from their journal is that they can use their journal entries from the past to find common ground with their current mentees’ experiences. They are able to review situations and tasks that they found helpful in growing when they were more junior, and assign these types of tasks to their mentees. They’ve also suggested that their mentees keep a journal to document growth.

I asked my colleague to share tips on how to engage in consistent reflective journaling. They suggested making your time spent journaling feel like “me time.” This means creating an atmosphere in which you are able to focus only on yourself. They also said that journaling might feel forced at first. You will quickly build a backlog of entries. Take time to reread these after a month and see how you feel about what you’ve reflected on and whether you are experiencing positive benefits from reflective journaling. If you see benefits, this will motivate you to continue journaling.

Reflecting As A Group

We aren’t limited to our own resources when reflecting. Individuals benefit from group reflection. We can use the presence of others to facilitate our own reflection, and to help them reflect as well.

Listening groups, or dyads (of two or more people), are a form of constructivist listening, where individuals or groups serve as sounding boards for the individual undertaking the reflection. The purpose of listening dyads is to empower the individual speaking, allow them to make meaning of their experiences, and facilitate personal decision-making. Listeners benefit from a deeper understanding of what others experience and increased active listening skills. It’s a group activity, with benefits to the individual, both speaker and listener. Teams will benefit from listening dyads when interviewing and other in-person data-collection techniques become a part of the user research repertoire.

As with individual reflection, there is not one set way to engage in a listening dyad. Ensure, however, that some ground rules are in place.

First, create a safe space: Don’t judge and don’t interpret what others are saying. Don’t interrupt the speaker. Leave the “Well, actually…” and “I think you should…” statements at home. This is time for the speaker to give their truth, and for listeners to empathize. Everyone should feel comfortable sharing with others.

Decide on the topic or format in advance. You could set the topic in advance or have the speakers set the topic themselves. The advantage of setting the topic in advance is that it allows people to come ready to reflect on that topic. One disadvantage of presetting the topic is that it creates a perception of power — the person setting the topic has the power. If this isn’t a problem, then I recommend setting the topic in advance in order to maximize the time set for reflection.

Give a set amount of time to everyone; equality is the name of the game in a listening group. All speakers should have a set amount of time to speak on the topic. All listeners should have a set amount of time to ask questions. For example, individual A would have five minutes to speak, and then individual B would have three minutes for follow up in a Q&A. Next, individual B would have five minutes to speak, and then individual A would have three minutes for follow-up in a Q&A.

Guarantee confidentiality. This is a must if you want to have successful listening groups. Confidentiality encourages group trust and solidarity. Deceit and division grow when confidentiality is broken.

Once your plans are in place, schedule a time for a listening group session. You can use the following prompts to facilitate your listening group:

  • What’s it like to be you lately?
  • What thoughts and feelings are you carrying about [topic A]?
  • What’s on the top of your mind about [topic B] for you walking into this meeting?

(Note: I’ve adapted prompts from Shane Safir’s article on listening dyads.)

Allow team members to take the meaning they see fit from each session. You could ask team members to track their sessions and any greater understanding coming from them. Review your team members’ opinion on the usefulness of the dyads. You don’t want to discover that everyone is humoring you and that they don’t see any value in engaging in the exercise. Conversely, you could encourage the team to continue making time for listening sessions if some of the team members are documenting value in their development or understanding themselves based on the group discussions.

Personal Take: Reflective Conversations

I’ve engaged in a form of reflective conversation with my managing director for the past four years. We regularly schedule check-in walks. We usually grab coffee and then walk along a canal that runs through the part of the city where our studio is located. The structure of these walks allows me to spend 20 minutes speaking about how I’ve been since the last time we checked in. I’ll discuss my professional performance, any issues I’ve had, what I’ve learned and what I want to focus on in the short and long term.

In the beginning, I was familiar with research but not with UX. Most of my reflection was on how my past experiences conducting research with people engaging in physical experiences now applied to research with people engaging in digital experiences. I began to realize that much of what I’d already experienced applied equally to digital settings. I was able to process what I was experiencing while discussing with my managing director how I would apply my past experiences to current challenges.

Through our conversations, I decided that I wanted to share with colleagues my thoughts on the application of the psychological principle of persuasion to digital design. I decided to give a session on persuasion and design for our company’s monthly speaking series. This also led to the publication of my first article on persuasive design.

I have continued having these conversations with my managing director. The topics have progressed, as have I in my journey in UX. I know that these reflective conversations have positively influenced my professional development and career satisfaction.

Practicing Reflection

Reflection is a powerful tool for finding meaning and processing important information, both personally and professionally. You can reflect individually or with others, but you can’t force reflection on yourself or others. If you are looking to start a reflective practice, don’t get too ambitious. Consider starting with five minutes of daily journaling or taking a 30-minute reflective walk once a week. You’ll need to purposely schedule the time in your calendar to make it happen.

You could introduce reflective activities, either individually or in groups, to your team members. Keep in mind the resentment that students displayed in Valerie Hobbs’ research. You could facilitate your team members’ adoption of reflective practices, and you could explain to them the benefits of reflection. My college professors failed to do this, leading to my lack of acceptance of reflection at the time. You could also suggest scheduling reflection time or running a group reflection meeting using the listening group strategy discussed above.

The keys to effective adoption of a reflective practice are that it be voluntary and that the benefits are clear. Try a variety of methods to facilitate reflection until you find one that works for you.


Further Reading

Smashing Editorial (cc, yk, ra, al, il, mrn)