A while back I was researching mobile UX trends on App Annie when I noticed that Calm and Headspace were both in the app store top ten. I was surprised that these wellbeing apps were on a par with Netflix, Tinder and Clash of Clans – you can understand these apps being popular – everyone wants to connect with others or indulge in a bit of casual gaming or a check out the new Dark Crystal series.

I tried to explain it by thinking of them as a more task-oriented app, but they are not exactly Uber or even MyFitnessPal which are intended to assist the user with a task in-real-life, e.g. getting from A to B.

My understanding of meditation apps was that they were self-contained experiences not driven by entertainment needs and not directly connected with a real-life task the user wanted to complete – why were they so popular? I was compelled to investigate further…

How and why are people using meditation apps?

As a UX designer by trade my first instinct was to find a user and start asking questions. I tracked down some meditators to talk to, first off, I asked them how they got started. Some had found it while looking for solutions to a problem such as managing stress levels. Others had come across it while on various kinds of wellness journey, often through an influencer – it’s a very hot topic right now and the more I’ve looked into it the more I’ve found people I know who are doing it.

Everyone felt the apps (Headspace and Calm) were really well designed and enjoyable to use, a lot of effort has gone into making a flexible experience that can fit around the people’s diaries, the most popular time to use it was in the evenings though the flexibility of session length would let the user fit in a short session in the morning. Everyone talked about the amount of content and the variety of topics and themes as well as the celebrity sleep story narrators (*cough* Matthew McConaughey). These companies are actually big producers of short-form content.

I had some interesting discussions about the branding, there are a lot of similarities in how the two apps are structured and how they function, but the branding and imagery is completely different and that creates very distinct feelings from an experience perspective. If you haven’t seen them Calm has beautiful landscape photography and natural world sound recordings designed to create a sense of being ‘at one with nature’. While Headspace uses cute illustrated characters and animations with more minimal audio. For some the nature thing is very appealing and by comparison makes Headspace feel a little cold. However, from the (admittedly small) sample of people I spoke to the Headspace approach worked well, the animations do a great job of explaining the ideas and techniques of mindfulness. I have a theory that layer of abstraction in the experience can help the user to focus internally on their own mind, thoughts and needs.

What is the benefit of these mindfulness experiences?

For me the real insights started to emerge when we talked about WHY they were using them. Reducing stress came up a lot, this was definitely one of the main motivators and everyone reported feeling benefits in this regard from the offset. But also people are looking for ways to switch off and unwind. Ironically it was considered a way to get a break from screens, this was a light bulb moment for me – although it’s a mobile app experience once the actual meditation begins it becomes an audio only experience. Once I had realised this it seemed completely obvious, but these little realisations are why I love working in UX.

Anyway, as well as doing something non screen-based other benefits were discussed like general mood, better sleep and improved memory and just having some time with your own thoughts. One other benefit that jumped out at me was using the ‘fear of flying’ session in an airport toilet before boarding a 4-hour flight, brilliant that it can help with this kind of problem and a benefit I had not anticipated.

One of the things that struck me overall was the sheer belief in the power of meditation, whether they had been doing it for months or years everyone was certain that they had felt a real benefit, this was when I realised that the experiences being created by these apps had real (super) powers to affect the human mind. The time had come for me to see what all the fuss was about …

My journey through space and time (well 10 minutes of time anyway)

It’s Sunday night and I’m sitting on my bedroom floor on a pillow, in the dark. I’ve successfully put my 3 children to bed (although I can still hear them jumping about upstairs, never mind). I open the Calm app and select ‘7 Days of Calm’, a woman welcomes me to a mindfulness programme designed to bring calm, clarity and joy to my life. For the next 10 minutes I do a breathing meditation designed to ‘concentrate the mind’, Tamarra Levitt gently talking me through the process while crickets softly chirp in the background with the sound of a babbling brook. It’s going quite well until I realise I have forgotten to put the kids school uniforms out which completely derails my thought process, oh well.

I have to say the audio experience is very well crafted, the background sounds seem to vary with the time of day which is a nice touch. The voice is very relaxing, though a little reminiscent of a self-hypnosis tape from the 80s – I’m also reminded of when Homer Simpson used an appetite reduction course and the tape got muddled up with a vocabulary builder leading to the classic line “That triumvirate of twinkies overwhelmed my resolve.”

For the next week I meditated twice a day jumping between the introductory courses of Calm and Headspace – which if I’m honest I would probably not recommend as it makes it hard to get used to the different voices. This had come up a bit in my user interviews, personal preference definitely coming into play with the gender and accent of the person you want to accompany you on your meditation journey.

The interface design is great on both apps (though strangely similar…), both have hundreds of hours of content to explore, I assume this has built up over the last 7 or 8 years that they have been going but the breadth and variety of content is undoubtably one of the most appealing factors. I also found the way Headspace lets you adjust the length of the session by increasing the time between the narrating segments very neat. Joking about self-hypnosis tapes aside mobile is the perfect platform for this kind of experience, it allows you to do it anywhere, anytime meaning you can fit it in to your day in a way that suits you. It’s very easy to pick up and put down – dipping into different themes based on whatever topic takes your fancy. I enjoyed both experiences, sometimes the natural sounds of Calm really draw you in while others the more minimal background noise of Headspace is just what you want.

So on to the million-download question – did it actually work? I have to say I was surprised by how effective it seemed to be, even on that first evening I had a great night’s sleep and found I was a lot calmer on the school run that week. Like many this is usually the most stressful part of my day as I try to get three children ready and out of the house for two separate drop-offs while trying not to be late for work.

Final meditations

Based on my research I am not at all surprised these apps are popular. They are well constructed experiences with vast libraries of content, they give the user flexibility and a personalised experience. The basic courses are perfectly balanced to deliver quick benefits and make you feel that the subscription is worth the money. A user I spoke to said it was the only app they had ever paid money for which for me says it all – feeling good and not stressed out is something people really value.

For me the effects feel real, granted I’m sure if you start from a positive position of belief that it will work then the chances of it actually working are higher. The mindfulness movement enjoys a potent combination of high-profile influencers promoting the benefits plus strong word-of-mouth between users. It’s getting bigger and bigger and feels like it is approaching a tipping point of popularity – is this how cults get started?

So what did I learn from a UX perspective?

A few things really stood out in my study of the mindfulness experience – flexibility is key for fitting in around the user’s busy life and giving them a feeling of control. As ever – content is key to driving continued use and keeping a healthy user base. Audio experiences feel like they are in the ascendancy at the moment, particularly with the rise of voice interfaces (scribbles down idea for future blog post) and podcasting.

With the power of the algorithm, mobile apps can create experiences that are unique to the user and deeply personalised to their specific needs. Whether that is a fear of flying, managing pressure on the sports field or keeping their cool while trying to get a child to put their shoes on. Combine this with scheduling, tracking and notification tools and you have created something far more effective than a self-hypnosis tape, you have given the user the power to change their behaviour.

Overall, I think this is the real secret ingredient of success, bringing a real benefit to the life of the user.