UX for good and bad habits

Headspace is a really nice app that helps you tip-toeing into the world of meditation. I’ve been looking into ways of improving my focus and trying a few meditation apps seemed a normal part of the process. But meditation, like most beneficial practices, needs to become a habit in order to give any positive result.

Headspace tries to achieve habit formation with push notifications. Each day at a scheduled time the app notifies the user.

Remember to be mindful


It so happens that around the same time I was reading Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, by Nir Eyal. As I was reading it, it seemed to me that the problem of creating addictive apps, or apps that always make us crave for more content and require often our attention, is double-sided. App designers have a big moral responsibility, which grows with the popularity of the app (e.g. the makers of the Facebook or Twitter app have an enormous amount of moral responsibility). Users need to be responsible too: they are expected to not fall prey to easy temptations, for the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.

So for sake of simplification let’s call the constant email checking, timeline-refreshing and instant messaging: bad-habits. And let’s call going for a run, stop eating cakes, or meditating: good-habits.

There’s a curious asymmetry in the way bad-habits and good-habits are dealt with in modern apps. App designers are doing too little to promote good-habits and too much to promote bad-habits. The world would be a better place if it were the opposite. While the problem of reducing bad-habit generating apps is very complex, I feel like it would take very little to improve the chances of instilling good-habits among well-intentioned users.

Take that Headspace notification for instance. It’s designed to appear at the same time every day, always equal to itself. Regularity is required to insert a new practice in your daily routine, but the cue that reminds you to do that shouldn’t be regular and linear. Remember, we’re talking about life-changing habits that require some effort, not an alarm to take a pill. So what happens if you decide to dismiss that notification on day 2? And then again on day 5? And then 6? And 7? Little by little, a new bad-habit is being formed. The boring notification is being ignored. Eventually, the cue will be: when you see that message, swipe it away and continue with what you were doing.

How can we design a digital space that promotes good habits? I think unpredictability would help. Changing the way the notification looks can help. Having a different icon and a different message every time is a good start. Another strategy of more complex implementation could be of reaching the user through also other kinds of channels than push notifications.

Ultimately the product experience should be a crescendo of revelations or rewards whose value is bigger than the inconvenience of changing our habits.

Headspace can also be configured to dispense up to six daily snippets of Zen with the “Mindful Moments” option. Curiously those notifications are semi-random and potentially interesting but the funny twist to the story is that that kind of notifications may end up eroding the very tranquility that they try to instill. It’s always a fine line between helping your users and letting them down!

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