A Mindful Mobile App?

I’ve been watching to see how the “quantitative self” plays out in the “wellness” front. There are lots of interesting ideas and valuable research is being done. E.g., Linda Stone’s Essential Self Technologies, H(app)athon,  and Pentland’s Social Physics.

So I was very interested when I ran across Headspace (“Treat Your Head Right”), which is an app that provides a library of exercises in guided meditation. “Headspace is meditation made simple. Learn online, when you want, wherever you are, in just 10 minutes a day.

The web site tells us of the generally cited benefits of “mindfulness” for feeling better, being creative, focusing, and having a better life. A careful reading shows that the company (“Andy”?) implies, but never specifically claims, that using the Headspace app will help you achieve these benefits of meditation. I have no doubt they believe it. But is it true?

There is abundant evidence that our ubiquitous screens produce the opposite of mindfulness, sucking attention and crating tension, among other hazards.  So, can an app actually help people learn to meditate? Does Headspace really work? And if so, wouldn’t we like to adapt its principles to all our interfaces and devices?

This is more than an academic question: for $12.95 per month, I’d like to know that the product is more than a faith-based placebo.

I’m not being unreasonable. There is plenty of decent research on meditation and its benefits. And there is plenty of research on the effects of using devices and screens. So there should be solid evidence that Headspace works. I looked carefully at the company materials to find this evidence. No luck.

At Headspace we love science.” And they are open to collaboration with researchers. Well, that’s good.

But I find not one citation or even a statement that they have evidence that the app works. I see testimony and anecdotes, but that just tells us that people believe in it, not that it actually does anything for them.

Furthermore, the website and other materials doesn’t even tell us what Headspace is supposed to do for you. It tells us about meditation, and it tells us that Headspace provides lessons, but it doesn’t actually claim that that Headspace will teach you meditation per se, nor achieve any of the benefits of meditation.

Notice the claim I quoted:

Headspace is meditation made simple. Learn online, when you want, wherever you are, in just 10 minutes a day.

Learn what? What is “meditation made simple”? They want us to read this to say that Headspace will teach us meditation, but they don’t actually say that. And when I see statements like CEO Sean Brecker saying, “There’s no proper way of using it. That’s the beauty of the app,” red flags go up.

Do they even know what it actually does?

Once I got in this grouchy mood, I looked at their disclaimers. The Terms and Conditions are all about the software, which is provided “as is”. This is normal for any software, and not too reassuring. The content itself (i.e., the “lessons”) is not guaranteed to be or do anything specific, although they take care to tell you that it is not medical advice.

All in all, the picture is pretty clear to me.

Whatever this app actually does (other than collect your money), some people like it. That’s fine. People who already meditate may find it a useful tool. That’s fine, too. Does it teach meditation to a novice? (In 10 minutes per day?) Likely not. How could it, really?

Do the benefits exceed the negative effects of spending another 10 minutes with your device? I doubt it. For that matter, how do the effects of using Headspace compare to turning off your phone for ten minutes per day?

Is there any there, there? I don’t see anything except carefully phrased testimonies.

Quel dommage! I would like to know how to design mobile apps that help people be at least calm and thoughtful, if not mindful.

This isn’t really an Inappropriate Touch Screen case, it is just an app that doesn’t do what it should.

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