Calm, the anti-app

4 min read
Sean Blanda
  •  Apr 2, 2019
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Chris Delbuck, Calm’s Head of Product Design, has seen the other side of the equation.

On previous projects, he’s had to maximize for scale and get as many people as possible using an app. But after a few years of thinking about how to go big, he had a self-described “internal reckoning.” He started to think about what it would look like to optimize not for the number of users—but for impact.

“A lot of people like to say, ‘we’re changing the world for the better!’ but actually finding companies and people with that mission and taking it to heart with what they are building is a bit tougher,” he said.

Meet Chris Delbuck

That’s why he’s found a home at Calm, Apple’s 2017 iPhone app of the year, and the meditation application that aims to ease you from your phone addiction. Or help you sleep better. Or help you manage your fear of flying.

The app itself is a quiet space: no ads, no pop-ups. The only notification the app sends is a once-daily reminder of the promise you’ve made to yourself to take a break for meditation.

Calm has slightly different incentive structure than most of the apps on your phone—and that presents some design challenges.

“As tech addiction continues to bubble up to the mainstream, digital products will have to continue to grapple with business goals, user growth, and design that is ethical and responsible for the long term health of its users.”

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“[Using this app is] kind of like software patches and firmware upgrades on ourselves,” says Delbuck. “We’ve been detached from investing in our physical and mental health and digital devices have had a monumental impact on that.”

So we asked Delbuck what’s different about Calm’s team and how they define their “atypical” goals.

The Calm Team Retreat 2019. Photo by: Kaare Iverson

1. Calm prioritizes sessions completed as a KPI over total hours

When you open Calm, the layout is reminiscent of, say, Spotify. But the goals aren’t the same. While other “content” apps want you to poke around and listen or watch as much as possible, Calm has to optimize for the opposite experience.

“For us, it’s not about continual engagement for hours on end,” he says. The team doesn’t measure success by total hours. Instead, data like sessions per week and program completion are better metrics. This is especially useful because some people will use the app’s music feature all day, while others prefer a 10-minute meditation session before moving on with their day. “Total time” metrics will be all over the place.

“While other “content” apps want you to poke around and listen or watch as much as possible Calm has to optimize for the opposite experience.”

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“All kinds of users are accounted for, so it’s definitely a much different and complex problem than other retention planning that I’ve done,” he says.

2. Calm optimizes some user flows for turning off the screen 

Some of Calm’s programs are created to support users when emotions are running high. As a result, one of the best things Calm can do is surface the right content for that mindset and then encourage the user to turn off the screen. For example, its player has no “next” button.

That’s a bit different than some “normal” design patterns. So Calm has to make a few tweaks to accommodate.

“We hope that you pick a piece of our content and that when you’re done, you sleep or move on with your day,” says Delbuck, acknowledging that they have to accommodate several use cases. Some people want to only engage for 10 minutes, but others want or need several “tracks” in a row.

For those who want the next guided meditation, Calm tries to make sure there is a playlist built in so the user doesn’t have to fumble around and open the screen for the next one.

3. Calm extends its brand to the user flow

This makes something like the onboarding process a bit hard to design. You want to shepherd the user through as fast as possible, but you don’t want to overwhelm them or confuse them. Not only would it be off-brand, it’s bad UX.

Every part of the process has to reflect, well, calmness.

Delbuck points to the app’s home screen as an example. Before the user enters any information about themselves, they’re greeted with soothing nature sounds and a picturesque background with minimal elements. Users can clear the screen and just…sit.

Many users, he says, allow the nature video to run in the background and never sign up for the app at all. They just use its onboarding screen to block out the other distractions from their device, and that’s enough.

And for returning users, nature sounds become a mental trigger that it’s time to relax and center yourself.

“It’s the digital version of breathing into a paper bag,” he says.

4. Calm chooses content titles deliberately

Meditation and mindfulness are concepts that are often tied with rich histories of spirituality, community, and religion, but some users don’t appreciate that framing. To accommodate for all meditators, Calm distilled down each practice in its menu system to its essential element: the exact way it will help the user.

It serves the same function as Spotify’s “mood” playlists. Sometimes you want R&B from the 70s, but other times you just want a playlist that will provide a relaxing backdrop while eating dinner. But while you may know that R&B is good for relaxing, most people are unfamiliar with the “genres” of guided meditation.

Playlist titles in Spotify

“When a user comes to Calm…they say ‘Okay, this is something that can help me relax or sleep better.’ But they don’t really know exactly what is going inside the experience when they get to it,” he says.

As a result, the menu items and content titles are straight-forward:

As tech addiction continues to bubble up to the mainstream, digital products will have to continue to grapple with business goals, user growth, and design that is ethical and responsible for the long term health of its users.

Delbuck is optimistic, “There are pros and cons to this medium, but I think what Calm and others are doing is using this tool to educate us, and to remind us what we’re we’ve lost in this fragmented digital society.”

You can download Calm, made with InVision, here.

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