The Headspace app achieves design zen

Simon McCade

The background

Headspace is a mindfulness app that is focused on improving our digital health by providing digestible meditation sessions that fit right into busy lives.

We’re seemingly living through busier routines than ever before, which means an app like this is perfectly positioned to provide the kind of respite most of us crave.

Does it work for its audience?

The most important point to start with here – and this is critical in such a busy, modern world – is that Headspace’s value proposition is immediately clear from the get-go. It takes seconds to understand that it serves its customers’ needs (you might even argue that it takes half a second, given the suitability of the snappy moniker it goes by – it does what it says on the tin).

Any app that allows you to sign up in a single screen with form-filling kept to a minimum gets a tick in my book. It gets to the point about what you might need from such an app and isn’t restrictive when it comes to the personal experience; you can answer a short series of nicely designed questions with large icons to personalise the experience from the very beginning, which leaves the first impression that you will get a great user experience out of it.

The basic course offers a smooth introduction to the app and it is clear that there is something for everyone – this is reflected in the variety of the reviews on the app stores, which we’ll come onto a bit later.

How does it sit in the market?

Headspace has come along at a time in which digital health and wellbeing is a hot topic in the tech industry. We all spend plenty of time immersed in some kind of digital experience – so much so that both Google and Apple have recently integrated user-facing usage dashboard features for their phone operating systems. Their idea is to open our eyes to how much we use our devices by giving us stats down to the detail of how many times we’ve unlocked them in any given day, which makes it a perfect time for Headspace to enter the frame.

Headspace has come along at a time in which digital health and wellbeing is a hot topic in the tech industry.

With ‘mindfulness’ being such a buzzword at present, it’s no surprise to see a number of apps emerging in the market. The likes of Calm and Aura are giving you the chance to put you first with quickfire meditative sessions for the digitally obsessed amongst us.

Headspace has before reached the top spot in both the Google Play Store and Apple App Store, however, so it’s clearly striking a pleasant chord in the market. Reviews on the App Store are extremely positive in many cases, with a number of people stating that it has helped them get through some rather difficult times in their lives. What more can you ask for from an app if it provides perspectives like that?

When we take a look at overall interest in the topic of ‘mindfulness’ in the United Kingdom alone, we can see that it has almost tripled in the last five years on Google Trends:

Google Trends: Interest in 'mindfulness' (2012-2017)

Mindfulness trends in the United States were recently reported by CNBC, too; significant increases in the practising of yoga and meditation were recorded in the five years between 2012 and 2017 and Headspace’s competitor, Calm, was also reported to be worth a cool $250 million (apparently a lot to do with having Donald Trump in the White House, but let’s not get into that…).

The market is a busy one for meditation-focused startups, which means the differentiators have to be based on the in-app user experiences – let’s take a look at that in Headspace to see how it fares.

iOS Headspace app designs as of Nov 2018

What are the UI and UX like?

The interface is clearly kept to a minimum to keep things simple – there are three main sections: Home, Library and Profile.

The Home screen provides the portal into your meditation course with current sessions highlighted above the necessary social proof to show that hundreds of thousands of people have benefited from Headspace throughout the day.

The Library section provides the deep dive into the features, which are divided into an abundance of categories. Over time, you’ll no doubt become familiar with the structure of its content, but for early starters, a search function with additional filters could be helpful for getting to grips with it.

The Profile section highlights the gamification aspect of the app, which is altogether necessary if you are going to get any long-term benefits out of this kind of activity.

On the whole, the UX is very good and it’s a pleasure to simply explore the app. High response rates and engaging content make for the kind of experience you actually want to come back to and, with the indications of session or course duration, you know from the off how much of your time you’ll be committing to it.

High response rates and engaging content make for the kind of experience you actually want to come back to

One of Headspace’s greatest strengths is that it has a truly unique identity. It’s all been so well-considered from a design point of view; everything from the muted colour palette to the beautiful illustrations help to communicate a distinctive and calming presence.

How does it fit into the company’s customer journeys?

Whether your first encounter with Headspace is through the website, the app or the sponsored social posts, it’s immediately clear how it could fit into your digital life. There appears to have been a pretty seamless branding exercise behind launching the app and the mostly positive media coverage is testament to that. It's easy to navigate between the app and its website, as well as jumping seamlessly from ads to meditation in just a couple of steps if you're new to the concept.

Room for improvement

On first impressions, the £10/month fee seems a little steep to me, so I can’t help but think that a free 30-day trial or even a refer a friend scheme with a free first month would go down well. New users could have a grace period in which they explore the richness of the content to decide whether or not to part with their money, but everybody is different so it depends on how much you might need such easy access to meditative techniques in your daily routine.

Bad reviews are hard to come by for both iPhone and Android, but those who do have gripes are typically down to bugs and glitches that cause audio to cut out halfway through a session and the progress fails to update.

Headspace is walking a digital tightrope in the sense that the slightest hint of annoyance or inconvenience for the user causes a major wobble in the distraction-free experience it is trying to create. 

Headspace is walking a digital tightrope...the slightest annoyance causes a major wobble in the distraction-free experience...

It seems to have mastered it in the most part; nevertheless, some people are disappointed enough to write two-or-three-star reviews online, but the creators of the app seem to be on the case almost every time.

Reasons to be wary

The aforementioned fact that ‘mindfulness’ is so hot right now means that Headspace’s main cause for concern is the high level of competition it faces from the likes of Calm, which has similarly raving reviews across the board.

There’s no doubt that Headspace occupies a pretty clear space in the market, but the freshness of the content and the responsiveness to the bugs and glitches will be key to maintaining its position as a sought-after app around the world.

Whether or not it is clinically proven to work remains to be seen, so this might be one to address as the popularity of 'digital health' continues to rise.

Final thoughts

The range of content available in Headspace coupled with a fantastically designed UX means that it succeeds in having a broad appeal to people interested in meditation. Whether you’re a beginner or a zen master, Headspace seems to have the content for you.

The price-point is the only apparent concern that could hold it back, but the sheer number of downloads and positive reviews might quash that argument in one fell swoop.

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