It’s becoming increasingly clear that modern tech is having a serious impact on our wellbeing. And unlike drug or alcohol abuse, the effects aren’t always visible. But that doesn’t mean it’s not damaging to us—particularly because modern society demands a certain level of dependence on it.
So what can we do about it?
One method is digital detoxing, which has become a pretty popular trend lately (with even the top Silicon Valley execs escaping to silent meditation retreats).
But that’s not always a viable solution, especially for those of us whose jobs depend on working with tech. Wouldn’t it be more sustainable if we could reimagine modern tech, so that it actually has a positive effect on our mental health?
Tech doesn’t have to be toxic
Enter “Mindful Tech:” a movement asking entrepreneurs, designers, developers, investors, and anyone else responsible for creating tech products to think carefully about the impact of their product on users’ wellbeing at every stage of the development process.
Above all, mindful tech should respect human attention—instead of commodifying and trading in it.
7 mindful tech principles
As it’s a growing movement, there isn’t a playbook for creating mindful tech; but I’ve put together 7 mindful tech principles, or questions, taken from Designing Mindfulness (a manifesto for mindful tech created by creative studio Mindfulness Everywhere) and Dark Patterns, a repository of information on the “tricks used in websites and apps that make you do things that you didn’t mean to, like buying or signing up for something.”
To figure out whether a tech product is mindful, you can ask yourself:
- Does it value my attention? Or does it spam me with unnecessary distractions like pop-ups, push notifications and marketing emails?
- Does it prioritise quality over quantity? Or does it favour overwhelming and unnecessary content, like the coins, gems, points and level ups found in many online games?
- Does it discourage addictive behaviour? Or does it provide variable rewards that keep you checking the page like a slot machine?
- Does it provide me with options to disengage? Is autoplay turned on by default? Can you scroll or swipe through the feed endlessly? Is it made difficult to exit or delete the product, and does it beg you to return once you’ve gone?
- Does it make me feel good? Or does it quantify my social status in “likes” and “shares”? Does it encourage a sense of FOMO?
- Does the company treat their employees well? The company should practise what it preaches in all areas of its business: from its company culture to leadership, recruitment and investor relations.
- Does it try to trick me in any way, using dark patterns like:
- Sneaking items and/or hidden costs into the checkout basket (often by hiding an opt-out checkbox)
- Tricking you into sharing more information about yourself than intended; most commonly by hiding a clause in the terms and conditions allowing your data to be sold on to data brokers
- Disguising ads as other content, like download buttons, to get you to click on them
- Friend spamming – asking for your contact details under the pretence that they’ll be used to e.g. find your friends, when in fact they’ll be used to spam your contact list
You can ask these questions about any tech product. But as a way of exploring this fairly new concept and seeing it at work, what better place to start than with mindfulness apps?
The mindful tech review: how mindful are these mindfulness apps?
Not to be confused with the mindful tech movement, mindfulness apps are apps which purport to enhance users’ mental and emotional well-being, usually through meditation.
I chose 5 popular apps, gave my email to each one, and created an account; I wanted to see how they’d use this information.
I also opted out of any mobile notifications to see if the apps would respect my choice to try and use my phone distraction-free. (But as these services can be pricey, I didn’t actually sign up for any subscriptions; I got my information on this through online research!)
So, let’s take a deeeeep breath, and take a look at just how mindful these mindfulness apps really are…
No mindfulness app review would be complete without Headspace, one of the best-known meditation apps out there. After testing it out, it’s easy to see why. It has a beautiful, modern design with cute, original animations: they’ve done a great job with branding. It also works very well and using the app is generally an enjoyable experience.
As an non-subscribed user, you have to provide your email before accessing the app. Is that really necessary? I guess it is to their marketing department, because I recieved 7 emails in the span of a week.
Nonsubscribed users can access an introduction course and a small handful of other meditations. This is pretty common amongst meditation apps. However, what stands out is the cost. To unlock the rest of the content, you’re required to pay for a considerable subscription fee—higher than any other app ($7.99 per month for an annual subscription). The company has recently been under fire for moving their sleepcasts, which used to be entirely free, under the umbrella of paid content.
Fair enough. But one thing I really didn’t like was the continuous display of locked content. When navigating the app I was bombarded with it, and continuously asked to subscribe in order to access it. Some of the meditations I saw looked amazing, promising a “better me:” like guided workouts, for example. It was a little overwhelming, and insanely tempting.
Likewise, some of Headspace’s ads promise that you can “feel 16% happier in just 10 days”— as long as you subscribe, that is. Happiness comes from within, and while meditation apps may help you get there, I don’t think it’s particularly ethical to guarantee a precise percentage of happiness as a sales tactic.
Out of the five mobile apps reviewed, only Headspace and one other sent me unsolicited notifications. They also use notification badges, which caused me to visit the app just to make them go away (I’m one of those people that can’t stand those little red circles!)
And it seems like once they’ve got you hooked it’s really, really hard to quit. According to reviews on Trustpilot, it’s very hard to cancel subscriptions. You have to go through three “are you sure?” shaming screens before a cancellation is processed.
Additionally, many users were charged a steep yearly auto-renewal without any heads up, and complain of non-existent customer service. I visited the website contact page, and sure enough, zero phone numbers are listed. Pretty weak, considering this is one of the most expensive and widely used meditation apps out there.
It’s well-known how great Headspace is at marketing. But maybe they’re starting to forget themselves. Some ads use taglines such as “happy days are here,” promising improved mental health and well-being if only users subscribe. Meditative benefits come from within, and while meditation apps may help that journey, I don’t think it’s particularly healthy, nor mindful, to guarantee those benefits as a sales tactic.
Visiting Glassdoor, I found similar disillusionment coming from Headspace employees, with an overall rating of only 3.6/5. Although employees enjoy typical startup perks like free lunches, and are encouraged to take time out of their day to meditate, many reviews mention chaotic and ruthless senior management that have lost touch with the original values of the company, and widespread burnout amongst employees.
One review ends: “You cannot improve the world’s health and happiness while ignoring the unhappiness you are creating right next to you”
Verdict: Overall, do I like using the free content on the Headspace app? Yes. Has it proven to be mindful of its paid subscribers and employees’ well-being? Not at all.
2. Insight Timer
Insight Timer is another popular meditation app. It’s community focused, displaying how many fellow meditators are using the app with you. I know that isn’t a qualifier of mindful tech, but it does give you a sense of connection, something most apps—mindful or otherwise—fail to do.
You have to provide an email or Facebook profile to access the app, but after a welcome email, I’ve yet to receive anything else. It hasn’t once spammed me with notifications either.
It’s easy to use, with a good UX design. I love how much free content there is—there are thousands of guided meditations, and—but sometimes finding what you’re looking for can be a little confusing and/or overwhelming.
My favorite feature is the meditation timer, which you can use to create a customised meditation experience; this feature can make meditation truly mindful and distraction free.
However, you can’t rewind or fast forward without a reminder that these options are unlockable through subscription, which felt like the app was advertising to me literally in the middle of my meditation. And unfortunately, some Glassdoor reviews from earlier this year complain of Insight Timer being a “toxic environment” to work in, with no “work-life balance.”
Verdict: I loved using this app, and I never felt it disrespected my time or attention. But it seems like they have some tweaking to do to make it the holistic, mindful community that it aims to be (starting in their own offices). Not the best, certainly not the worst.
3. The Mindfulness App
While not as well-known as Headspace or Insight Timer, The Mindfulness App is a solid meditation app with many downloads. It has a straightforward interface, which I really liked. It’s very clear about what content is free and what’s paid, so you’re not bombarded with advertising while you try to meditate.
That said, free content is limited to a 5-day introduction course and a basic timer. The timer works similarly to Insight Timer’s, without as many bells and whistles (or gongs). However, this one features a “guided” option: you can have a generic guided meditation at the time frame of your choosing. This was pretty cool, and I haven’t seen it in any other meditation timer apps.
For these reasons, The Mindfulness App wins in terms of clean, undistracting, and straightforward content.
Time for the bad news: this was the most annoying of all the apps I tried out. Even though I opted out of both daily notices and meditation reminders, this app still sent me a nag at least once daily to meditate, complete with a pestering icon badge. Maybe this goes away after completing the introduction series, but I doubt it.
In the Play Store there were a few complaints about tech issues or being charged by auto-renewal (which isn’t unique amongst meditation apps). What was different, however, were some pretty passive aggressive response to poor reviews, such as:
I don’t think it’s very “mindful” to shame people for being honest—it doesn’t exactly speak to company transparency if they’re asking people to delete negative reviews.
Verdict: I was so ready to like The Mindfulness App, but the annoying push notifications really killed my enthusiasm for it.
4. Stop, Breathe & Think
Stop, Breathe & Think is another lesser known meditation app. It was born out of, and still contributes to, the nonprofit sector, and its mission is to bring mindfulness to under 25s. Though that didn’t get in the way of it bringing my ever so slightly older mind a little peace.
It has very nice aesthetics, seamless UX design, and works well. I wanted to include it in this list because it has some features that other mindfulness apps don’t, like “check-ins;” before I begin a meditation, I can choose how I’m feeling from a huge list of emotions. The app then suggests guided meditations suited for my mood, and I can check in again after meditating to observe my progress. In this way, the app can also function as a mood tracker—but one that might actually work to improve my mood as well.
There’s also a progress tracker that offers dependable, consistent rewards which encourage your healthy mediation habit—without cultivating addictive behaviour.
The list of meditations was quite long without being overwhelming, and I really liked how they included Spanish versions too. When I searched for meditations, I was never shown or bombarded with stuff I had to pay for to use. This created a streamless, distraction-free meditation experience.
Finally, the app never forced me to give any personal information. After providing my email in exchange for progress tracking, all I received was a confirmation email. I also never received any distracting notifications or icon badges.
Verdict: Of all the apps reviewed, I found Stop, Breathe, and Think to be the best combination of truly mindful tech and valuable content. Kudos. Hopefully they can hold on to these values as they gain more users!
5. Forest: Stay Focused
I also wanted to include a mindfulness app that isn’t a meditation app in this review: think of Forest as a study buddy. If you want to focus on a task, plant a seed, and the cute sprout will turn into a tree over a time period of your choosing. You can also choose to have the sound of forest rain playing while it grows. But if you leave the app to access another on your phone, your tree will wither!
It gives a sense of accomplishment when time is up and you’ve got a cute little tree animation. Focus hard enough, and you can eventually build your own forest!
Forest really did make me aware of every urge to look at my phone or visit social media. In my experience, it worked very well! The only “shaming” I’ve gotten from the app is when I try to leave a growing tree in my period of focus. But this isn’t a dark pattern—it’s the whole point of the app.
It does offer rewards, and you may become “addicted” to planting cute little trees, but this is all in the name of being mindful of our technology usage, so I don’t really consider this a disqualifier. I’ve yet to receive a single unsolicited notification or email from Forest, and they never asked for personal information or forced me to make an account.
The only non-mindful aspect of the app was an advertisement that pops up when your tree is grown. But it was easy to navigate away from and didn’t appear again.
Forest is entirely free to use. A one-time purchase of €2.09 grants you access to some additional features, like an app whitelist and blacklist. But some of your purchase goes to planting a real tree! The app claims that, so far, it’s planted over 340,000 of them.
Verdict: While it may be a little unfair to compare this app to meditation apps with more features, I will say that Forest abides by mindful tech principles very well. I enjoy using it, and I love their initiative to make our planet a little more green.
Disclaimer: This is the only paid app in this review—I downloaded it for $2.99 from the Google Play Store. So it might not be entirely fair to compare it to the others, but I thought it’d be interesting to see how the experience differs!
Buddhify is a family-run meditation app; it has a beautiful, straightforward interface—probably my favourite in this regard. The home screen displays a colourful wheel, with each colour representing a different mindfulness need.
I click “Work Break,” for example, and I’m given a choice of six brief guided meditations in that category. You can edit the wheel according to preference, or download eight entirely new wheels, including one for kids. It’s a really unique, visually appealing, and easy-to-use system.
That’s what you get for $2.99, and $30.00 a year grants access to development courses. I really like their business model. It charges a very small fee, enough to cover costs, for a great selection of meditations that enhance user well-being. Subscribed content is fairly hidden—never in your face.
And I wasn’t asked for personal information; only my email in case I wanted to track my progress.
Verdict: It’s hard to compare this paid app to the free content on the others, but I’m really liking Buddhify—I don’t ever feel like it’s trying to sell me anything.
7. 10% Happier
10% Happier takes its name from the New York Times bestseller: 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story. After the success of this book, author Dan Harris developed the 10% Happier app to help others put his techniques into action.
After downloading the app, I’m first asked to enter my email or Facebook to create an account. There’s then an introduction course of seven meditations, each with a corresponding educational video, which I thought was a pretty cool feature for beginners.
However, that’s pretty much where the freebies end. Every course, talk, and meditation beyond that is locked. It was very time and attention-consuming scrolling through the large lists of themed meditations to discover the occasional and random free one halfway down the list. There are also buttons promoting the free trial on every single page. I found the organisation overly promotional, like they wanted me to see all the beneficial meditations I was missing—ones that might just make me “10% Happier.”
10% Happier also offers a 7-day trial period, after which a subscription costs $99.00 annually, a hefty sum compared to its competitors. It was a little unclear if they automatically charge you after the trial. But judging by the disclaimer “No commitment, just cancel within 7 days,” I’m going to assume that they do. That’s a pretty tight window!
I also received eight emails in the span of 15 days from app. Pretty much all of them had subject lines like “Last Chance to Save 40%” and “Only 3 days left to enjoy 30% off,” which are absurdly contradictory to the principles of meditation. Why create a campaign of such urgency to promote peace of mind?!
Verdict: I’m sure that for $100.00, I’d get a lot of wonderful content. But without forking out for this, what I got was a lot of not-so-wonderful marketing tactics. I’m left with the impression that this app’s primary goal is to make money, not promote real mindfulness.
Calm is, with over 50 million downloads, one of the biggest meditation apps on the market. It works very well, and has a beautiful interface. You can choose from a number of backgrounds, all playing different soothing nature sounds. This feature alone makes it a great sleeping or working aid.
Most of the app’s content falls into three categories: sleep, meditate, and music. All have sub-categories, which was a little overwhelming at first. The sleep and meditate sections have both free and paid content, and sorting through them can be quite time-consuming. Much of the “free” content, courses such as “7 days of Managing Stress” and “21 Days of Calm” are actually teasers. After completing the first day, you realise that the remaining days are subscription-only.
Paid content includes meditations guided by celebrities, like Matthew McConaughey. There’s also a “Daily Calm,” a new daily meditation available for 24 hours. I think this could either motivate you to meditate and keep content fresh, or create stress around missing out on an experience. I guess it depends on the user!
Don’t get me wrong though, the app provides a whole library of free music, which can be incredibly useful in mindfulness practices such as yoga, sleep, or self-guided meditation. They also have a cute little “breathe bubble,” which can help you take some deep, calming breaths.
Calm offers a 7-day trial, after which you’re automatically charged $59.99 a year. Play Store and Trust Pilot reviews show that many people have issues cancelling trials and subscriptions. People also complain of insufficient customer service.
Calm didn’t require me to give any personal information, besides giving me the option to create an account with my email. It didn’t send me any unsolicited notifications. I did receive a couple emails offering a discounted subscription, but I didn’t find them to be too pushy. And two emails is nothing compared to what I got from some of the others!
Verdict: I like Calm, but their subscription model seems to have negatively impacted a lot of users. I don’t like how they make you look at everything you don’t have as you scroll through the app, including star-studded meditations, but at least they didn’t spam me…
I hope that this article provided you with some inspiration for using tech to truly improve your wellbeing—and with a framework for interrogating tech. Particularly if you work in the sector, I implore you to ask yourself: is the product I’m building mindful? If not, what can I do to improve it?
Because technology that doesn’t respect the attention and wellbeing of users can’t prosper in the long term. Pokemon Go, after an initial, huge wave of popularity, lost many of its users, and the #DeleteFacebook movement is continuing to gather steam.
A mindful tech that brings sustainability to technology will ensure not only its own success—but also a more aware, happy, and healthy generation of users.
Featured image by Shutterstock