It’s easy to chuckle when you start getting push notifications from an app designed to help you meditate everyday through the stressors of life. But Calm, the brainchild of Alex Tew, uses those push notifications to nudge users to nobler ends. When you tear away all the tech, every startup is just a solution to a problem. The problem Calm has chosen to address is that meditating regularly (or at all, for some people) is really hard.
Meditating is hard, Calm knows
In the Buddhist tradition, the “five hindrances” are the primary mental factors that impede people’s attempts to truly concentrate on their practice. They are:
- sensory desire
Unsurprisingly, these hindrances also reflect some of the big reasons why so many people today find it difficult to meditate on a regular basis or meditate at all. People who profess to hate meditating find it:
- too hard to find time
When you meditate at a studio or with friends, there are natural support and maintenance systems built into your practice. Don’t feel like you’re doing it right? Ask someone who’s more experienced.
With an app, there are no such mechanisms. If you decide that meditating is too much of a hassle and you’re not getting enough out of it, you can put down the phone (or delete the app from your phone). Calm needed to bring some of the accountability and understanding of meditation into their app if they wanted to build a product that could grow, not just serve one kind of meditator.
Knowing the new user
Calm’s product has simple UX, but that simplicity belies the thought that has gone into it especially in these two areas:
- building up their progress through gamification
- providing helpful nudges to keep users coming back
Calm’s case study offers an example of how to use analytics to build a great product that keeps users coming back to perform a hard task.
Gamification in app
The idea of gamifying one’s progress in a meditation practice might sound antithetical, but it’s not completely without precedent. After all, practitioners have counted beads to keep track of mantras and breathing cycles for centuries. Calm is just taking the next logical step by showing you your high score at meditation (your longest streak of days using the app) and your overall progress (total number of sessions and time spent with the mediation function engaged). You’re also able to see trends in how often you meditate and when through the calendar view. This is useful if you’re trying to drill down into what parts of the week are most and least stressful for you, as well as if you’re trying to look back and figure out what months were your best as far as meditation. This is how Calm addresses the feelings people have about meditation being boring or ineffective.
Push notifications I’ll actually tap
We’ve written before about how Calm’s Daily Reminder feature was instrumental in increasing the app’s user retention. By prompting users to set a recurring reminder to meditate after their first session in the app, Calm notched a 3x improvement in their overall retention rate. In practice, setting a reminder can feel off-putting at first. It’s a little difficult to feel like you’re choosing the “right time” when you’ve only meditated once. I initially chose noon for my Daily Reminder time, which I pretty quickly realized was a mistake—a push notification hit me just as I was preparing to eat lunch everyday, and I found myself swiping to clear them just about every day. However, the truth is that Calm’s push notifications could never truly annoy me or get me to ditch the app completely:
- I’d opted into notifications myself.
- I’d chosen the timing of the notification myself.
- I still aspired to use Calm—just not at the time it was notifying me, evidently.
Calm carved out some of the real estate of my mind and stuck there, even as I wasn’t actively using the app. When I was ready to take the idea of meditating seriously, the idea of doing it everyday at a preset time had been well ingrained in my mind, and I had a much better idea of when I should set the reminder. This is how Calm helps you overcome the feeling that you simply can’t find the time to meditate.
Guided product onboarding
User onboarding, according to Pulkit Agrawal at Chameleon, is about “actively guiding users to see new value in your product.” For Calm, that means both demystifying the practice of meditation for new users and then providing the right kinds of nudges to bring them back to the app later. The success they’ve found raises some interesting points for anyone building products:
- Push notifications are often mischaracterized as annoying and intrusive. Certain bad actors have not helped do away with this reputation. But done correctly, push notifications don’t need to be a distraction—they can be specifically requested by users as a way to get more value out of your app.
- It’s often going to be better to let your users choose how and when they will receive their medicine. Calm promising to remind you to meditate once a day would probably be highly ineffective compared to Calm asking when you want to be reminded, and then reminding you at that time every day.
- If there are psychological hurdles that need to be jumped before people can become habitual users of your product, then addressing concerns with content (even content that’s built into your app) can be a strong way to improve your new user onboarding.
Calm got me from never having meditated in my life to meditating almost every day with the steps listed above, but their techniques and tactics are quite broad and applicable across contexts.