As the public health crisis rages on with lockdown loops and mutating virus strains causing a standstill, few are talking about a potentially more wicked problem at hand: an echo pandemic quietly terrorizing our mental health. We’re presented with a balancing act of maintaining both our physical and mental wellness — a true herculean feat for many. What solutions exist that will help us achieve this equilibrium and stay holistically healthy?
This memoir aims to instill a sense of hope to tackle this pressing question. I will map my early experience with Calm’s wellness offerings, develop mindful mental models, and crystallize my learnings in the form of product recommendations.
An intentional check-in
The ugly truth: A recent study published by the Mental Health Association of Canada reported that rates of anxiety and depression have quadrupled, from 5% to 20%, with the onset of the pandemic. Unemployment rates have been highly volatile and data suggests a 1:1 positive correlation between unemployment and suicide rates. There is a compounding effect that places huge strain on our mental states, driven directly and indirectly as a result of this unique double-sided pandemic.
Whoa, don’t we already have enough proverbial pandemics as it stands? An existential risk to climate. An existential risk to democracy. Now, an existential risk to our personal wellness. There’s truly been a paradigm shift in how we view the definition of “healthy”.
The silver lining: At first blush, the debut of 2021 and the objective facts just presented don’t revive those long-lost memories of a goal-oriented, dopamine-infused January. Fortunately, 2020 has hyper-charged the birth and growth of impactful wellness solutions:
By the tail-end of Q4 2020, the world saw an explosion of high-profile financings in the wellness technology space: Lyra Health’s $175M Series E, Headspace’s $48M Series C extension, and one more notable candidate…
Calm. Calm, often touted as the world’s first mental health unicorn and our collective beacon of mindfulness, raised a $75M Series C. Before diving into how well this big $2B elephant in the room fits into this self-care puzzle, I want to share how Calm intertwines with my personal mental health journey.
A beginner’s mind
I am an innately curious person and crave discovery. This has manifested throughout my life — from searching for patterns in nature as a child, to constantly experimenting with how to optimize my life in adulthood. Taking this deep-seated philosophy to a new expansive “wellness playground”, I’ve captured a rolling snapshot of my week-long experience battle-testing Calm and its suite of premium offerings. Combining this with select user interviews, I’ve generated a collection of mindful frameworks and a roadmap for potential product enhancements.
In a cheeky attempt to inject creative flair, I structured each section to reflect the key steps in my own meditation practice. Let’s take our first breath!
Step I. Inhaling Deeply: My Calm Exploration
Meditation and I have a rocky relationship — I’ve tried several times in the past, but there hasn’t been the spark or accountability needed to inspire me to form a lasting wellness habit.
The basis for my experiment was a commitment to a full week actively using Calm premium, where I would try at least 5 distinct functionalities to develop my routines from the ground-up and layer on components as I gained comfort and confidence.
By visually graphing out my 7-day Calm experience, there are a few themes that emerge. With a goal of starting small, I focused my efforts on Calm’s cornerstones — following quick meditations (Daily Calm) and cultivating sound sleep (Sleep Stories). I’ve segmented my Yelp review of Calm’s feature set below.
Plus 💚: I pinpointed the programs I wanted to revisit over the 7 days, classifying these as programs with ‘replay value’. Sleep Stories, Daily Calm, and Daily Trip were among the best because they had distinct use cases based on time of day and offered a combination of surprise, delight, and engagement. This created a virtuous cycle of actively opening the app just to see what the proverbial “catch of the day” was. Lastly, while the benefits of meditation are usually intangible, I realized that I’ve already started to make key lifestyle shifts thanks to the app’s utility and structure provided.
Minus ❌: While features like Mood Tracker, Walking Meditations, and Deep Concentration were compelling at the outset, they lacked sufficient variety and didn’t have staying power past 1–2 days. However, I believe that each of these features address real pain points, suggesting potential enhancements in the future.
Neutral ⚠️: Extending my personal wellness playground analogy from earlier, Calm boasts a massive breadth of options for the casual user, which in my opinion is both an advantage and possible disadvantage for those less mindfully-savvy. Part of the reason I didn’t play around with every feature (e.g. Deep Breath, Mental Fitness, Sparks, etc.) is a lack of time to allocate, especially considering the priority spent on my preferred programs.
The Calming Verdict ✨: Possibly the biggest win that came out of this one-week sprint is the sheer discipline I’ve gained with sticking to habits and routines. Of course, I can’t ignore the extrinsic motivation in trying to provide you lovely folks with solid content, but even just seeing the building blocks of what is quickly becoming my new mental model for mindfulness is a surreal moment.
As for the big reveal: I’ve now fully converted to being a happy and healthy paid Calm subscriber! While I may have missed a few days of dedicated meditation since the official week of exploration, this process has taught me that it’s perfectly okay to “let it be” and move on without the angst of not following the regimen. It’s reassuring to know that the product can support more occasions and opportunities for mindfulness as I advance my mental wellness game.
Step II. Observing the Breath: Others’ Wellness Needs
It would be naive to assume that everyone thinks about and uses Calm the same way I do. Just like the plethora of breathing techniques available, each individual has their own preferences and tastes when it comes to mental wellness, which brings up a crucial question. How well does Calm’s formula hold up when presented with so many hidden, situational variables?
I was inspired by a piece from Justin De Graaf, Google’s Head of Research and Insights, who spoke to the power of understanding “need states” to drive intent.
A need state is a product benefit or attribute desired by a user in a particular occasion. Google’s search engine product is positioned in a way that meets consumers in several occasions anchored by specific emotions, i.e. thrill me, impress me, educate me, reassure me, help me, and surprise me. The benefits of a hyper-focused needs-driven approach can be distilled down to the simplest level, with just four words:
“Needs spark consumer journeys”
On that note, with such a broad buffet of functionalities in the app, it can be hard to distinguish what kinds of journeys Calm users can experience. Is it a one-stop shop for all-things mindfulness? Or do users naturally gravitate towards one key feature they have the strongest affinity to?
In order to answer these questions and better understand the implicit need states, I benchmarked my own experience vs. other avid Calm users. I had the opportunity to interview superstars from my network to compare how their experiences stacked up to mine — a management consultant, an architect-turned-designer, and a practicing psychotherapist.
It was fascinating to see the divergence in opinions, thoughts, and applications of Calm from several vantage points, which might have been expected from such a diverse group of interviewees. Interesting tidbits from these in-depth conversations included:
“Since my work hours are nothing short of crazy and my mind always runs at 10,000 miles per hour, the voice of soothing celebrities really helps me sleep well” — The Consultant
“Honestly, I’ve just really been into the concept of “biopsychology” which has helped balance some of my anxiety and feel well” — The Architect
“Some of my clients are starting to experiment, and so I’ve also found the 10-minute sessions to be a refreshing new way to keep my mind constantly growing” — The Therapist
With these quotes in mind, I was inspired to construct a custom framework that attempts to neatly connect the dots together and address this spectrum of needs that Calm aims to fill:
Structuring needs in this systematic stack acknowledges that personal wellness situations are unique, but can be synthesized in a framework that allows Calm to build experiences catered to a user’s initial need states. This opens a door to cross-convert them to other services over time. The actual journeys become more tangible — they may start with Sleep or only try Reflections, but there are endless possibilities to weave a web of wellness for consistently engaged users.
With both the frontend personal exploration and the backend user analysis completed, we are now set up well to introduce Act III — final reflections & recommendations.
Step III. Exhaling Gradually: Reflections & Recommendations
”If meditation was Act I, and sleep stories in Act II sent engagement up threefold and dramatically increased retention, I’m very excited for Act III.”
Nicole Quinn — Lightspeed Venture Partners, Calm board member
What could this fabled Act III be? I put on my product manager hat to create a potential product roadmap for Calm as it continues to push the boundaries toward achieving its audacious vision of becoming the “Nike of the Mind”. I have summarized my roadmap by including three simple buttons and tying design principles to each, while respecting Calm’s positioning of a serene, non-disruptive user interface:
1. In-app optimizations (near-term, core value): To keep users motivated and accountable, practical enhancements can be made to existing features like streak tracking & visualization to improve visibility, varied push notifications to drive different user actions, and expansion of the content library to address the specific need states described earlier. With Calm’s previous expertise using analytical tools like Amplitude to run high-impact scientific experiments, these initiatives can be quickly hacked together by Ops & Product teams to iterate and provide continuous insights for active users.
Reflect well: In-app optimizations will facilitate more intentional and insightful usage.
2. Out-of-app experiences (medium-term, adjacencies): On the overall wellness front, Calm has the opportunity to literally move outside and integrate components of the physical world into the full mindful journey of a Calm user. While features such as 5-minute Mindful Walking and Daily Calm Reflection exist, these only scratch the surface of acquiring a right to play in the entire wellness landscape. Holistic wellness routines are often characterized by additional physical modalities used in maintaining mental health — going on walks, reflective journaling, taking digital detoxes, etc.
Out-of-app can also involve connecting people together, recognizing the modern human truth that self-care has increasingly become about “joint care”. Introducing sentiments of “Mindful Messages” and “Moments that Matter” along with the existing “Share Your Stats” button to enable stronger connections, can be stepping stones to foster a long-lasting wellness tribe.
Feel well: Out-of-app experiences will fine-tune your practice by connecting with nature and others.
3. Personalization engine (long-term, game changers): While only as effective as the pool of data provided by the usage patterns of highly-engaged active users, Calm will eventually hit the inflection point of having enough insights to offer more predictive and prescriptive content. At the outset, this could involve greater education and insights about a user’s personal wellness journey, and potentially building up to therapy capabilities and science-backed medical practices. The grand theme that ties the thread together is turning Calm into a fully proactive solution — layering on top of the existing onboarding infrastructure, in-app tracking, and Apple Health API integration to truly meet the user at every step.
Grow well: A well-groomed personalization engine will foster continuous growth in all aspects of wellness.
Meditative memoir post mortem
With the looming echo pandemic in full force, there’s never been a clearer moment to just take a breath and be intentional with our energy and effort. Going through this week-long Calm retreat has surprisingly taught me a lot about general wellness principles and has completely reorganized both my schedule and thinking around what health really means. I want to share three of my key learnings that you can also apply in your personal practice:
Make a conscious choice to show up every day for <10 minutes to boost your personal wellbeing and happiness
Habitualize just-in-time reflections and quick meditations as a healthy, enjoyable part of your day-to-day (vs. a nice afterthought)
Understand it is totally okay to let your mind run incessantly during sessions, as meditation is truly the art of doing nothing
Just as Sleep Stories provide us with a platform to become dreamers and believers, I’ll be putting my faith into Calm to make the world happier and healthier!