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A Look Inside Your Users' Heads

Headspace’s Design Research Lead on building qualitative research on the expertise of behavioral science and 6,000 years of meditation theory.

Every weekday morning at 10AM, a common area inside the offices of Headspace is curtained off, and the company’s co-founder, former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe, leads the entire staff in a 10-minute guided meditation. The topic changes each day, but Headspace’s Design Research Lead Priya Nayak says it always helps bring a sense of community to the beginning of the day.

“When I open my eyes at the end of the group meditation and see everyone around me, it makes me more optimistic about the day,” Nayak says. “And hopeful that I can bring a level of self-awareness, kindness, and perspective to my work.”

Nayak meditated prior to joining Headspace in 2017, but struggled to make her practice consistent. Since joining the company full-time she says her practice has deepened considerably, and she’s seen the benefits in her work and her personal life.

“Over time I’ve noticed these really foundational shifts in my resilience in times of stress,” she says. “Or in my ability to show compassion to people in moments where previously I might have been more frustrated. And I’ve become a little bit more curious about my own reactions.”

Nayak, who until recently worked as a research team of one, collaborated closely with the other experts the company has on staff, including behavioral scientists and, of course, Puddicombe, who led live meditation workshops for years before co-founding the app. She sat down to chat with us about what it’s really like to get in peoples’ heads.

dscout: Meditation is something humans have done for thousands of years—though never via an app until now. I imagine some of your users are people who’ve meditated before, and some are completely new to the practice. What does the typical customer journey look like for the Headspace user?

Priya: We most commonly hear from two types of people. One is really in need of some immediate relief and help. Maybe they’re going through a major life event or crisis. They’re extremely stressed, or having a lot of anxiety, or they can’t sleep, or they feel out of other options. And so maybe a friend recommended meditation to them in the past. Or they even saw an ad when they were searching for something to help them with whatever they’re dealing with. So they give it a try. Those users tend to be more highly motivated because they’re really struggling with something, and they need immediate support and guidance.

Then we have users who have previously dabbled in meditation, but want to make it a more consistent practice in their life. They know about the benefits of meditation, and they know that it’ll take time and consistency to feel those benefits. So they come to Headspace knowing it’s more convenient and affordable than going to in-person classes or retreats, which can also feel very intimidating if you’re a beginner. So they come to Headspace thinking it’s a way they can more consistently build meditation into their lives. Those are the very generic buckets—there’s so much variety within those segments. But we think of them as people who want to solve an immediate problem and feel immediate relief versus people who want to build a practice.

It’s interesting because in addition to the typical mapping you might do of a customer journey, you’re also working with several very powerful sources of information about the human brain and the human experience. You have a team of behavioral scientists and psychologists in-house. You have a group of meditation experts, including co-founder Andy Puddicombe, with an incredible understanding of the 6,000 year-history of meditation and how humans have become more mindful. And then you have all of this rich data that you’re collecting from ongoing customers as people use the app. As a researcher and, perhaps also as a company, how do you manage three really strong influences like that?

It’s a great question, and I really see those three influences as huge strengths and advantages for us in building better and better experiences for people over time. As a company, we’re able to rely on different channels of expertise, insight, and knowledge at different moments. It’s been a great learning experience for me as a researcher, but it’s also been very cool to watch the evolution of the entire company recognizing that these are all equally valid forms of insight. That we can rely upon them all, in different moments, and make more confident decisions based on those insights.

Headspace’s science team is a unique superpower. We have in-house experts in behavioral science, clinical psychology, public health—people who are very skilled in measuring health outcomes, and people with a wealth of knowledge about human behavior and human psychology. I’ve done a lot of work with our behavioral science team, to bring them in as subject matter experts to really accelerate and inform the different approaches we take to building a better product experience. That loops back to our understanding of our members, which is fascinating because we have one method of understanding them through traditional research, but we also have an incredible ability to zoom out and say, “Okay, well what do we know about just humans in general, and from a really deep scientific rigorous perspective?”

None of [Headspace’s science, meditation and research teams] necessarily have the answer because meditation has never been done before in this way. The science team can say, “this is what works well in this context.” Andy and our meditation experts might say, “this is what worked really well in the mindfulness clinic”—but we don’t know if it translates to digital. That’s what we’re trying to figure out, and why I think qualitative research is so vital in helping the company understand if something is landing or resonating, or what is missing.

None of us necessarily have the answer because meditation has never been done before in this way. The science team can say, “this is what works well in this context.” Andy and our meditation experts might say, “this is what worked really well in the mindfulness clinic”—but we don’t know if it translates to digital. That’s what we’re trying to figure out, and why I think qualitative research is so vital in helping the company understand if something is landing or resonating, or what is missing.

Have there been instances where the qual provided insights that the other two sources of information didn’t?

Absolutely. When I first joined the team a couple of years ago, there wasn’t a lot of early foundational research about why people weren’t using the product consistently, or why users were dropping off earlier than expected. The company was very interested in early engagement. A lot of the internal conversations came from surface-level insights. Our perception was that people just didn’t have the time. Setting people up for success early on, so they see the benefits of meditating, was really important to us. We wanted to understand how to get more people to that point.

I did a deep dive on new users in their first two weeks, running a diary study and follow-up interviews. I wanted to unpack what people were struggling with most in that time period—what obstacles were in their way that might have led them not to meditate, and what else was going on in their day.

What we learned from that initial recruitment survey, which we now use as a baseline for understanding certain behaviors of new users, was that time was not their biggest obstacle. They actually had about three hours of time every day to do whatever they wanted. It was really about finding the motivation to do this thing that was new and foreign to them, and then about making it a routine. That was a big unlock for the entire team focused on new users. We didn’t need to be focused on creating shorter, bite-sized pieces of content, which the team was actually doing at a time. Three-minute content. One-minute content. What people actually needed was support in building a new habit.

That’s when we engaged the science team in-house and asked them what they could tell us about supporting people who hadn’t yet experienced the benefits of meditating. They were able to guide us toward different mechanisms that we could build into the experience. One was this concept of a habit anchor, which is to recommend to users that they use the app every day around the same time, and anchor it to an event that happens routinely in their life without fail. That’s the best way to build a new habit, according to our science team.

That’s so interesting. Was that something you asked the meditation team about as well? Are those hurdles that people who were meditating live with an instructor in person also faced?

Yes—we actually recently did another expert Q&A with Andy and a small team to understand a bit more about the mindfulness clinic that he ran, how it was structured, and what he’d heard from people who struggled to meditate consistently over time. For instance, if someone came to a session with him and hadn’t been following the program, he would use the session to try and understand what else was going on with them—their sleep, their stress levels. He was able to use those sessions as a launching point to understand a bit more about what was going on in their lives. It gave people human-to-human opportunities to talk and work through things. That real-life interaction and conversation is something we’re trying to emulate more and more in the product. Everyone goes through such different things at different moments. What might stop one person from being consistent in their process can look entirely different for another person. Unless you understand what’s going on around their use of the app, you can’t really provide guidance or support in a way that really helps them.

That focus on the human-to-human connection makes a lot of sense, because the idea of engaging with a coach or a teacher who is inspirational and who is empathetic feels like it would be a big component of user motivation. How do you bring that more conversational, human element to the experience?

That’s our biggest challenge, but such an exciting space to be working in. I think it’ll be an evergreen project for Headspace, because there aren’t a lot of products out there that are primarily digital and that have really been able to make someone feel heard and understood. Those are our aspirational goals for the experience, and they’re always top of mind. We try to set that tone beginning with onboarding. The very first thing you see after you register an account is a welcome screen that says, “Hey, welcome to Headspace. We’re going to ask you a few questions to help us get to know you better.” Right off the bat, we’re trying to say, “We’re not just here to get you into a session. We actually want to learn a little bit more about you and help set you up for success.”

It’s been fascinating to see what just striking a conversational and informal tone in our language does to reassure someone who is a new user. That shifts their perspective of what the product is going to be and how they’re going to be supported by it.

It’s been fascinating to see what just striking a conversational and informal tone in our language does to reassure someone who is a new user. That shifts their perspective of what the product is going to be and how they’re going to be supported by it.

There’s a very strong thread of conversation within the company on how we can understand more about what someone has going on in their life, and how we can support them in those contexts—especially if they are trying to use the app for a very targeted, specific activity. Maybe it’s healthier communication with a partner. Or being more present with kids at family dinner. Or feeling more focused, or sleeping better. We start trying to understand people at the very beginning of their experience, and we’re really trying to create an extension of that for the rest of the time they’re using the app. We want to allow for moments where people can tell us what’s going on, so we can build a deeper understanding and continue to show up for them.

Has your experience with meditation evolved since you joined the company?

Honestly, shifting to working on a product that is so clearly and squarely invested in helping people feel better and live healthier lives is so inspiring and endlessly motivating. 

We get feedback from people about how the app has helped them make these massive transformations in their relationships: with themselves, with other people in their lives, and with the world around them.

We get feedback from people about how the app has helped them make these massive transformations in their relationships: with themselves, with other people in their lives, and with the world around them. There’s nothing better than that. Knowing that you play a small role in that is really wonderful. And it’s allowed me to really geek out on people. People are at the core of this product, and having a deep understanding about how people think, what they’re struggling with, and how they aspire to live is endlessly fascinating. Everyone has a different story, and it’s really humbling to hear everyone’s struggles. I consider it a huge privilege to be on the other side of conversations where people trust me enough to share about what’s going on with them, and why they’ve come to meditation, which is often a very personal reason. It’s been an incredible shift for me as a researcher.

Author-Bio
Carrie Neill

Carrie Neill is a New York based writer, editor, design advocate, bookworm, travel fiend, dessert enthusiast, and a fan of People Nerds everywhere.

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