Halka is a private, disappearing journal where the words vanish as you type. No data is collected, and nothing you write gets saved anywhere so you can express yourself candidly without fear of judgment. It’s available for iPhone and iPad, and you can now download it on the App Store.
The app has been in the making for a long time, and Halka’s first iteration was radically different from how it looks today.
It wasn’t an app at all.
This is the story of how an idea for an art project became a game, which became something much more.
I’ve been journaling for a long time to get a handle on my stress and anxiety. I don’t write daily, but untangling my thoughts helps me feel better, so I try to make time for it.
Years ago, after a long journaling session, I found myself feeling more relieved than usual. I took a deep breath, and as I exhaled, a feeling of peace surged through me. It felt as if a massive burden had lifted off me, and I sat feeling more lighter and energized.
I imagined my heart weighed down by thick, oily sludge, which began to wash away as I typed. Every time I added a character on the screen, a tiny bit of ooze dried up and floated away until it was all gone.
It’s not a particularly profound or original metaphor, but I liked that image in my head. Around this time, I was looking to get better at web development, and I needed a fun project to help me improve my skills.
I thought, “wouldn’t it be cool if I could build something to express this feeling?”
That night, I began sketching out ideas for what would eventually become Halka.
I Might Be Onto Something
I’m not exactly a web development badass.
The initial sketches were super elaborate, full of crazy on-screen effects and functionality, but I quickly cut it down to something that I could realistically build.
The interface was simple. It was composed of a single black heart pinned near the bottom of the screen. As the user typed, it slowly began to rise, until finally it became bright red and bounced around joyfully.
It was a far cry from the image I had in my mind, but I felt that this was enough to get the point across: writing can help us get rid of the things that weigh us down.
I needed to learn new skills to complete this project as it was different from anything I had made so far. It was the right amount of challenge, and I had plenty of motivation to see it through.
The first version was super janky, but it was enough to validate the concept. Mindlessly mashing the keyboard as the heart slowly transformed was fun.
But soon, it got boring.
Randomly typing things didn’t leave an impact. There wasn’t any visual feedback when you typed as the events on the screen were programmed to happen regardless. The experience was on rails, and I had no agency. Everything happened automatically.
For it to leave a lasting impression, the user needed to play an active role. Their input would be required to influence the outcome.
I thought, “What if you had to type to make progress and couldn’t reach the end until you wrote a certain amount? Kind of like, a game?”
This Is Kinda Fun
The first task was to find a way to show the words and feedback on the screen.
I explored a couple of different ideas. First, I moved the heart to the middle of the screen to make space for the text at the bottom. I added a regular text box, but it made the interface look too busy. I also tried making the screen flash subtly after each keystroke, but that quickly became dizzying.
To keep the interface simple, I chose to display one word at a time. Once the word appeared on-screen, it would slide toward the heart, shrink, then disappear.
It was oddly charming. I quickly realized that the text animation made it look like I was attacking the heart, so I decided to hide it from the interface, leaving just the words and background. Maybe I could display the heart at the end? I chose to deal with it later.
Next, I needed to set the amount the user would have to type to reach the goal. I started with 250 words to make each session short and easy to finish.
Things were rapidly deviating from the original concept.
Still, I couldn’t stop using it. I was having too much fun firing off words like a madman. Getting to 250 words was easy, so I did multiple sessions in one sitting. I also loved watching the words appear and then disappear.
Over the next few weeks, I found myself spending more time with this prototype and writing fewer journal entries.
As high as I felt after journaling, it was hard getting started. The vast, empty page was intimidating, and I often didn’t know how or where to begin. Do I just start writing what’s on my mind at that moment? Should I approach this like an essay?
I was also spending more time on presentation than the actual content. I made sure the font size looked right and that my grammar and spelling were proper. Sometimes I thought the paragraphs were too short or the formatting wasn’t attractive enough. Every time I made a typo, I started to feel annoyed at myself.
I was completely missing the point.
There was also another reason I was always editing and rewriting:
I was embarrassed.
I started writing journal entries to cope with stress and anxiety. Yet, somehow I had a hard time being honest about what was causing me to feel that way.
We sometimes hold ourselves to unreasonable standards. When we’re vulnerable and bring our insecurities to the surface, it becomes harder to quiet the doubts and self-criticism. We turn into our own worst enemies.
I felt like a loser for allowing certain things to affect me and felt like an even bigger loser for writing it down in a journal. Wasn’t I too old or mature to let this or that bother me? Others are suffering more or in worse circumstances than I am, so shouldn’t I suck it up and be grateful instead?
Am I really this weak?
What if someone read this? What would they think of me? I stopped saving my journal entries, but since I still had to read my thoughts as I was writing, I couldn’t escape my criticisms.
These judgments created a horrible cycle of self-loathing, and I became hesitant to commit many issues to text. I stopped writing about them.
I began to journal less and felt unfulfilled whenever I did. I wasn’t honest with myself, and I started to repress my feelings. Journaling was supposed to bring me comfort, but instead, I was feeling drained and even more anxious.
I hated feeling like this, and it was simpler to run away. I started ignoring my problems, and I stopped journaling altogether.
A New Direction
Why did I have these negative emotions while journaling, but not when I was using the prototype? What about it made it so easy for me to start typing? What made it so delightful to use?
Writing on the prototype was liberating. It didn’t look like a text editor, so I didn’t feel like I had to write seriously. The game-like experience created a fun and relaxed atmosphere that was devoid of expectations, making it easy to write whatever was on my mind.
I loved watching the words vanish. Writing about stressful things and watching the words disappear made it feel like my problems were also going away. Nothing I wrote stayed on the screen longer than a few seconds, nor did anything get saved. This level of privacy was a happy accident, and something I couldn’t experience anywhere else.
The prototype was starting to feel like my ideal journaling experience. Words disappearing meant I didn’t have to worry about formatting or structure. Even if I messed up, it would go away in a few seconds, and I never had to see it again. Since nothing saved, I didn’t have to worry about myself or others reading my entries. As a result, I felt empowered to write about anything without holding back.
This small project somehow became the place to write about the things I couldn’t elsewhere.
At that moment, I realized that this is more important than just a simple art project, or game, or whatever it currently was. I could build something to address my problems with journaling. Perhaps it could also help others who felt the same way.
“Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a journaling app where the words — “
Yes, yes, it would.
Time to start over.
A Private, Disappearing Journal Where You Can Be Honest With Yourself
After some rough commutes, I thought about how much I’d love using the prototype on my phone, so I could vent my frustrations without pulling out my laptop.
Even though the idea was initially for the desktop, I wanted to build something that could be used anywhere. I also wanted the sessions to be as long as the user wished, so I removed the word quota.
The prototype didn’t translate well to the smaller screen, so I began working on new ideas with mobile in mind. The most critical piece was the writing experience, and I had to get it right.
One concept had the words slide up and fade out. That looked cool but ultimately became distracting as I couldn’t help but focus on the words sliding up. Another concept cleared the words instantly without any kind of animation. The cursor shifting back to the starting position and the constant flashing of text became annoying.
All of these concepts had the text center-aligned since that’s how I had it in the desktop prototype. In a serendipitous twist of fate, I mistakenly set the input’s text alignment to ‘right,’ and that proved to be the game-changer.
With the input right-aligned, the cursor stayed fixed in the same position while pushing characters to the left. That made the flow of characters natural and readable while typing and kept the user’s focus on one part of the screen. That also eliminated any cursor shifting or screen flashing when words were entered or cleared.
Another happy accident. Awesome.
Now, the issue with showing one word at a time was that it was easy to lose track of what you were writing about. Losing your train of thought while writing is extraordinarily frustrating, so I decided to display everything that users typed with one small adjustment: each word would disappear after a few seconds.
Even though the words vanished quickly, it was now easier to follow along and keep the writing momentum. The chain of disappearing words created a fantastic effect that made it feel like the writing was melting away.
With the core feature out of the way, it was time to build the rest of the app.
Fleshing It Out
I wanted to keep the user journey light and straightforward. The user would start writing, and once they were satisfied, they could either end their session and return to the home screen or view their journal entry once before it was gone forever.
The home screen was unambiguous, with one call to action. Users were here to write, so I wanted to get them up and running quickly without making too many decisions.
The timer was next. A timed session makes it easier for busy users to get in a small, fixed amount of writing every day. Setting a timer meant a more significant commitment to write. It creates a sensation of working towards a small, attainable goal, which makes each completed session feel like an accomplishment.
I added writing prompts shortly after to help kickstart a session.
One of the most significant adjustments for users was the limited editing opportunities while writing in Halka.
Whether it was an essay or a message, you’ve always been able to see and edit your writing. Here, typing a word was a commitment that you couldn’t withdraw from. Once you entered a word, it disappeared quickly. There was no way to undo or go back to it. That was radically different from what users had experienced before, and there was a strong impulse to fix typos and grammatical errors when they arose.
I also struggle with this sometimes. The urge to fix my writing to make it presentable and organized can be hard to resist, and I reflexively press the backspace button a few times before realizing I can’t go back and edit.
But our thoughts aren’t always neat and tidy. Sometimes they just come rushing out, ugly and flawed.
Editing didn’t make sense thematically. While typos and other errors may be frustrating to look at, we have to accept our imperfections. It’s more important to keep moving forward and try to do better next time.
Heart & Soul
I made a lot of progress over the next few months. The user flows were complete, and I had a working build that I was sharing with friends. The app was working as designed, but something felt off.
While the writing experience was significantly better than the prototypes, it lacked charm. The default navigation transitions felt stiff, and the UI was bland. Using the app felt impersonal. If this was a place to write about difficult things, it needed to feel comfortable and welcoming.
As transitions and animations are instrumental in setting the tone, improving these aspects of the app became the next priority.
The most significant animation in the app was the heart. It had sentimental value, and I wanted to include it as a homage to what started this journey. More importantly, it helped make the experience feel informal, which had a disarming effect on users and allowed them to relax.
Showing the heart animation at the end just felt right. There, it served as a quick, visual summary of the writing session. It was cathartic and allowed for a moment of respite.
The heart was, uh, the heart of the experience.
Next, the default transitions were replaced with fade transitions between the views to make the navigation feel soft and gentle. At the end of a session, pressing the “Let It Go” button deleted the entry. The words were then dramatically cast into an abyss, never to be seen again.
These animations and visual metaphors were far from subtle, but they emphasized the essential ideas and features of the experience. The app was still simple and lightweight but had gained a ton of personality.
Keep It Safe
Initially, Halka didn’t have an option to view the entry after a session. After the heart animation played in the end, the only option available was to return to the home screen.
Almost every user that tested the app wanted the option to see and save their writing, which wasn’t surprising. Writing takes a lot of effort, and if you invest time into a session, it’s natural to want to preserve your hard work. You might not always want to see it, but you should always have the option.
Fair enough. Users could now see what they wrote, but if they wanted to save it, they would have to take screenshots.
Halka is a place to write the things you can’t elsewhere. Even the slightest indication that something is being saved or collected would break trust in the app and prevent users from writing honestly. That would defeat the purpose.
Privacy considerations were also one of the reasons why commonly requested suggestions such as mood tracking, sentiment analysis, and personal insights weren’t considered.
After taking a screenshot, users could then keep them wherever they felt was safest. They also serve as a snapshot of your life at that moment, typos and all. It might not look perfect, but you’re not expected to be.
Wear Comfortable Shoes
Halka took a few years of trial and error to get right, and I’m still surprised at how it all unfolded. I didn’t think I’d learn so much about myself during the development. What started as a simple art project on a random evening turned into an exercise in confronting my demons, accepting my flaws, and moving forward.
Sometimes you need to get on a trail and see where it takes you. You’ll face many dead ends along the way, and you’ll often get stuck and not make any progress. Eventually, you’ll make breakthroughs that will make the journey worthwhile.
I hope you enjoy using Halka. The word “Halka” means “lightweight” in Bengali, and it can also mean “a small amount.” Writing can help lift the stresses and anxieties that weigh us down, and I hope you will feel a tiny bit lighter after each session.