Building a More Mindful Meditation App

Many popular meditation apps aren’t encouraging mindfulness so much as they’re selling yet another distraction.

Unfortunately these days it can be immensely difficult to find any time for ourselves, away from distractions. Between endless notifications, addicting entertainment, the constant pings from work, the omnipresence of technology, and the always-on, always-connectedness of it all, we’re constantly being bombarded with someone else’s thoughts and ideas.

We hardly have time or space to get to know ourselves or our thoughts.

Even activities like meditation have been crammed full of distracting voices, ambient noises, up-sells, gamification, subscription packages, and cliche imagery of zen gardens or Buddhist statues which obtrude the practice. When you step back to think about it: paying for a bit of mindfulness is absurd.

Mindfulness isn’t something you should have to pay for.

Of course today’s popular meditation apps are great for getting people interested in meditation, but they do so in a way that often promotes stimulation over mindfulness. These apps take what could be the only time during the day a person has to sit and be quietly with themselves and instead turn that time into another form of entertainment.

If you really want to practice mindfulness meditation you don’t need a guided walkthrough of how to do it, or calming background noises, or images of the Buddha in a forest.

The best form of mindfulness meditation is where you sit quietly with yourself and your own thoughts, that’s it.

Yet meditation apps which are simple enough to encourage true mindfulness are often poorly designed. They offer little in the way of a reliable, instinctive experience and tend to make you feel like you’re using a calculator to meditate rather than an additive tool for mindfulness practice.

As someone who has been an avid practitioner of mindfulness meditation over the last 10 years, I felt frustrated with the current set of apps available to supplement my practice. Speaking with some of my fellow meditators, I learned I wasn’t alone in feeling frustrated. So I set out to build my idea of an ideal meditation app.

After a number of weeks, my app Center is available now for iPhone and iPad.

Center is a meditation timer and tracker carefully designed for seasoned or beginning-but-serious mindfulness meditators. It’s built as a tool to be additive to meditation practice, not distracting from it.

Center is a thoughtfully designed mindfulness app.

Numerous, careful, design decisions had to be made for something as simple as a straight-forwward meditation timer and habit tracker: what’s the best way to enable people to select an amount of time they want to meditate? Should times be prescribed or free-form? How do you communicate things like sit time vs. idle time? If the purpose of the app is to get out of the meditator’s way: how could controls be designed to stay out of the way yet easily accessible? What benefit does technology have to a regular practice over a standard timer? How can a meditation app inspire and communicate value without incessant prodding?

I knew I wanted the app to be powerful but also very simple. I also imagined the app collecting any available data from the device to provide custom insights for the meditator: background noise, movement of the device before and during a session, time tracking paired with the number of interruptions.

Original explorations for the app icon.

The more you meditate with Center, the more I want it to be able to learn about your practice. The technological value is the app can learn your meditation habits and offer insights into things that can help strengthen them.

For example: when meditating, what’s the level of noise in the room and do you meditate better when there’s complete silence or a subtle amount of noise? How often is the device in an idle, unmoved, state, does that impact the sessions? What can the technology learn about you to pair with what you learn about yourself?

Once I had settled on an approach for the app, I began constructing rough wireframes in Sketch, starting with a simple and straight-forward countdown clock with a “start” button. The concept was simple enough, but the app needed to be much more than just an elegant stopwatch.

Design progress from concept to final interface.

I began incorporating color, moving from a light and potentially distracting screen to a darker one where the emphasis became the circles whose movements shaped the start button. A metaphor of the constantly revolving thoughts that occur in our minds.

What about once a session started, what would happen to the cirlces and their rotations? I experimented with having the circles fade out, expand, or contract, landing on a metaphorical delay animation in which the rotating circles in the main screen pause their rotation and slowly move inward (delay time) before the meditation actually begins. This animation creates a calming reflection of the real purpose of the meditation: to not push away everything around us, but to instead focus it inward.

The only other buttons on screen are a way to access app settings—things like meditation time, idle time, interval chimes, and HealthKit integration—and a stats button—displaying the current meditation streak with access to a histogram of sessions, average sit time and total meditation practice time, time of day usually sat, and more.

Stats screen with custom insights.

As the concepts began making their way into code I started seeing different interactions which could help emphasize the power of the app without becoming a hindrance to regular practice.

As an example: things like meditation time are typically set once—or once every so often—so putting the setting to change the sit time to be two taps away from the main screen (as opposed to just one tap) felt reasonable.

But other design considerations had to be made: on the iPhone there’s a standard component used for selecting time—called a list picker—which is effective if you want to specify precise ranges of time but uses a dated, 3D spinner design to accomplish the task. Alternatives could be allowing people to manually enter the time they want to sit, but then do you have one field for “minutes” and one for “hours” or just a single entry in which people must input the total number of minutes they want, sacrificing time for precision.

In the end I went with a simple table list view with pre-scribed, most common numbers. A pattern which can easily be evolved as the app grows.

Center teaser trailer featuring Alan Watts, sound on!

Center uses a number of signals to indicate whether or not an “insight” should be shown when using the app.

Everything from inspirational sayings to personalized insights can be generated in the app and suggested to each individual in a unique way. The more you use the app to monitor your habit and practice meditation, the more the app can help you do just that.

There’s so much more I want to add to Center in terms of making it a valuable tool for meditators, but for now I’m content with the elegant and additive tool being part of my daily practice.

If you have an iPhone or iPad you can get Center in the App Store now.