August 10, 2018

Vicki Tan: designing for mindfulness

Vicki Tan

Vicki Tan

Lead Product Designer, Headspace

Vicki Tan is a senior product designer at Headspace. Earlier in her career, she worked on communication and UX design at Google and product design at Lyft. According to Frank Yoo, design director at Lyft, Vicki “is positive and thoughtful and puts as much care into people and teams as she does creating the artifacts themselves.”  

This article is from a series of interviews that took place at the Front Conference in 2018.

Eli: Vicki Tan, senior product designer at Headspace, welcome to Conversations on

Vicki: Thanks for having me.

Eli: It’s great to have you here. So we were chatting a little bit earlier, and I’m a huge fan of Headspace. Love it. Before I knew about Headspace, I always thought, “I should try meditation, seems like it’s great, a lot of benefits.” But it was really the app that enabled my practice. I don’t do it as often as I should, but when I do, it really helps me.

What are some of the challenges in designing a mindfulness product that is often intended for a device that is basically anti-mindfulness?

Vicki: You nailed it. Our work is inherently a bit hypocritical—or I should say there’s a tension—because of the way apps and digital products rely on notifications to keep people engaged. The typical methods of doing that are a little contrary to what we’d like you to do. And the fact that you’re using the product on your phone, well, it’s just a landmine of so many other things to distract you. I work on onboarding, so focus on a slightly different area of it, but it’s definitely tricky.

It’s something we think about. We just have this extra layer of, “What would Andy think about this?” or, “What does the practice of meditation say about this?” And at the very least, we hope our notifications will help you pause and be more mindful about how much time you’re spending on your device. Rather than pulling you in to waste time or feel bad about social media, we’re pulling you in to help you. It is a bit of a double-edged sword, but we’ve tried to take a pretty modern approach.

Eli: So in your role, working on onboarding, what are some of the things you’ve found, interacting with users and building different parts of those feature sets, that really help engage people early on in their practice?

Vicki: We’ve found that rather than teaching people just about meditation, it’s much more helpful to get them to think inward about why they’re meditating, because that will keep them coming back to it. We hope that’ll create this intrinsic drive to practice, and it’s true that in the short term, you might just be coming back because the app is telling you to come back. It takes some time, I’m sure you know, to actually not feel crazy with all the thoughts in your mind when you’re trying to sit still and be quiet. But we’ve found that basing your practice around goals and getting you to think a little bit more about why you’re there helps a lot.

We also try to help them find time in their routines. For a lot of people, we heard that it wasn’t that sitting to meditate was that hard. Really, you just sit there and you follow the instructions. The problem was more similar to when you come home from work, and you just want sit and watch TV. You definitely don’t want to go to the gym. It’s not that people don’t have the time, it’s that doing healthy things, like eating healthy and exercising, meditating, somehow feels harder to do during that free time. So we’ve tried to help them find time in their schedules so they can just sneak it in—not trick themselves, but do it in a much easier, frictionless way.

One other thing we found really helpful to clarify in terms of onboarding and getting people to meditate, is the idea of not doing it enough and feeling guilty about missing a day or two. People think healthy habits have to happen every day to count, but that’s not the case. So we’ve started to move away from saying, “You should be meditating every single day,” to more of this idea of a “minimum dosage,” which can be two to three times a week, especially when you’re just starting off. I think that really helps people not feel like they’ve completely fallen off the train when they miss one day.

Eli: That makes sense. I was listening to a mindfulness expert talking about how even if you just have one mindful breath per day that will have an impact.

Vicki: It’s so important. It’s so easy to forget, though. At Headspace, we do it in the morning and then again at 3 PM all together as a company, whoever’s available will join. It’s just really nice to have those gentle nudges on the calendar to just get that one breath in.

Watch Vicki Tan speak about the history of Headspace and how they approach data in design, recorded at the Front Conference in June of 2018. As a bonus, you can meditate along with Vicki at around 02:00 into the video.

Eli: Do you have any inspiring stories about your users or the way the product design decisions have impacted them in a positive way?

Vicki: We’re lucky in that so many people write in every day about how we’ve changed their lives. They say things like, “I’m very glad you came up with the grief pack or the pain management pack or the cancer pack.” Or, “I have been using your content, and I’ve felt like this is exactly what I needed.”

Eli: Your undergrad degree is in behavioral psychology. How does that influence the way that you approach product design?

Vicki: Good question. I don’t know if it’s a conscious thing … Though, at Headspace since we have this science team, I get to revisit those roots quite often. It’s more like behavioral psychology and cognitive processes are the toolkits I’m most comfortable with.

Rather than jumping directly into the sketches or visual design or even in any sort of digital program, I think it’s that I lean more toward user research cause it’s my way of trying to understand what’s going on first. And then you’re not committing to anything. You don’t have to show anything. You can’t really get it wrong at that point. When I was deciding whether or not to get into design, I first considered doing user research because it seemed more like a natural transition.


Eli: Are there any books or blogs, podcasts, or other resources that you’ve recently found to be helpful?

Vicki: Yes, I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts! Although, working on meditation has made me think, “Maybe I should have some quiet mornings, too.” I’ve been listening to AngelList Founder Naval Ravikant. I really like listening to him talk about his values. He meditates, and he has a strong life philosophy, but he also is well-versed with technology, so I feel he understands how to balance both. He also just has this interesting point of view on life: how you should live it and who you should surround yourself with. I’ve sought out different podcasts he’s been on. Sometimes I’ll refer to him in conversation, “Well, Naval said…” Like he’s this person I know.

Eli: Your virtual mentor.

Vicki: Yeah, he’s the type of guy, who, when you’re listening to his podcasts, you want to write everything down. Other than that, the podcasts I lean toward are educational ones like Freakonomics Radio and Radiolab. Ones that are more on the behavioral economics and science side. I just find those topics really interesting. When I moved out of San Francisco, I stopped listening and reading as much to things focused on tech, product, and design. I felt like I’d just had too much. Other than that, I’ve just been reading mostly sci-fi and fantasy.

Eli: Any recent books that you liked?

Vicki: I dove into The Three-Body Problem, and it was just like “mind blown.” If you haven’t read it, you should

Eli: I haven’t. I’ll check it out. Okay, last question: Earlier in your career, or even now, are there any people that really influenced the way you approached your work?

Vicki: I’ve had a nonlinear path, and a friend I met along the way that really influenced me is Hsu Ken. He’s someone who always says, “Why not?” He’s a person in my life who’s always just pushed me to quit…(laughs). To quit but also to not be scared of trying new things. He has a really fresh perspective. He’s from Malaysia and then Portland, and he’s just one of those people you can just talk to forever about anything.

Eli: That’s wonderful. It’s great to have those kinds of people in your life. Well, Vicki, it was fantastic having you on Conversations. Thanks for being here.

Vicki: Great, thanks.


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