Beyond breathing: Behind Apple’s approach to mindfulness on the Apple Watch

·8-min read
WatchOS 8's new Mindfulness app is but one facet of Apple's approach to mindfulness as a whole. — Picture courtesy of Apple
WatchOS 8's new Mindfulness app is but one facet of Apple's approach to mindfulness as a whole. — Picture courtesy of Apple

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 21 ― In all my sci-fi imaginings, my watch nagging me every so often to take some time to chill out wasn’t part of it.

For many people less grumpy than I tend to be, the Breathe app on the Apple Watch and what it does ― remind you to take a time out to just focus on your breathing ― has been helpful.

During the one-minute session with Breathe, you are prompted with haptic feedback on when to inhale and when to exhale, guided slow breathing that for most people is a quick and easy way to find calmness.

With the WatchOS 8 update launching this week, Breathe is now no longer a standalone app.

Instead it has become part of a new app called Mindfulness where a new function, Reflect, joins Breathe.

I asked Julz Arney, Apple’s director of fitness technologies and Fitness+ whether the number of breaths per Breathe session was a calculated thing.

She replied in the affirmative. Apparently, the default number of breaths is seven but users can easily change it if they want.

There is also a set minimum of four breaths per Breathe session, despite the default, but you can increase it if you think seven is too few breaths to take in a minute.

“We know that the majority of customers don't usually go into the settings, which is why we worked so hard to make sure that the out of the box experience is comfortable and enjoyable,” Arney said.

Arney said Apple made it a point to have options in the settings to help customise user experience, though it wasn’t usually the first thing that came to mind.

“That's one of the big things we think about in design is how does it feel for everyone? They just open it up and try it.”

Mindful about minutes

Speaking of options, in the settings you can choose whether you get a report on how many Mindfulness minutes you have racked so far.

After each Reflect or Breathe use, you get a little reporting at the end of a session, letting you know just how fast your heart was beating.

On that, Arney said, “The indicator of your heart rate is really there to help you make a mind-body connection. It's so important that we understand how those two things work together. Slowing down your breathing, and following a guided breath taps into something in your nervous system that helps you relax.”

Putting the heart rate at the end of a session, Arney said, was a lovely reminder that those two things, your mind and your body, are really interconnected.

As to how keeping track of how many mindful minutes was helpful to people, Arney said the ability to quantify mindfulness, the way you can keep track of your heart rate or your calories, was an important part of the process.

“From what we have understood from customers around activity, closing their rings every day is really empowering and also motivating to be more active again tomorrow.”

Customers could, for instance, look into their Apple Health app to see how many mindfulness minutes they managed on a certain day and use that as motivation.

Arney gave a common user scenario: “Wow, I've done five minutes today. And I did three minutes yesterday. I want to try to do another five minutes tomorrow.”

As to what users in general will get out of mindfulness, Arney said,”We really are aware now more than ever that things like isolation and the lack of attention, not being able to pay attention can make you feel lonely and kind of unsatisfied. Feeling more connected is a remedy for that isolation.”

By helping bring focus to their minds, which is essentially the heart of mindfulness, “it helps melt away those moments of distraction.”

Having mindfulness aids as accessible as a tap on your smartwatch, and knowing that it can be as brief as a minute, “is something we're excited for users today,” said Arney.

A Reflect experience

The Reflect app in the Mindfulness app differs from Breathe in one particular aspect, a swirl of colourful animations on the watch, meant to engage visual focus as you meditate on a particular reflection prompt.

On the animation, Arney said that it was with the help of internal users who were passionate about mindfulness beginning from the Breathe app's beginnings in 2016, who helped test the experience.

The animations expand and contract, with a guided element and on the design itself, Arney said it was meant to be “soothing and lovely” for the majority of people who engage with it.

It was important, Arney, said the animation for Reflect had a sense of inspiration to it.

“We didn't want it to be something that felt too subdued or sleepy, but something that really felt like it was, supporting the (Reflect experience).”

Accessibility was also an aspect considered in the app's design, where the visually disabled would still be able to use the Reflect app by using the VoiceOver accessibility feature on the Apple Watch.

Blind users will be able to hear the Reflect prompt over either the Watch speaker or supported Bluetooth headphones such as the AirPods, as well as be aided by subtle haptics to guide them while using the Reflect app.

Was it a deliberate choice to separate Reflect and Breathe as separate functions in the Mindfulness app? Yes, said Arney.

“We started with Breathe because with Breathe, you didn't have to know anything about meditation,” she said.

Back in 2016, meditation was not quite the in-thing it is today though that has changed a lot in the last few years.

“We started with something that you can engage with just by using your body. Whether your mind was racing, the thoughts, or perfectly calm and serene, the breathing would give you a result that helped you be more focused, more relaxed, and feel more connected.

“Now in the Mindfulness app, we feel like we have two paths to help people be more mindful. One is that physical side with Breathe, but the other is actually training for your mind,” Arney said, saying that the Reflect function by itself is a mini meditation.

Arney said that hopefully the changes would appeal to an even broader set of users, who are keen to explore meditation and now will be able to access that in as little as a minute right from their wrists.

Pilates and tai chi are new Workout options on the Apple Watch. — Picture courtesy of Apple
Pilates and tai chi are new Workout options on the Apple Watch. — Picture courtesy of Apple

Hello, Pilates and tai chi

Pilates and Tai Chi's addition as workout types in WatchOS 8 was a natural progression to Apple's expanded focus on mindfulness.

“Every year, we work to create custom algorithms around new workout types that we know are popular with our users,” said Arney.

“Over the years we've just continued to expand on the custom algorithms that give our users the most accurate, possible credit for the workout or activity that they're doing.”

Pilates for instance, Arney said, tends to be a workout that is very stationary with very small movement that is very different from other workout types that have bigger movements that are easier to track.

She compared that with tai chi that was all about very slow, but continuous movement, that also has a lot of body positions that put you very low to the ground.

“Since we've really been thinking about mindfulness recently, it felt like those were two great workouts to do that work around this year,” she said.

Answering my question on where she saw mindfulness as part of Apple's overall approach to health and where she saw it evolving, Arney said she thinks it extends beyond the Apple Watch.

“I think this approach to self care is something that's really supported across the ecosystem,” noting the new Focus mode that helps users be intentional about how they use their time and direct their attention.

Another example was Apple's current Screen Time feature that helps you keep track of how much time you spend on your devices, as well as Apple's sleep experience that helps establish sleep hygiene.

“It really fits into our philosophy for building things that make the most positive difference for the most people broadly. Making sure that those features are really easy to use and empowering. I think that, like with a lot of new spaces, we're just getting started, but we're really excited about what we can do here and how it can impact people's health,” Arney said.

WatchOS 8 is now available for download for Apple Watch Series 3 or later paired with iPhone 6s or later that are running iOS 15.

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