Smashing Ideas, out of Seattle, has morphed over the past 20 years, moving from a digital animation agency to a company helping to make real change in the digital and marketing world. With its latest product, Mindful Powers, the company is changing the way children cope with stress and anxiety, and hopefully changing the way adults deal with those children.
The Penguin Random House / Bertelsmann company has done smart work for companies as diverse as Nickelodeon and Panasonic, as well as Mattel and Microsoft, winning over 60 awards along the way. But it’s Smashing Ideas’ way of making positive change through collaboration and cutting-edge software, through an approach called Motivational UX – a blend of behavioral psychology, user experience and game design thinking – that makes it stand out.
Smashing Ideas recently ran a campaign called “Learn to Quit,” which is the first smoking cessation application for the severely mentally ill. Smashing Ideas worked in tandem with Dr. Roger Vilardaga of Duke University’s Center for Addiction Science and Technology Department, to plan, design and build the app for one of the most underserved segments of our population – people with serious mental illness who are addicted to nicotine.
The team made the app easy to use and understand, and conducted plenty of patient trials to make sure the app worked. The success proved not only to be successful for its social impact, but also earned the agency plenty of accolades, including a Gold W3 award and a Silver Davey award.
For its next challenge, Smashing Ideas again teamed up with Dr. Vilardaga to help kids with anxiety and ADHD to empower kids and bring a calming balance to their lives. The mindfulness app, called 'Mindful Powers', utilizes a digital friend called a Flibbertigibbet – kind of like a Hatchimal or Tamagotchi – that kids must help calm down in measured sessions, which in turn helps them to keep calm.
The app also features something called Focus Time, which is a simple task timer to help kids focus.
An incubator lab for profitable creative experimentation
Mindful Powers came out of Smashing Ideas’ SI Labs, an incubator within the agency that isn’t like a typical incubator.
“It's more actually about experimentation and building products that will offer distinct value to consumers, to people,” said Brian Burke, CEO of Smashing Ideas.
Creative director Jessica Barnes and strategist Anna Ho came to Burke and company with the idea for the new product and the lab. Mindfulness was a big part of the first conversations, and the category has expanded since that gestational period. The team identified a real need in a world where anxiety among children is on the rise. To combat this problem, they saw a need to help kids focus, de-stress and slow down. They presented the idea in the SI Labs project to unearth solutions, based in digital.
In researching, the team found that there were apps that addressed mindfulness in adults, but not children.
“There was a lot covering the market for adults but when it was the kids’ space, I really wasn't seeing anything. I thought it's a really unique opportunity to help kids,” said Barnes.
Barnes wanted to target kids from toddlers to age 12, centering on those with autism or hyperactivity deficit disorder. She harkened back to an application they built for dental device maker Philips Sonicare for Kids, which featured a character called Sparkly.
“Something that I noticed with the [kids] testing with Sparkly is they really liked petting the character. He's really fuzzy and furry. I got to thinking about having a character that you take care of, that can help you learn about your emotions and that's how the Flibbertigibbet came to be. Then this thought of visualizing it in a way that kids can understand through color and then through the facets of it being spikey and then getting smoothed out…that would be this motivational tool that moves kids into wanting taking care of the character…that teaches them how to practice mindfulness,” said Barnes.
Barnes and Ho were further inspired by a statistic coming from the National Institute of Mental Health, which estimated that at least 25% of children suffer from some sort of diagnosable anxiety or stress.
“That really underlined the fact that we can help tons of kids learn to deal with stress and anxiety. That's where we started to move away from this idea of specifically helping children with autism or ADHD, because they do have very specific needs, and just helping as many kids as we could, just that general kid audience, deal with stress and anxiety,” added Ho.
“Part of my job is to help connect dots. We started looking at technology and how people have been using technology to help children with stress and anxiety. I came across something about the power of touch and how touch can trigger these neurosensors and that in turn can affect the signals to your brain. That idea of leveraging the phone to help calm and apply mindfulness became an interesting premise and challenge. From there, we have that concept of using the phone as a way to prime children into a calmer state, and then segueing into a lesson in mindfulness,” said Ho, a former English teacher in South Korea with a master’s degree in education from Harvard.
The team then started to validate the idea through parent surveys and built a prototype so kids would interact with the character. Through testing, they saw that kids reacted positively to the character and grasped the concept of calming the character so they could relax.
Dr. Vilardaga was instrumental in the process. His training as a clinical psychologist is in mindfulness therapy called acceptance and commitment therapy.
“In clinical psychology there's this new movement in incorporating mindfulness practices into psychotherapy. The basic idea of mindfulness is the notion that we can develop a skill to be more sensitive and more aware of our surroundings and our internal reactions. The second one is once we are aware of those internal reactions or surroundings, the skill [is] to be more open to them,” said Vilardaga.
He noted that he discussed with the Smashing Ideas team that the application should make clear it is not for clinical purposes – it is software that should be designed to facilitate the acquisition of a skill more than a device for treating problems.
“There's about 600 apps for mindfulness at this point, but only two have been tested in clinical trials,” he said, adding that just because they weren’t tested doesn’t mean they don’t have value.
Mindful Powers helps train a range of mindfulness skills, he said.
“What we did with this app is we systematically created modules and content to train the user to go through all of those different dimensions of mindfulness,” he added. “What do you hear? What do you see? What do you taste? What do you touch? Then we can feel and think. That's something that a lot of apps do not have -- that kind of systematic approach to mindfulness training.”
Smashing Ideas hopes to launch the app in February or March.
Maturation of an agency
Smashing Ideas started out as a digital animation agency in 1996 making webisodes. Its first break was working with the creators of South Park and Comedy Central to help bring the animated series to the web. The agency then got into gaming, building over 400 games, and then building websites after it got an opportunity to work with the Disney Channel.
“What happened in that period is we understood and we started building this strong path towards game design thinking. That really is about how you engage the users. And we were having a lot of fun building products for kids, websites for kids,” said Burke.
In 2005 they started building for the mobile market and got into e-publishing, and when the iPad came out, they started building apps, including an e-book application.
From there, the company developed a strong partnership with Random House, which contributed to the sale to parent company Bertelsmann, essentially making it the digital division of Random House and bringing print into the digital era, which led to a new vision for the company.
“In restating our vision, we decided to be digital pioneers that make things that matter,” he said. “And so the key thing for us was to look to things with that lens, making things that matter.”
That became the guiding light for the agency, which Burke said is why projects like Mindful Powers come to fruition. Those initiatives are about the long-term growth and health of the company, since they show competency, mission and values.
It now all falls under the company’s approach to innovation, Motivational UX, which applies decades of multi-disciplinary research in behavioral psychology, user experience, and game design thinking to technology solutions, and gives clients a strategic edge over the competition.
“It's truly understanding use of behavior in trying to promote positive behavior change of formation as outcomes for people,” said Burke.
Burke said that the company went through a lot of learning along the way and is still figuring out the road ahead, though it is a much clearer path now.
“A lot of this is new territory for us. And it's helping us craft how we look at projects moving forward, and how we apply methodologies to unearth, really, those insights that help make a better product.”
Additional reporting by Doug Zanger.