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I Created an App to Solve Anxiety-Driven Insomnia, And It’s Super Cute

Sleepy Pets originated from a dramatic misunderstanding. Here's our story.

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Written by Timothy Yang, Student at Dartmouth and Co-Creator of Sleepy Pets

Since my freshman year of college, my mother has suffered from a severe case of chronic insomnia. Anyone who has had the misfortune of undergoing an all-nighter knows the horrible aftermath: you’re irritable, your eyes are dry, your muscles feel like jelly, and your body craves rest. I was constantly heartbroken seeing my mom suffer several consecutive nights without a single second of sleep, with no amount of medication or psychotherapy putting as much as a dent in the illness. It was a vicious cycle of stress, lack of sleep, greater stress, and even less sleep.

Although not as extreme as my mother’s, sleep deprivation affected me too: I was losing hours of sleep each night scrolling through hundreds of popular Reddit posts and would wake up with regret. Unfortunately, I was not alone. My friends also shared similar experiences. Tim would play video games almost every night even if he had class the next morning, resulting in lower focus in class due to sleep inertia. Winston would often work late into the night and compensate for the lack of sleep by taking midday naps; consequently, he constantly felt tired and anxious. The sleeping troubles don’t stop there—according to statistics, 7 out of 10 college students reported sleep deprivation. Furthermore, sleep deprivation is linked with a lower GPA and worse mental health.

This is the story of how the Sleepy Pets team came to win Dartmouth’s first-ever Designathon as well as a tribute to a group of friends arduously working to alleviate the issue of anxiety-driven insomnia—something that is relevant to me on a personal level. For me, Sleepy Pets isn’t just a fun design project. It’s a way to battle the widespread problem of sleep deprivation on every level, from young people with distracting technology to people with serious insomnia. It’s a potential cure that may someday help my mom and others like her finally experience proper rest again.

How It Started

It was around January, the winter of my junior year at Dartmouth College, when my friend Winston sent me a link for an event called Designathon 2020: Unplugged.

The premise sounded interesting enough: advertised as Dartmouth’s first Designathon, the event was a 2-day design competition where thinkers, creators, and change-makers would come together to solve the problem of tech-life balance. Admittedly, the $5000 prize grant written in big, bold letters on the poster was too enticing to ignore.

Consequently, we registered as a boisterous team of four: me, Tim, Maxine, and Winston. We were already well-acquainted with one another, especially after spending our sophomore summer together, slaving away day and night in the soul-crushing software development course CS50. In many ways, we were a perfectly homogeneous group: all computer science majors, all Dartmouth juniors, all from international upbringings, and all with a playful sense of humor.

The Designathon Begins

Sleepy Pets originated from a dramatic misunderstanding. During dinner on the first day of the designathon, Winston mumbled something about a “slide deck” for the idea presentation. Amid the noisy environment, all I heard was “Psyduck,” a character from the popular Japanese video game franchise Pokémon. Coincidentally, I had just recently watched the movie Detective Pikachu. By far, the best character in it was the “adorkable” Psyduck, a duck-inspired Pokémon who explodes under stress. I playfully proposed (a bit sarcastically) that we design an app where Psyduck appears on screen and gets visibly stressed when the user is using their phone for too long, especially since the Designathon was meant to promote a healthy tech-life balance. We all laughed, thinking it was a funny idea, but brushed it off as a casual remark.

We spent the evening doing initial research regarding tech-life imbalance. In the end, we decided to focus on tackling the issue of sleep deprivation. We have all encountered issues with sleep-related technology overuse, whether it’s blue light-induced insomnia or using our smartphones to distract ourselves from difficult emotions such as stress and anxiety. We joked again with the Psyduck idea since we could easily use it to combat the sleep issue.

We wanted to make sure we gave a wide array of ideas serious consideration before choosing any one idea, so we were each tasked with brainstorming and coming up with 15 ideas that night. The next morning, we each wrote down all our ideas on posters pasted around the room, and used dot voting to narrow down the list after a brief introduction of our ideas. Of those 60 ideas, we narrowed down to around 10, and from that, we further narrowed it down to 2 ideas that we would make prototypes from in order to user-test.

These were the final ideas:

1) A gamification of the sleeping process by having a virtual pet that prompts the user to sleep. Inspired by the Psyduck idea, the sleep app would have the pet display emotions of nervousness and distress as the night goes on, hopefully prompting the users to sleep by triggering caring emotions. The pet will also prompt the user with a dialogue to further persuade the users to sleep.

2) A smart box that creates a soothing nighttime routine by playing calm music or white noise, producing a sleep-inducing scent, and offering a guided bedtime meditation routine, all with an automatic turn-off function.

After deciding on our ideas and grabbing some lunch food provided by the Designathon, we quickly made our way to Berry Library (Dartmouth’s main library) to create the prototypes and user test them to our target population—namely, college students. We were racing against time. After all, in less than 3 hours the Designathon would end and we would need to deliver a pitch to a panel of judges. We quickly storyboarded both of our ideas (drawing the ideas out in markers, comic-book style) and presented them to several students in FFB, (First Floor Berry), the area where students who want to socialize study. To our delight, both of the ideas received positive feedback, with many of the participants acknowledging that they suffered from sleeping issues. After some debate among the team, we settled for the first idea and named it “Sleepy Pets.” We also decided to add the white noise element. We focused our effort in drafting a more detailed prototype with UI (user interface) elements and a walkthrough of how the app would work, even designing a cute cat in pixel art and adding animation.

The Birth of Sleepy Pets 1.0

Energized by the positive results of our initial user testing, we scoured Berry Library for more unsuspecting students to test our magnificent creation—Sleepy Pets 1.0. We were confident that participants would be blown away by the overwhelming cuteness of our design. After all, who wouldn’t want to be put to bed by an adorable virtual pet, accompanied by a dash of celestial white noise? Quite unexpectedly, the second round of testers were harsh critics that attacked us with wave after wave of negative feedback. The UI looked a bit clunky. The benefits of the app were unclear. Sure, the Sleepy Pet on the main screen looked cute, but the idea of the pet becoming increasingly sad may induce further anxiety for the user who was already struggling to go to sleep. In short, Sleepy Pets was more of an unnecessary distraction than a helpful tool to encourage healthy sleeping habits.

I glanced down at my watch. Less than sixty minutes remained before the pitch competition, and we still needed to prepare the pitch deck. Tensions were rising within the team. Maxine and Winston stubbornly refused to give up on the idea of Sleepy Pets even though it contradicted our initial intentions. Tim wanted to switch back to our discarded idea, the guided sleeping ritual with a scented music box. My heart was pounding, and I felt sick to my stomach. It was time to calm down and regather our thoughts. After some brief breathing exercises with the team, we reviewed our current progress. Sleepy Pets was cute, but major revisions were necessary to prevent it from becoming a distraction. The scented music box was boring but achieved our intended goal of reducing user reliance on tech, especially because of its automatic turn-off function.

Suddenly, the solution dawned upon us—why don’t we combine the best parts of the two ideas? After all, the testers loved the cute design of Sleepy Pets and the pragmatism of the scented music box. We scrambled to revise our prototype, adding several features such as automatically limiting access to certain features of their phone and dimming the screen’s brightness after the user initiates an encouraging sleep ritual guided by their favorite Sleepy Pet. The user may set a bedtime, and the pet will begin the process of shutting down the phone while exhibiting cute sleepy behaviors to further prompt the users to sleep. White noise or calm music will continue to play in the background according to the user’s preference, and the Sleepy Pet will be up and ready to greet the user in the morning after a good night’s sleep. The Sleepy Pet will also be responsible for reporting sleep data and rewarding the user for achieving pre-defined milestones. Within the final heart-racing, half-hour sprint, we swiftly redesigned our UI, went out for last-minute feedback, and sprinted back to our headquarters to polish our slide deck.

As the judges called our team, aptly named Team Zzzz, we confidently walked up to the stage to unveil Sleepy Pets, a battle-worn trophy that not only testified to the creativity of our minds but also to the resilience of our friendship. Our grit exists due to our deeply personal mission: to help people experiencing anxiety-induced insomnia finally get a good night’s sleep.

Originally published on LookUp.

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