There’s an old urban legend around the rivalry the existed in pop music between the Beatles and the Beach Boys in the 60’s. In 1966 the Beach Boys released Pet Sounds, which combined experimental approaches to music and the traditional harmonies and lyrics the Beach Boys were known for. The results included some classic pop songs, like “God Only Knows” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and were said to be inspired in part by Brian Wilson’s appreciation for the Beatles Rubber Soul album. In 1967, they were working on Smile, an album that they thought would be even more revolutionary in its musical art than Pet Sounds. In the midst of recording, they were given an early preview of the Beatles upcoming album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And when they heard it, they were blown away. Here were the Beatles, creating the very album they aspired to, while their work seemed to pale in comparison. The members of the Beach Boys were overwhelmed, particularly lead songwriter Brian Wilson, who had been battling mental health and substance abuse issues for years. This moment exacerbated his already existing depression and recording on Smile began to fall apart.
I thought about this story often as I had the opportunity to review “Should I Break Up With My Boyfriend”, a new mobile app for iOS devices by developer Sarah Gray and designer Daniel Stanford*. I have been working for the last 6 months on the creation of CohesiveSelf®, a mobile application designed to help individuals track their mood and access tools to help improve their emotional states. CohesiveSelf® includes audio files for relaxation, deep breathing, and guided imagery to help individuals manage difficult points in their life.
As for Should I Break Up With My Boyfriend, its premise is simple: rate your boyfriend over a 14 day period on a five point scale from “Totally Over Him” to “Totally in Love”. The app guides you to set up a daily reminder using iOS push notification and also allows you to write a brief note describing the details around your feelings for that day. While you can add ratings at any time in addition to the ones you scheduled, your ratings stay hidden until the full period of “boyfriend evaluation” is complete. This aspect is ingenious, as previous ratings are then less likely to influence each additional rating. This creates a laser focus on each moment within the relationship, assuring that each individual instance of rating stands on its own and is unaffected by knowledge or expectations related to previous entries.
At the end of the 14 day period of collecting ratings, you are given advice based on both the average of your ratings as well as the standard deviation. This use of standard deviation is key to the effectiveness of the advice, because it helps identify the “swings” between the daily ratings. As a result, in addition to being able to view a final average rating, the user can assess whether they are willing to endure the relationship’s “craters” in order to enjoy its “peaks”.
In addition to this analysis and advice, Should I Break Up With My Boyfriend also offers something else: fun, playful, and engaging design. The visual and audio elements are incredibly cool, and include an adorable, fuzzy female creature whose expressions and body language change with each range of ratings. The “Totally Over Him” rating, for example, is presented through dark storm clouds and lightning, a sad little chime, and a clap of thunder. As a psychologist specializing in adolescents and young adults, the appeal to young women in this demographic is quickly evident. And as you continue to use the app, you realize that what it offers is a special mix of real analytic tracking of emotions in a playful and engaging wrapper.
Which brings me back to CohesiveSelf® and my own “Sgt. Pepper” moment. One question lingered after experiencing Should I Break Up With My Boyfriend: in my interest in creating an app with great utility, did I put enough emphasis on fun and ease of use? Did I remember that one of the best parts of the mobile experience is the ability to have fun? Why else would apps like Angry Birds and Words With Friends be multi-million sellers? However, instead of being discouraged by the genius of Should I Break Up With My Boyfriend, I resolved to make sure that being witness to fun, engaging design creates inspiration that drives ongoing development and moves CohesiveSelf® (which debuted on the iOS App Store last week!) onward and upward.
As for Smile, Brian Wilson completed his original vision for it in 2004, over 38 years after recording began and despite a lifetime battling mental health and substance abuse issues. And if that’s not inspirational, I don’t know what is.
* – In the interest of full disclosure Sarah Gray and her partner at MercuryApp, Corey Haines served as technical advisors to me through early stage software development.