Sleep Ninja

Product design • Black Dog Institute • The Loom

It’s no secret that mental illness, specifically depression, is painfully common in late teens. In fact as many as 1/4 of teens will suffer from it each year. What is less well know is that good sleep habits are actually one of the best defences against it, with excellent sleepers having significantly lower chances of developing depression. This doesn't mean sleeping a lot this means sleeping healthily. Specifically, being able to actually fall asleep quickly when you hit the pillow.

Most people don’t realise that this is even a skill and something that you can improve. There are a wide range of tips and tricks that psychologists have learned that can help teens to sleep better. And the best time to learn this skill is before you need it, ideally in the 13-17 age range.

So how do you get teens a bit more interested in learning to sleep well? This is exactly what the Black Dog Institute, wanted to discover with Their Adolescent Sleep program. What if they could master sleep, like a ninja masters combat?

Working directly with the clinical psychologists at the Black Dog Institute, and guided by an advisory council of actual young people, We developed Sleep Ninja, a 6-ish week course which trained teens with mild sleep problems.

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The council of Young people helped guide our ideas with feedback on what was “cool” and what was trying just a bit too hard. They also helped guide the aesthetic and the tone of the Sleep Ninja himself.



The Psychologists brought different experience to the project. We learnt from them that people don't actually learn as well when they absorb all of the training all at once. Instead it’s better to slowly drip feed content over time, with the ability to put what they’ve learnt into practice in between. To support this, kids would slowly level up with a new “belt” after learning new skills and practicing them for a week.



Many apps on the market have excellent sleep tracking functionality. Sadly, they require your phone to be in the room, and removing your phone from the bedroom was actually one of the first tips the Sleep Ninja teaches you. So that wasn’t going to work for us.

Instead, the Sleep Ninja checks in with you via a “text” each morning, asking you how you’re feeling and how you slept. And then at night, he prompts you to start the little tricks that make sleeping easier. This felt completely natural to the teens we had reviewing the designs.



This chat-based interface was taken a step further and used in the actual lessons themselves. Taking inspiration from apps such as the Quartz news app, a “choose your own adventure” style of conversation was created. Allowing for a more natural conversational interface, without actually having to rely on the “free text” chat bots. At the time of writing, these open ended bots are still not… quite there yet. They often misinterpret the user and destroying the immersion of a real conversation.

Breaking up the conversation are occasional interactive activities which helped keep the training fresh and more memorable. An approach that had been validated in previous clinical trials.



With most digital products, you do your research, make your best guesses and then see if they produce the results you want, hopefully testing and tweaking as you go. When it comes to work in the clinical space however, testing in much more rigorous. Sleep Ninja is currently undergoing a full clinical trial to validate it’s effectiveness.

Once proven, Sleep Ninja will be promoted in schools and through other community outlets for young people. Clinicians at the Black Dog Institute predict that with only a moderate update of the program, as many as 40,000 fewer cases of depression will exist each year. That’s…quite something.

Matthew Delprado