Exploring expressive therapy

Alice Q
Alice Q
Apr 23, 2018 · 5 min read

The first project during my enrollment at Ironhack was to design an app around the theme of wellness. Therapy sessions can be expensive, how might we provide the benefits of expressive therapy in the comfort of your own space for free?

User Research

I surveyed 10 people and interviewed 3 people, who enjoy doing some form of art for leisure. And also learn about people’s relationship with mental health.

I also learned about the cycle of depression and anxiety some people struggle with. Research shown that painting in art therapy is an effective for people struggling with depression, because they are creating something with their bare hands.

From interviews, I’ve learned from them that not all art heals, but when it is:

  • Non-competitive
  • No social pressure (in private)
  • In the moment (improvised)

When asked “how does making art for leisure make them feel?” in the survey, the 3 most frequent answers are:

  • Self-aware
  • Relaxed
  • Free

How might we utilize expressive therapy to help people feel relaxed, self-aware, and free?

Affinity Map & Brainstorm

‘Body introspection’, a phrase one interviewee used stucked in my mind. And another interviewee talked about the joy of dancing alone when they are home alone. I decided to explore the relationship between movement and music.

What if you can improvise music by hand gestures alone? Instead of dancing to the music, you dance to make music.

Storyboard: user & app interaction

Devising a test plan

How can I prototype & test an interaction that relies on sound and motion in 2 days?


  1. Lacked motion sensor chips and Arduino while living abroad
  2. The sounds made must sound good, no matter how the user moves

But I realized that lacking hardware and generating music are not problems this stage. Firstly, I need to gage people’s emotion response to the act of generating music by moving around.

Faking it

  1. My Android phone had an accelerometer and gyroscope!
  2. Music generation can be faked. Download an obscure song, play it when the device is in motion, and pause it when it is still.
UX demo with audience participating

After testing the crude prototype with users, I’ve discovered:

  • People were delighted by the app.
  • But using an unknown song did not fool people into thinking that they were improvising music.
  • Nonetheless some users expressed the remixing popular songs would be just as fun as making new songs.


Improvising music ~ accomplishment & freedom
Remixing music ~ control & agency

Due to time constraints, my instructors advised me to focus on the remixing portion, which will be aimed to help people deal with anxiety.

For that I had to do additional research about people who struggle with anxiety. Luckily, the persoan I created during the research phase copes with anxiety. So I built my findings around my persona.

Persona: Toni

27 years old from Puerto Rico living in Toronto, ON pursuing a PhD in Experimental Physics

Toni as an irregular sleep and work schedule, which runs on 30 hour days. Often he is in the lab until 4–6AM. Finds himself either having too little sleep or sleeping too much due to working consecutively for 16–20 hours.
He’s been stressed about his dissertation not going well. He’s also worried about his family in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Irma. They still don’t have power.
Recently he’s been having panic attacks. Initially he mistaken it as a heart attack, went to the ER at his university’s hospital, because he is unfamiliar with psycho-somatic reactions. The doctors recommend he seeks counseling.
He does want to prevent future panic attacks, and find ways to manage his general anxiety and cope with depression.

A new direction: Focus on anxiety

One thing I’ve learned from talking to people with anxiety, is that when a panic attack comes on. It is best to just let it run its course by thinking/doing something you are familiar with.

By remixing a song at least 10 times, it becomes gets added to the user’s mastered list. When they feel a panic attack coming, they can just go straight to the mastered songs and start remixing. It will help them get in a state of flow and ride out their anxiety.

Kept this in mind when I revised the wireframes, and moved on to visual design.

Visual Design

Since our user persona is an experimental physicist, I played with how light and electricity conveys sounds. Neon lights and Spotify’s lightsaber track bar become my inspiration for my design.

Style Guide
Remixing music screens
Song statistics screens

This project was the first time I learned to use Principle, I tried stretching the boundaries of the tool to see what it can do.

Play/Pause toggle
Practice with object states


If I could work on this project with more insight, I would …

  • Asked permission to take pictures of people’s reactions when I asked them to move my phone and test out the crude prototype.
  • Gave myself more time, so I may prototype the improv mode.

Tools Used

Photoshop, Sketch, Principle

Alice Q

Written by

Alice Q

The journey of a computer scientist learning user experience design

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