Reflections on the MxM NYC Internship

Sunny Last Day!

As we wrap up Made by Many’s NYC summer internship to create a journaling app that encourages self awareness, it seems appropriate to conclude the intern blog series with an entry to reflect on what I’ve learned. This summer, we were asked to:

Create a product to solve a problem at the intersection of mental health and machine learning/artificial intelligence.

With so many innovators in this big world of mental health, what was a realistic problem we could help address in the short span of 12 weeks?

As I started reflecting on our journey, I drew this doodle summarizing our process to organize my thoughts:

A few thoughts this internship has gotten me thinking about:

1. On That Thing Called Empathy

In the past, I compartmentalized user research and design production to be linear, consecutive, but still separate. I’ve realized over this summer though that for a designer (and really, the whole team) to be fully invested, there is no substitution for talking to and developing empathy for users; no amount of research statistics and/or survey numbers can replace it.

I think there’s something about talking with users- the eye contact, underlying tones, and first hand narrative in real time- that is more memorable than statistics on a page. After all, we remember stories, not numbers.

Which brings me to a next conflicting thought. Somewhere in the middle of our interviewing process, I started asking myself:

But is there such thing as too much empathy?

Our interviewee subjects surprisingly opened up with personal stories they hadn’t told some of their closest friends. Yet really putting myself in their shoes made me reflect closely on my own anxieties, fears, and insecurities.

The good? I felt more invested. I strayed farther from trying to make a sexy product for the sake of novelty, but began critically evaluating the ideas and how useful each actually could be.

The bad? I am not the user, nor am I designing for myself. Designers come with the intention of addressing a problem, and need an objective view to arrive with a different perspective.

This internal dialogue made me question how designers exactly should empathize. This dichotomy in empathy between concern and contagion is not just relevant to design, but especially in any professional field where emotional understanding is the key ingredient to delivering value.

2. On Choosing What To Make

After interviewing more than a dozen people and subject matter experts during our research phase, I still felt insecure about designing a product without a background in mental health. The mentors comforted us that after we each talked to a few people, we would start hearing similar responses in our interviews. Still, I couldn’t help but question — what is a sufficient amount of research before you start choosing what to make?

This was the part where we had to trust following the process. The whole point of doing agile and making a MVP is that you experiment with a few hunches you think could work based on what prior research reveals. However, you won’t really know until the hunches (what MxM calls “hypotheses”) are tested in front of users.

Instead of perfecting ideas under closed curtains for a big reveal, it’s more efficient to show every step of the process to users, letting them critique and act as guides for decisions.

Although they can’t necessarily articulate what they want without having experienced a “preferred future state”, reading in between the lines of their responses can still reveal underlying behaviors and needs.

3. On Design & Mentorship

It takes planning and a thoughtful team to build out an internship that strikes a healthy balance between guidance and autonomy.

Guidance:

During the 2 weeks of heads down design, our daily design check-ins were extremely effective in making sure I was exploring as many variations of design as possible and had an opinion on what I made. At times it got frustrating — even with only a few designers in the studio, there were multiple opinions on how things like a user flow should work.

I’ve realized it’s better to end up at the same spot after exploring as much as possible than to not have explored at all. Some of this design “intuition” also just comes with experience; to be around long enough to have a reasonable gut feeling of whether a design may or may not work. It’s best to show up with patience and an open mindset to take it all as a learning opportunity.

Autonomy:

Each decision throughout our timeline was ultimately up to us three interns to make, and I recognize it takes a certain level of trust from the mentors’ parts for that to happen. It also meant that communication between the three of us was key, which took time for us to settle into. Throughout the internship, we were often reminded that this was our project- we could take it as shallow or as far as we wanted. I love that we were encouraged to own the project from an internal motivation perspective.

4. Internship Final Thoughts:

This internship has been immensely rewarding, and I feel fortunate to have worked with such a supportive mentorship and intern team. I’m especially excited that building this product has gotten me thinking more about the possibilities that products may have in creating positive behavior change.

After 12 weeks of research, design, + code, what’d we make?

Introducing: Loose Leaf

Loose Leaf encourages journalers to let go of their thoughts by watching their entries disappear. After entries clear, natural language processing uses tone analysis to identify trends in emotions and words most used over time.

Interested in testing our three months labor of love MVP for yourself? Sign up for the beta release. We’re thirsty for your feedback!

It’s been an awesome ride this summer with MxM. It’s time to return to the peaceful island and finish up my last semester for now. Signing out :)

MxM NYC 2016 Intern Squad- Sherry, Elise, Debbie