The Cactus and His Secret

May 28, 2020 · 6 min read

Designing a Product Ecosystem that Extends Beyond the Screen

What I love about design is that the end result can be quite surprising given the initial prompt. For this project my teammate and I began with the serious inquiry of how to help healthy relationships and in the end wrote a story about a cactus.

The Cactus and His Secret- an ecosystem of a book and activity cards

The prompt: create an product ecosystem that extends beyond the screen.

Time: 5 weeks

Teammate: Christi Danner

When choosing a topic to explore for our project, Christi and I went with what we were and are continuously curious about: human relationships. We wanted to know what made the backbone of healthy relationships and why other relationships became destructive.

As good design is meant to help bridge the gap between the present and a more ideal future, we plunged into our research with the idea that we wanted our ecosystem to aid in the creation of healthier relationships.

We started with our territory map, brainstorming the stakeholders of relationships so we could plan on who best to interview. Everyone is involved in relationships, so it was a bit tricky narrowing down the groups of people.

Our territory map covered the broad scope of therapy and the self-help industry to parenting trends and online forums. We quickly realized that our umbrella of relationships was too large to maneuver, and that we would need a smaller scope.

The ‘aha’ moment came through an initial interview with someone who self-proclaimed to be poor at maintaining healthy relationships. While she spoke of relationships external to herself, what stuck out was how poorly she spoke of herself. Our focus changed from helping external relationships to helping the internal relationship with one’s self.


Once we had honed in on our topic, research was much easier to conduct. We referenced mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy workbooks and worksheets, resources for children’s mental wellness, and online forums such as Reddit, where individuals shared anecdotal information. We also conducted interviews: four with therapists and five with peers.

The first two therapists we interviewed, along with some key takeaway quotes
The last two therapists we interviewed, along with the main ideas we took away from them

The most helpful part of the research process were the four interviews with therapists. They shared their own models of positive and negative self-talk and self-esteem patterns; shared strategies that they use to help clients; and referred us to other resources. We learned quickly that therapists do not like to say that they give advice, rather they lead their clients to certain areas of thinking. Some great takeaways were the visual representations they used to help a client externalize their inner thoughts and patterns.

Of these interviews, the most impact for our project was a framework for self-growth that one of the therapists shared. This model involves first reaching an understanding of oneself; then accepting oneself fully; and lastly, growth rooted in self-compassion. We built our system upon this foundation.


At the beginning of ideating for our ecosystem, we knew there were a couple of attributes we wanted to include. First, we wanted to use plants as a metaphor in our system. Plants are a pleasant topic that are accessible to everyone and that offer endless metaphorical potential. Second, we were drawn to narrative therapy as a model and in some way, wished to include storytelling.

Initial concepts for figuring out what products in our ecosystem we wanted, along with what story we could tell.

The biggest turn in our ideation process came when we chose to make the system for children rather than adults. This pivot came part way through brainstorming, once we had discussed a few preliminary ideas. A narrative approach could work with a hero’s journey with a self-conscious plant as the protagonist. We had learned, after all, from our research that most negative thinking can be traced to a person’s childhood. Why not, then, strive to help people form healthy thinking patterns at an early age so that they might be more resilient as they grow into adulthood?

Eventually, we settled on creating a storybook with a cactus as the main character who struggled with accepting something about himself. Over the course of the story, the cactus would meet various other characters who would each teach the cactus a lesson. We would also create a deck of activity cards to accompany the book. The cards would each have a cognitive behavioral method or mindfulness method that would mirror plot points from the story and help the reader practice the lessons learned.

Final deliverables

The story that we wrote is called “The Cactus and his Secret.” It is best suited for children ages 6–9. It is about a cactus in a garden who is self-conscious about a weed that is growing next to him. Over the course of the story, he interacts with other plants and animals in the garden and comes to learn how to live with the weed. He also learns that all of the plants in the garden have their own weeds to contend with. The lessons that he learns are based on mindfulness techniques and cognitive behavioral therapy methods that we learned from our research.

The beginning of the story, which takes place in a perfect garden
The first draft of Cactus meeting Rabbit
The second draft of Cactus meeting Rabbit
The part of the story in which Cactus meets a very wise Owl

Our activity cards work in conjunction with the book, and they fit into three envelopes in the inside front cover (this was inspired by an interview with a mom who talked about not liking when books and cards were separate, because often they would become lost and not fit so neatly on a bookshelf).

There are 30 cards total (10 for each category). The three categories are “Understanding,” “Accepting,” and “Growing.” These are based on the model of personal growth that we learned from one of the therapists who we interviewed (first comes self-understanding; then comes self-acceptance; then comes growth). The cards follow a rough progression in this way, yet they are meant to fit together, and with the story, in a fluid way to encourage exploration and play.

The inside cover of the book, where the cards would be kept in three separate envelopes


Overall, I am proud of what Christi and I were able to accomplish for this project. Looking back, I wish we had figured out earlier that we wanted our system to be for kids. Our questions for the therapists and for our peers were based around adults, and I believe our questions would have been scripted differently.

Regardless, we took on an incredibly complex topic and were able to narrow it down to something manageable, picking out from early on a direction to move in. Within a week and a half’s time we wrote a script, made a storyboard, and created realistic mockups. It was a fun journey, and I believe our main ideas were conveyed clearly, even if through a lonely cactus.


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I am a designer based in Pittsburgh, PA searching for full-time work in the intersection of design and psychology. I seek to make things simpler, easier, and just a tad more whimsical. Contact me at


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Interested in design & living well.


I am a designer based in Pittsburgh, PA searching for full-time work in the intersection of design and psychology. I seek to make things simpler, easier, and just a tad more whimsical. Contact me at

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