Six Things Every Mental Health Product Should Consider

Insights from a product designer and a licensed therapist

Xin Koepsell
Jan 31, 2019 · 7 min read
Photo by Catherine Heath on Unsplash

Mental health impacts every aspect of our lives, from how we see ourselves to how we interact with others and the world.

Even though I’ve changed career paths from a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) to a product designer, one goal has never changed for me: improving the quality of people’s lives.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 50% of all Americans are diagnosed with some sort of mental health illness at some point in their life. The most prevalent mental disorder, anxiety, impacts 40 million adults in the US.

What can we do as designers?

As the new year started, I reflected upon my experience as a product designer and mental health therapist and wrote down six things every mental health product should consider.


Mental health comprises a big spectrum of issues. It ranges from mild symptoms all the way to severe disorders that require hospitalization and crisis intervention. Having a clear high-level goal and direction is critical.

What is the problem I am trying to solve?

How can one find a great therapist without all the roadblocks that patients encounter today? What would that process be like?

What would a comprehensive treatment model look like? Who would benefit from this?

How can we help people reduce stress and feel calm?

Mental health is a BIG subject, and the first step is to define what kind of problem you want to solve and who do you want to build the solution for. After all, designing a meditation app for children and designing an online therapy platform for adults are quite different.


2. Human-Centered — meet people where they’re at (Intuitive)

A good mental health product would know how it feels to struggle with certain emotional challenges

If a product is to help me feel calm or regulate my emotions, I hope it understands my large range of emotions and knows what it feels like to have anxiety. My ability to answer a question or fill out a form could be significantly different.

It’s always helpful to have some basic understanding of some common mental health issues.

Here are some common symptoms of anxiety.

I would imagine designing an interface/feature for someone who is struggling with anxiety or depression is different, and I hope it’s different. Can you imagine what it’s like when you are panicking and need help to calm down, but cannot figure out where to click?

Let’s see how some applications approach this.

For example, Calm helps people practice breathing exercises by making it visual and using sound to create a more immersive experience. It uses a circle to symbolize the breathing process. As you practice the breathing process of inhaling and exhaling, the circle expands and shrinks just as your lungs would.

Headspace also makes it easy and enjoyable to help people learn how to practice stress reduction mindfulness techniques by using friendly illustrations and videos. This type of information presentation is much easier to understand and follow than lines and lines of text and rigid clinical explanations.


3. Emotional and conversational — it’s an empathetic object.

If there was a magic wand, I would want it to be conversational and create an emotional bond with me.

Having a conversation is something so old but so new at the same time. It can be carried out verbally, in writing, in our body language and even to a device. A good conversation is often engaging, encouraging, and can bring positive emotional experiences.

An emotional bond refers to an invisible bond between two parties that provides a sense of security, understanding, and caring. Just like in relationships, we often feel good when we feel safe and trusted. As designers, how can we leverage and create powerful assets like conversation and emotional bond in the digital platform?

I’m thinking human-centered again.

Active listening is paramount to having a deeper understanding of the people you are designing for, as it becomes easier to create and build solutions that are not just functional, but also emotional and empathetic.

During the holidays, some of my clients are at higher risk of hurting themselves so I make phone calls to do a brief wellness check to see how they are. As a designer with this knowledge and understanding, I would design experiences that capture this very human touch. Perhaps as the holidays or other high-stress periods approach, the application could “check-in” on the person and provide avenues for extra support and care.

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

4. Comprehensive — know when it’s out of the scope.

One important take away as a former therapist is the importance of the care system. The level of healing and recovery is greatly dependent on the extent of the care and support that are given.

Pacifica is an app that uses techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness meditation to help people with stress and anxiety. The ability to share your progress with your therapist is a great feature that can be immensely beneficial for both parties. One benefit could be the invisible layer of assurance that you can share your progress with a touch of a button on days you don’t have an in-person visit. For the therapist, this could give them an edge on their personalized care system for their client.

Pacifica allows you to share your progress with your therapist. Cheers to building a care system!

When managing mental health issues and emotional challenges, it is critical to know when to refer someone to a higher level of care (out of scope), and it needs to be taken very seriously.

Here is how Betterhelp approaches this challenge.

Risk assessment and resources show up at multiple places during the interaction.

5. Privacy and confidentiality

When a client speaks to a therapist and shares private information in a conversation, it is confidential and also regulated by HIPPA, therefore privacy and confidentiality should be thoroughly addressed when designing and building a clinical mental health product. It should also know when to breach confidentiality in situations that may put the client or someone else in danger such as suicide.

To help people feel safe and comfortable, Talkspace and Betterhelp use passcodes when accessing the app to add an additional layer of protection.

Talkspace uses passcodes and Touch ID to provide an additional layer of privacy.
Betterhelp also uses passcode as additional protection before going into the session.

6. Take advantage of technology

It’s an exciting time to have access to technologies like AR/VR, AI, ML, etc. These tools have the potential to help us make the healing process more accessible and efficient.

Limbix is a startup that is improving healthcare with virtual reality. In it’s VR library, you can find lots of programs that are designed to help people with a variety of emotional challenges from public speaking to agoraphobia. These programs are also backed by research and developed based on evidence-based treatment such as exposure therapy.

If you want to know more about how VR can benefit the traditional treatment model, check out this article by Gabe Strauss.

Checkout Limbix VR library for more program examples!

Woebot is an AI-powered chatbot that uses natural language processing(NLP) to help with emotional wellness. Though it is not a replacement for human therapists, it provides a 24/7 access to emotional support with lots of tools and coping skills.

Some of my chat with Woebot. It has an interesting sense of humor sometimes!

Virtue is a startup in the UK that uses virtual reality to develop “LookBack” for an immersive reminiscence therapy experience to improve the quality of lives of individuals who have dementia.

With devices becoming more accessible, embodied VR can bring the experience to a whole new level. As designers who are interested in mental health and health tech, it will be interesting to explore and get inspirations from the game industry’s embodied VR experience.

Have you seen Ready Player One?

We still have a long way to go and lots of problems to solve… How do we address boundary settings in online therapy applications? How can we have better screening and assessment processes? How can we take advantage of embodied VR to solve issues that are difficult to achieve in traditional conversational therapy? You see, there is a lot to do still. But hey, isn’t this what makes us thrive as designers?

I know I am :) If you are too, let’s chat! You can reach me at xinkoepsell@gmail.com

BTW, I’m currently working on a personal project using VR to make narrative therapy more efficient (ask me about my project “Fred”). I’m also exploring how to use conversational voice design to help with loneliness.


Some resources and good read:

How can I help? — A Look Into Mental Health Startups (Nina Wei, Product Manager at Qokka. AI)

Virtual Reality Technology Treatment for Mental Illness (Youtube Video, Kim Bullock, MD, Stanford School of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences)

Tradecraft

Stories about startups, technology, traction, and design from Tradecraft members

Thanks to Niwal Sheikh and Irene Kim

Xin Koepsell

Written by

Product Designer, also a licensed therapist in the bay 🌁. I believe good designs can create emotional connections with people ♥

Tradecraft

Stories about startups, technology, traction, and design from Tradecraft members

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