215 days ago, I started my final year with an inkling of a direction I would be interested in pursuing, but I had no idea how far I would come, the people I would meet and the conversations which would drive my project.
In September, I committed to the challenge of exploring the sensitive issue of mental health. After a brief run of clinical anxiety following a sports injury, I felt I owed it to myself to explore the issue in depth. I knew starting a design project to respond to such a delicate issue would come with its challenges as a researcher, designer and empathetic human, but after three years of design training I felt confident enough to apply a process with the aim to isolate an opportunity and develop a response to it.
I had three key aims for this project:
- Involve real users and stakeholders at every step
- Use design as a mechanism to illustrate and explore key concepts and issues
- Create a final prototype which is technically sound and works without supervision
Looking back, these were high aspirations and to work towards them I ended up on a learning path which would challenge me to my fullest potential. The aims conveniently fit into the three core values of the Social Digital program – people, design and technology.
>>> AIM: Involve real users and stakeholders at every step
This sensitive issue required tact in how I brought people into my project. It took a building of trust and reassurance of anonymity to allow me to have deep insightful conversations during my exploration phase. I managed to have six casual coffee chats with young adults from different backgrounds whose lives had been directly disrupted by mental health issues. Their stories and the four proxy personas I created to act as their voice became the key driving force behind my project.
To give me an alternative perspective, I also approached four mental health support professionals. These conversations provided me with the most significant insights in how to create a tool which could help their process with clients. The thing which matters most in the context of mental and emotional pain is what clients are thinking in a moment of distress. The mind works to block out pain and to forget key details to ease suffering. As a result, a record of that raw feeling is missing from the constructive therapeutic discussions around a client’s issues. This was where I identified an opportunity to create a design response.
This realisation brought with it a rich design challenge of showcasing thought for identification and pattern recognition without disclosing detail. How could I create a tool which allowed an individual to hold on to their sensitive, personal thoughts while creating something which sits in front of a it? A nondescript suggestion that something’s wrong while allowing the client to keep ownership of their sensitive thoughts. With the help of real potential users and stakeholders, I had found my design challenge.
Later in the project, I brought the people I had met back into the project at every stage of the design process to maintain a meaningful direction and justify each of my decisions along the way. I tried to do this as often as I could even if it was in a casual capacity. Aside from two formal user tests/explorations (seven & MK1 user test) I tried to consistently check in with real users and stakeholders to show them what I was working and take on any feedback they might have. If I had more time, I would have liked to have done this in a more formal capacity, however in the context of a sensitive issue, I am happy with the extent to which I managed to realise this aim.
>>> AIM: Use design as a mechanism to illustrate and explore key concepts and issues
My path from concept to final prototype was not a straight line. I made a point of embedding divergent thinking and prototyping in my process to explore a variety of alternative paths to a final prototype.
This exploratory approach led me to one my favourite points in the year. In February I created a font that was the first realisation of one of my final key concepts – making disruptions in mental wellbeing tangible. Moriarty.ttf was key to my decision to commit to this route for my final design. It was a way to showcase a concept to real users without doing extensive user test scenarios. I could give them a font to install on their computer which they could use for journal entries to instantly give them an indication of my project’s direction.
Taking the time out from my key concept to realise, hack and experiment with alternative, offshoot ideas allowed me to broaden my skills as a designer – working with new tools and methods while still working to illustrate and explore key concepts within my project. As an interaction designer who loves to get hands on and create physical artefacts, it also kept me sane.
This exploratory approach did impact the process of designing my final screen based web application. Weeks spent on exploration could have been spent on detailed wire framing and UI design for my web app – the traditional path towards a screen based application. Instead, at each deliverable stage I brought a fragment of what could become my final concept along with a series of physical and digital divergent prototypes, which I used to illustrate parts of my project. I compensated for this by carrying out an intense one week design sprint informed by a user test after my Mark 2 presentation. With more time, despite my web app’s simple user flow and information architecture, I would have liked to have conducted structured low fidelity user tests or co-design sessions before jumping to the development stage.
>>> AIM: Create a final prototype which is technically sound and works without supervision
This year has pushed my technical coding skills over and well beyond where I ever expected them to be. I had said before starting my final year that I wanted to create a fully working prototype for my honours project – something which I could develop further into a potentially launchable digital product after assessment and degree show. Perhaps I was naive in taking on this challenge not knowing to the extent I would have to push myself during the final development phase, but as a reward for climbing higher on the steep learning curve of server side programming, I feel I have reached this point where I can comfortably hand over a link (yougra.ph) and let the prototype do the rest of the work.
This final working prototype was the summation of four years of technical learning. But as a result, now, more than ever I feel comfortable taking on the role of “the designer who codes”.
I’ll be taking up a full time interaction design internship at IDEO in August, but alongside this work, I want to further explore the area of mental health tangibility and (perhaps with help from some friends) develop yougra.ph into a fully, scaleable digital product.
This project has been the ultimate culmination of my journey as a student designer. Identifying an opportunity in a sensitive, personal area and developing a response into a final fully working prototype.
The most rewarding part of the year came when one of my friends, after hearing about my project said he wanted to use my project to monitor his anxious thoughts and asked me if he could sign up. This is the kind of impact I had wanted to create and being able to answer with a yes made even the most challenging moments worth it.