ArtCenter College of Design fellowship with The Dibble Institute
Twelve weeks (full-time)
In May of 2021, I was awarded a DesignMatters fellowship from ArtCenter College of Design to work with The Dibble Institute on a website that would bring some of their MindMatters wellness curriculum to teenagers in a new and more relevant way. I lead the final design phase and handoff to development, picking up where a studio class had left off.
The final designs give teenagers a mobile tool for autonomously developing their own mental well-being practice in short, flexible engagements.
Within a year of launch, the site has attracted over 9,400 visits and seen just under 1500 accounts created. The Dibble Institute has written the website into its classroom curriculum. The site is still live at meandmyemotions.org.
The research supporting the project showed that there were likely many teenagers who would find an online tool for developing their mental health useful. It also helped us focus on the specific needs of the group to whom it would be most helpful.
In 2020, The Harris Poll surveyed 1,516 respondents ages 13-19 in the US. These relatively large scale survey results give a senses of the scope and specificity of positive sentiment among teenagers around addressing and destigmatizing mental health.
“it's time for Americans to talk more openly and honestly about mental health issues in this country.
“I wish more young people were more comfortable asking for help when it comes to their mental health.”
“It is important for people to take action with their mental health.”
The ArtCenter class, aged 19 and up, expressed similar feelings. The survey data and other information gathered by the class also suggested some social challenges in this process. A quote from one of the subject matter experts that the class spoke with identified a developmental dimension:
“It’s harder for adolescents to feel comfortable enough to show that vulnerable internal experience, and sometimes, it’s hard for them to identify their emotions.”
-Dr. Carlene Fider, Adolescent Development Expert, Pacific Oaks College
A 2014 study of US teenagers’ online information-seeking behavior around health questions also helped us think about how teenagers might want to use digital resources in similar circumstances. The study found that teenagers would use online resources they judged to be authoritative to answer health questions but preferred to turn to trusted adults in their lives when they felt comfortable doing so. This helped us understand that teenagers seeking online information might have challenging relationships with adults and also that they were able to find information this way already.
The experience design of the site would thus need to provide a compassionate tone and afford privacy of access to support the emotional and social challenges of these teenagers. As the authors of the NIH study also noted, this suggested the utility of mobile-first resources for this group to enable more private searching.
Arpita Bhattacharya’s 2019 doctoral research at the University of Washington sketched a crucial missing link between the prevalence of mobile technology in teenagers’ lives and their mental models about tools for self-development.
Arpita Bhattacharya’s 2019 doctoral research at the University of Washington about online groups as support for stress showed evidence of mental models of self-development and motivations to take action with technology to support these goals. Her analysis details participants' desire for an engagement with digital tools to help manage stress so long as these tools respected their individuality and autonomy. Participants saw control over how they managed stress as an opportunity to exercise agency in their self-development and also expressed an interest in smaller engagements over time. This aligned well with observed trends toward shorter durations of engagement with material on social media platforms, as exemplified by the concision of TikTok and Instagram video content.
These insights steered me towards emphasizing autonomy and making achievement as individual as possible in the structure of the experience. Students should be able to guide and celebrate their own development in small engagements.
After speaking with the Dibble Institute stakeholders to understand their goals and specific requirements, research helped us articulate design goals for the different parts of the project.
Give teenagers ready to take ownership of their self-development a tool for building skills to improve mental well-being.
An interactive, online tool can help this group in ways that information on the web or social media cannot.
Provide resources for teenagers looking for information about improving mental well-being but not ready to take action.
Since other informational resources already exist, this is a lower priority.
Although the curriculum would be part of the site, the experience design prioritized the way that the lessons fed into the practice plan feature rather than letting the lesson progression determine the experience.
The dashboard screen pictured below gave students quick access to the next steps in their journey, whether that was learning new skills through lessons or checking in with their practice plan.
The practice plan sequence greets users the first time they log on to the site in a given week, allowing them to reflect on whether they practiced skills and to set new goals for the following week.
This feature was adapted from a worksheet in the original curriculum. In the curriculum as in its digital version, it asks users to think about their “implementation plan”, a technique for habit formation backed by psychological research. Although we were not able to implement it, we planned to create email reminders.
The home screen tallies several types of awards that students can accumulate as they make their way though lessons and practice mental well-being skills from the curriculum each week.
Emphasizing these points as markers of progress rather than lessons was designed to give students more of a sense of ownership of their progress and to make shorter sessions feel more natural. I was also careful to avoid any negative reinforcement dynamics: students cannot lose points, and are not penalized for failing to meet their skill practice goals.
Audrey Murty’s worldbuilding through illustration helped make the site feel more like a compassionate and encouraging space to explore and less like a fitness tracker or todo list.