Bringing a Design Thinking Approach to Health Canada’s Official Mental Health App

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We’re in the middle of a mental health crisis — one that has only gotten worse since COVID-19 began. Researchers have estimated that globally, the pandemic caused an extra 53.2 million cases of depression and 76.2 million cases of anxiety disorders. This massive spike in distress has put a huge strain on healthcare systems, which are still struggling to catch up.

Early in the pandemic, TDL partnered with a consortium of Canadian mental health leaders to build Wellness Together Canada, a free mental health and substance use support platform funded by the Government of Canada. Since its launch, Wellness Together has been accessed more than 3.5 million times by people across the country, providing vital services such as phone counseling, peer support, and educational resources about mental health and substance use. During the days when Canadians were still isolated in their homes, Wellness Together became a lifeline, ensuring that people were still able to get the help they needed, when they needed it.

PocketWell: Wellness on the go

After helping to coordinate a major redesign of the Wellness Together platform (a Government of Canada–funded initiative), TDL joined them in a new challenge: building a companion app. It goes without saying that mental health is a deeply personal topic, and that no two people’s journeys are alike. An app would allow us to provide users with a more personalized experience with Wellness Together, providing a simpler and more convenient way to track their progress as time went on. 

Working alongside some of Canada's leading mental health organizations, TDL spearheaded the project's research and product design, including large-scale user testing from discovery all the way to launch. Launched in January 2022, the PocketWell app expands on the existing Wellness Together platform by adding an easy-to-use mood tracker, while also streamlining mobile users’ access to website features like the wellness self-assessment, phone counseling, crisis support services, and more. 

The Mood Meter: Making reflection a habit

Research has shown that one of the most powerful things we can do to boost our overall well-being is building emotional self-awareness — in other words, improving our understanding of what we’re feeling, and why.

Tracking tools can help with that. Regularly pausing to reflect on how we’re feeling, and what factors might have contributed to our moods) allows us to take a step back from what we’re experiencing. Then we can start to recognize patterns and develop helpful coping skills. 

The Mood Meter uses the science of habit formation to help users do just that. With this app-exclusive feature, users can log their daily moods and journal about what they’re going through. They can also reflect on a number of factors that might be contributing to their current mood, and save their entries so that they can revisit them later.

While it might seem like a pretty straightforward tool, there’s more to the Mood Meter than meets the eye. It was important for us to strike the right balance between structure and autonomy: if users aren’t given enough options for the feelings they might be experiencing (or the factors that caused those feelings), the Mood Meter could end up constraining their reflective process. On the other hand, add too many options, and the interface quickly becomes overcrowded and overwhelming.

We worked closely with clinical psychologists, including an expert on emotion inventories and self-tracking tools, to make sure our Mood Meter hit the right notes. We also recruited hundreds of research participants from across Canada to take part in thorough usability testing. Through this iterative design process — collect data, tweak the design, then rinse and repeat — we were able to tweak and refine the Mood Meter until it was delivering a real benefit to users.

Natural calm

Even the aesthetics of the final app were grounded in behavioral science. Research shows that being in nature has positive effects on our physical and mental health. We channeled these findings into our designs, which draw on the natural beauty of the Canadian landscape to create a calm, welcoming atmosphere: trees and mountains dot the user interface. 

The app’s color palette, which features sunsetlike hues of purple and pink, is also informed by research: studies have found that these colors are associated with positive emotions like contentment, love, and joy. The result is an app that feels like a welcoming, cozy space — somewhere users can come to pause, reflect, and take a moment to just focus on their own well-being. 

The journey continues

So far, the PocketWell app has been downloaded more than 30,000 times across the App Store and Google Play Store. The reception has been overwhelmingly positive, with the app receiving an average rating of 4.5/5 stars on both stores. 

“I downloaded this app on a whim, not sure if it really had much to offer me,” wrote one reviewer. “However, this morning at 2:30 I needed some mental health support due to an ongoing panic attack, and I was quickly put in touch with an on-call therapist. Free of charge. We spoke for an hour and it was so, so wonderful.” 

TDL is still a key part of the Wellness Together and PocketWell teams. Through our ongoing user research initiatives, we’re still working with people across Canada to identify unmet needs, and ensure that nobody needs to go through difficult times alone. The insights our research participants have shared with us are helping us to close gaps in the digital mental healthcare space and create a better user experience for everybody. We’re excited to share more of our learnings as the project goes on.

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