The UX of Mental Health Technology

March 15, 2021
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The way mental health apps are designed impacts how we interact with them and ultimately how well we can take care of our minds.

Design impacts how we interact with essentially everything and when it is bad, we know it. Have you ever been frustrated by a door that looked as though you needed to pull it to open but it actually needed a push? Or maybe you have been left confused by what buttons do what function on your washing machine? Needless to say, bad design can leave us feeling annoyed, confused, and less likely to use a certain product again. 

These examples describe instances of poor user experience, or UX. There is an entire field of work, known as UX Design, that is dedicated to designing a product or service with the user in mind in order to afford them the best experience possible. Within this field are subfields that specialize in different areas or technology such as Virtual Reality UX or Healthcare UX. For this discussion, we will concern ourselves with Healthcare UX which relates to the design of healthcare products and how it optimizes the user’s experience. 

An example of a healthcare product, and even more specifically, a mental healthcare product, could be an app that guides you through meditation. Mindfulness and meditation, as discussed in “How Mindfulness Can Benefit Students”, are useful in alleviating stress and their effects help improve many aspects of everyday life (Milton, 2020). Typically, when people are looking for mental health support from a healthcare product, it is because they are experiencing a difficult time or suffer from poor mental health. This means that when people use such a product they may be in an affected headspace, not thinking straight, are scared, or confused. If this is the case, then the user experience of mental health apps, websites, and devices should be a key concern. Accordingly, a mental health product should accommodate for the mental state its target user may be in.

So, how do we evaluate the user experience design of a certain product or service? Dr. Gyles Morrison, a healthcare UX specialist, has identified how deficits in usability, accessibility, and pleasure are the leading causes of poor user experience in healthcare products (Morrison, 2018). Usability relates to how We can also look at some statistics that reveal how people perceive digital content to help inform us how to accommodate a design to someone suffering from poor mental health. For example, human psychological studies have revealed the impact of Gestalt principles, colors, and recognition memory in good design (tubik, 2017). Gestalt principles are understandings of human visual perception and include the principles of Similarity and Proximity. Similarity is the tendency for humans to perceive two similar objects as members of the same group. Proximity refers to how we relate objects that are visually close together. With these principles in mind we can design an app interface that reduces confusion over how certain information or buttons relate to one another.

Colors are also associated with and invoke psychological states. For instance, red may be associated with aggressive feelings in some situations and love in another. Green invokes ideas of nature and can bring calming feelings. 

‘Recognition over recall’ is another psychological understanding employed in good design. As a rule, a good design should not require a user to remember, or recall, how to use an application or what they last did last time they used it. Instead, the design should allow for a user to instantly recognize and understand the function of something. This is why many music listening apps like Spotify have “Recently Played” music suggestions prominently displayed on the home pageAbove are screen shots from the Headspace mobile app. They demonstrate proper psychological understanding of colors and cognitive load, emphasizing visuals over text, and provide an appropriate amount of options for someone who may be feeling anxious.

Above are screen shots from the Headspace mobile app. They demonstrate proper psychological understanding of colors and cognitive load, emphasizing visuals over text, and provide an appropriate amount of options for someone who may be feeling anxious.

These design principles are known yet are often left out in new designs. It is not difficult to understand why doctors, psychologists, and healthcare workers who develop ideas for healthcare apps or products fail to incorporate good design. Design is not their area of expertise and thus they can miss the importance of good user experience. That being said, good UX must be developed in healthcare apps if we want people to continue to return to them for help. It is understood that 88% of online consumers are less likely to return to a site after a bad experience (Philips, 2018). Furthermore, judgements on the credibility of a website are 75% based on its aesthetics (Philips, 2018).

Sadly, bad UX is not only responsible for turning people away from reusing important resources. It is also responsible for serious health consequences and even death. According to a 2005 field study conducted in hospitals, bad UX of an order-entry system meant there were 22 different ways for a patient to get the wrong medicine (Koppel et al., 2005).

To conclude, user experience is often overlooked and sparsely considered in healthcare technology. Using known psychological principles and careful research, we can create apps and tech that benefit people who suffer from poor mental health. Our world is becoming increasingly digital and remote, so we must adapt with the times and design healthcare support with accessibility in mind.


Koppel R, Metlay JP, Cohen A, et al. Role of Computerized Physician Order Entry Systems in Facilitating Medication Errors. JAMA. 2005;293(10):1197–1203. doi:10.1001/jama.293.10.119

Milton, M. (2020, October) How Mindfulness Can Benefit Students. Nauru.

Morrison, G. (2019, Sept. 13th). What is Healthcare UX and Why Is It So Important? Medium.

Philips, Miklos. (2018) Know Your User - UX Statistics and Insights (with Infographic). Toptal.

tubik. (2017, April 5th). Psychology in Design. Principles Helping to Understand Users. Medium.


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