A marriage of technology and health is nothing new. We track our bodies, we quantify our productivity, we slot our sex lives into neat little tick boxes. But with the exception of the numerous mindfulness apps out there, little seems to be targeted at the nuts and bolts of mental health. While apps that track nutrition are based (most of the time) on science, apps for the mind use far more abstract variables, based more on intuition than conventional techniques used in regular medicine.
Now, a new app called Moodnotes is being launched by Ustwo and US-based company Thriveport which uses the principles of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), often used in the medical world, to approach psychological problems. In a nutshell, CBT is a form of talking therapy that aims to help patients address certain unhealthy thinking patterns and behaviours, and is often used in the treatment of anxiety and depression.
Sidestepping the usual mode of patient and therapist interaction, the app looks to work in the same way, though through a digital interface. “We wanted to create a digital tool to help people increase their awareness of their thinking habits, to better understand how such thinking affects how they feel, and to help them learn how to think in healthier ways,” says Dr. Drew Erhardt, clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Pepperdine University and co-founder of Thriveport.
Ustwo and Thriveport: Moodnotes
Ustwo and Thriveport: Moodnotes
The app works in a similar way to other digital journaling tools, and users first encounter a screen where they input how they feel using a face icon that slides up and down to become either more positive or more negative. They can then add notes about their mood and their current situation, and depending on how good or bad they feel, are led through what Ustwo calls a “thought checker tool” which helps them “unpack distressing situations.” CBT-based tools are used throughout to help identify certain thinking patterns or “traps,” and over time build up a Moodtrend graph that shows how their mood changes or forms patterns. Just as a psychologist would, the app looks to recognise thought traps such as “catastrophising,” “negative filtering” and “fortune telling,” and encourage more healthy responses.
Alana Wood, product lead at Ustwo on Moodnotes, says: “We wanted to base the app on a scientific approach, and around the time we were developing it there were a lot of brain-training apps around, but a lot of the medical community was saying they were claiming to do things they couldn’t. We’re trying to empower individuals to take control over their emotional health, but we wanted something with a scientific grounding.
“Whatever you’re designing you’re always thinking about the users. We tested with 500 people initially and used qualitative interviews to make sure we were hitting the right notes with the colour palette, the typography, the iconography and the tone of voice.”
That’s where Thriveport came in: the company was founded by two clinical psychologists, Drew and Dr. Edrick Dorian, Board Certified Clinical and Police Psychologist. They launched the Moodkit app back in 2011, which works in a similar way to Moodnotes. They see the newer app as “an enhanced mood journaling app that allows people to increase awareness of their moods.”
Drew says: “It’s a simple tool that helps people identify why they feel distressed, and reduce those symptoms of distress. We also hope it’ll help people maintain positive feelings, or develop mindsets that might promote them.”
Ustwo and Thriveport are keen to highlight that while the app can be used in conjunction with formal therapy – such as by allowing users to email their notes to their therapists – it’s not intended as a replacement for medical help, and has been designed to be used by everyone regardless of whether or not they have a diagnosed mental health issue.
“Unfortunately it seems people still think you have to be labelled with a diagnosis to benefit from psychology, so we want to disseminate information that’s normally only available in the context of psychotherapy,” says Edrick. As he points out, we’re comfortable tackling nutrition or exercise information on our own; but examining mood and mental wellbeing has just as important an effect on daily life.
"We needed to keep it simple but not patronising; intelligent but not academic; personal but not over-familiar"Alana Wood
As such, the app’s design steers clear of complex data, and while it’s text heavy, the interface is simple and the experience of the app was created to be as clean and easily navigable as possible. Alana says: “We needed to reduce barriers and make it simple to log your mood, but give people something they’re familiar with. We said we needed to keep it simple but not patronising; intelligent but not academic; personal but not over-familiar– we had to make sure it wasn’t too playful, we wanted a lifestyle feel.”
The designers opted to use two fonts, Roboto Slab and Droid Sans for the body copy; and colours change as the user interacts with Moodnotes, with main colours being reduced to accent colours over time to avoid making it look “too medical,” according to Alana.
It’ll be fascinating to see the take-up of the app. While people use apps like MyFitnessPal and wearable tech like Jawbone almost as a badge of honour, comparing steps and calories with fellows users both digitally and in the big, quantifiable real world, tracking mental health seems more personal, especially to us Brits, who are less used to the sharing-is-caring approach than our friends in therapy-fuelled America. Right now, I feel confused, but slightly excited about the prospect. Perhaps a little sceptical, but hopeful too. How would I register that on the colourful Moodnotes interface, I wonder?
About the Author
Emily joined It’s Nice That as Online Editor in the summer of 2014 after four years at Design Week. She is particularly interested in graphic design, branding and music. After working It's Nice That as both Online Editor and Deputy Editor, Emily left the company in 2016.