Can UI improve our mental health?

As we continue our journey through the pandemic, living hybrid digital lives, how do we make sure digital offerings support our mental wellbeing rather than adding to the problem.

It is a complex issue at heart, the more screen time we have, the less time we spend doing physically grounding activities like exercise, getting outdoors and experiencing nature, and interacting with people in person whether closely or at a distance. However, right now screens, more than ever, are our lifeline allowing work, rest and play to happen and keep loneliness and isolation at bay.

Long before the pandemic came along, apps such as Instagram have been building in addictive behaviours, getting users hooked on the constant need for the next ‘hit’ of fresh content but at a terrible cost to our mental health. Studies have shown that for heavy users it is as addictive as drugs or gambling. People are getting wiser to the game though, with influencers regularly taking ‘time out’ of their social platforms acknowledging that they need time to improve their mental health offline.

Fortunately in recent years apps to support mental health have exploded onto the scene with more than 10,000 available to download, a force for good to counter the dark UX of social media. But do they really work or just encourage more screen time?

While some apps try (and fail) to recreate physical experiences such as tai chi in a digital form using gesture, ultimately they just increase a person’s screen time and dependence on their phone. The apps that are really winning from a UX point of view are those that are facilitators in improving a user’s mental health through learning, much the same as traditional therapy. Ultimately we want to give the user the tools to go beyond the screen and do the skill independently offline in their daily life, whether that be meditation, yoga or cognitive behaviour therapy. An app that starts off playing the role of life coach can train the user to self-coach in the long run.

Another approach that we are likely to see more of is minimising screen interactions and gestures and instead promoting the use of voice control and audio. This allows for an immersive calm experience away from the screen, a perfect balance of UI being subtly used in the background to support the experience of e.g meditation.

With the focus of this year’s mental health week being connection with nature, and this being one of the top coping strategies people have reported in the pandemic, it will be interesting to see how UI evolves in 2021. With designers having empathy as one of their core skills and a desire to improve people’s lives with their products we can guarantee the overall direction will be towards improving wellbeing.