I was rehearsing for the presentation of my first UX/UI design project when I was told that my speech was too grandiose. That is how I usually communicate things that I care about and that I want people to pay attention to, so after accepting the downgrade to genericness I ended up mumbling and reading slides, performance that was followed by a concatenation of condescending pats on the back that confirmed my failure to pitch my hard work. Do stakeholders get lured by daytime lullabies? I will take a wild guess and say no. There is no point in researching or pushing pixels if you can’t sell your work, and the source of decision-making, the limbic system, also happens to be the source of emotions. It has no capacity for language, so you have to transmit something else besides figures and hard data.
As I was downing a cocktail of anger and sorrow, an empathic individual standing before me decided to add some drops of cynicism to the mix:
“You are frustrated because you couldn’t stand out from the crowd. You need it. That’s all you want. Did I read you well?”
“Yes, good job.”
Do I really place significance above connection, love, growth and contribution? I’ll let you be the judge of that.
I will introduce you to Futaba. She is a 20 y.o. freelance web developer living with her parents. Her neighbors don’t see her much. She works from home and doesn’t have to leave the house often. She only does when her only friend from high-school picks her up. She doesn’t go to college either. The thing is that she doesn’t like her lifestyle. She wants to study Computer Science at University, have more friends and hang out more often. She just wants to live the life she wants. But she is afraid of people. She has social anxiety, that often overlooked condition that eats away the life of millions of people. Although she is under treatment, exposing herself to the situations she dreads is too demanding for her right now.
Futaba was at home the other day when she got a call from her friend. She was happy to hear from her after more than two weeks confined in her room. She got invited to a concert and, although she knew she was going to feel quite anxious for being among several strangers, the presence of her friend made her accept the invitation. She hoped that this time her anxiety wasn’t going to be too bad and that she would be introduced to someone new who could eventually become friends with. When they arrived to the party, Futaba was indeed introduced to a common friend that shared similar hobbies and tastes. She was having fun. But her friend got a call. It was an emergency and she had to leave Futaba alone. From there, everything went downhill. Without her friend next to her she became increasingly anxious, negative thoughts started to invade her mind and her confidence hit the ground. What was being a pleasant day suddenly turned into a psychological torture that she could not take. She went home, cried and asked herself: “what is wrong with me? I want this to go away. I just want to live a normal life”. I know. There is poverty, hunger, murder. But that doesn’t make this less heartbreaking.
There it was. A problem that needed to be addressed. Futaba and everyone who suffers from social anxiety needed a way to practice gradual exposure to the situations they fear because they are too scared of facing them in real life. How might we get Futaba to practice in a safe environment? How might we get her to actually expose herself to her fears in real life? Here is my solution.
I wasn’t there, but I assume that social anxiety has been around since the very beginning of human life. Most of them had to endure it until the end of their days. This is 2018, though. An era of constant technological evolution that has to be embraced by the healthcare system. There are countless mobile apps for socializing, but when we look at the resources for those who have trouble doing that the options become scarcer. Youper presents no real-life challenges. They make users think but not act. Steps does include challenges, although I wondered whether it would be too harsh for Futaba to jump straight into full exposure. Idareto adds progress tracking to the challenges although it presents a cold, simplistic user interface and, again, just wants to put the user under the spotlight by themselves.
Then there is socialanxietysupport.com, a forum where people can find other sufferers to vent about their symptoms and frustrations together.
Person 1: “I feel like shit”
Person 2: “Oh! That happens to me too!”
Now if that thread led to a technique to cope with the symptom the conversation would make sense. However, that’s not how it goes most of the time, leading to depression, procrastination and avoidance.
Even when the biggest online resource for social anxiety fails to focus on recovery, sufferers seem to want just that. A quick Google Trends search using the keyword “social anxiety” revealed that topics like desensitization, social relation and skill are on the rise.
I don’t think those resources would solve the problem for Futaba, so what would? There had to be a way to simulate real-life situations and where she could expose herself to her fears while having the option to leave at anytime. That method already existed. It’s called Virtual Reality.
Virtual Reality has been with us for a while now, but recently its popularity and availability has skyrocketed. It is safe to say that it is here to stay and it has already been a tool used by health companies to treat several phobias (fear of flying, claustrophobia, you name it). This is no sci-fi nor a delusion, but a technology that has the power to make people believe that what they are experiencing is real. It is a shame that some so-called designers will look away and pretend they are not listening anymore when explaining such a simple concept to them. I wonder what those obsolete minds are expecting to happen in technology in the next 20 years. Back to floppy disks and CRTs? Will the Space Jam website finally become a reference for web design? Time will tell.
VR alone is no enough, though. Futaba would need on-site support and feedback as well as real-life challenges, which she already expects to find in a new product. There could have been more features, but VR content, support from whoever would want to help her in her journey, mood tracking for her to remember when she felt better or worse and reflect on her progress, and challenges to progressively bring her training into action were a must. As it would be better for Futaba to annotate how she felt immediately after taking challenges, I decided that designing an app for her iPhone would be a good starting point.
A good mood for Futaba
All of the above meant nothing until I was able to set the mood that Futaba needed to be on. I wanted her to have an experience that is calm but actionable, safe but challenging, understanding but not condescending, individual but cooperative. There is an arsenal design weapons to hack her brain into a certain mood. I used typography, colors, copywriting, guidelines and a metaphor. A sans-serif font with a high x-height and round characters to add a bit of lightheartedness. A soothing gradient made of a mix of blue and green that would become the background color, whereas orange acts as a call for action. Compliance with the iOS guidelines to ensure that Futaba feels at home and doesn’t have to create new mental models to figure out how to use the application. And a metaphor that creates a bond between Futaba and the app so she doesn’t leave.
When we plant a seed and take proper care of it, it will grow strong and will look as you thought it would. That’s what we all do in life when we want to improve a skill or learn a new one. Sure, some are better gardeners than others, plants will die on us, but life usually gives us another chance to plant new seeds so perhaps one day we get to keep a plant alive.
I wanted Futaba to improve her quality of life by becoming a gardener. That’s why I designed Seeds.
Lying to Futaba
Some say that designers are liars. From binaries to gradients, animations, opacity. I believe so too. If you have interacted with the prototype of Seeds you will have noticed the onboarding process. The purpose of designing an onboarding is that Futaba only sees relevant content so she feels that the app was made for her. The subtle animations provide the necessary amount of delight for her to enjoy the process and have a better overall experience. You can watch them below.
You will have noticed that there is no watchlist and no option to add favorites. When we do that we end up procrastinating and that is something I didn’t want Futaba to do. I’d rather have her go through a couple more taps than risking a lower content consumption.
There is also no hamburger and, even though I placed a filter button at the top-right corner, I am a tab-bar navigation supporter who would also want to see back buttons, filters and any other kind of actionable element gone from the top of a mobile screen. Tablets will be used with 2 hands, but the stats say that phone screens are getting bigger and that the majority of users operate with it one-handed plus there are way more phones than tablets. Why not look for ways of implementing a navigation system that cater to the majority? Growth never happens at the comfort zone and nothing is gonna ever make everyone happy anyway, so I hope to see more concepts and tests happening in the design community.
Thank you, Futaba
In life I listen, learn and take advice when I consider it useful. When it comes to writing, I have a style and I believe in it. Less bullet points or soulless paragraphs and more storytelling is what we need. You followed the process, I see. But, who did you say you were? Also, I am not here to spoon-feed grown-ups. If someone stops reading because they have to extract the content they consider relevant from a paragraph they are either lazy or not interested enough.
Grows? Aplenty. Not testing at the right time, which made me waste precious time, is a big mistake. Upon testing I instantly had a hint at what was wrong and the current iteration could have happened earlier. To maximize efficiency and get the best results, testing at every stage of the process is paramount. My inability to feel proud until something is perfect (which never happens) also contributes to lagging.
What I take from this project? I devoted myself to it from dusk until dawn, persevering when things were not going my way. I learnt what design is and, more importantly, I fell in love with it.
This project is not mine. It belongs to Futaba.