When we started talking about ways to boost mental health and break down existing barriers in this space, we took inspiration from issues that we personally experienced. The one that resonated with us the most was the anxiety caused by catastrophic thinking. It was an everyday behavior that all of us engaged in, which often further escalated our levels of stress and anxiety. Through research, we found we were not alone. Many people, if not everyone, experience catastrophic thinking. When dealing with stressors, people sometimes go down rabbit holes and start ruminating on the worst possible scenarios. This experience can be very overwhelming and can cause people to quickly spiral into negative thoughts. Catastrophic thinking is a critical behavior to address because if people engage in it repeatedly, it can lead or contribute to depression. Various studies have shown that catastrophic thinking is associated with anxiety disorders and depression. If we can help people address this line of thinking early on, we could prevent it from developing into serious mental health illnesses. We were also inspired by research on Generalized Anxiety Disorder in the facet of Catastrophic Thinking. We analyzed clinical strategies of employing cognitive-behavioral approaches to dealing with anxiety. We noticed that a significant amount of these approaches employ the Elaboration Likelihood Model. This model explains that we have two methods of processing information: the first of which is the common route for people with anxiety: they process their world quickly and without much deep thought. The goal is to bring those people to the other line of thinking: processing consciously and with purpose. We also investigated distancing, which is the idea that when people fictionalize and/or step away from their problems, creating psychological distance, they are able to better handle painful subjects and can decrease the impact of obstacles. By combining these ideas by asking users to process their anxieties more deeply and take a step back from these obstacles in an embedded design approach, we can help users deal with their anxieties in healthy and effective ways.

What it does

Our app Bubbles breaks the loop of catastrophic thinking by enabling users to distance themselves from the anxiety-causing situation through fictionalization. By putting their feelings and situations into words — almost like having a conversation with a close friend, our app provides an opportunity for people to process the situation from a more cognitively distanced, third-person perspective. Bubbles prompts users to engage with their experiences using mad libs — a word prompt game in which the user is given random words to incorporate into their storyline. Using mad libs to reframe the situation in a fun, lighthearted way, we aim to help people shift their focus from catastrophizing the situation and instead see their experience more clearly.

How we built it

To accomplish this through the design side, we used a chatbot system to have a chatbot almost ‘mimic’ a close friend to let the person vent out their true emotions and sort out their thoughts. The chat continues until the person feels like they are organized with their thoughts and then the story gets saved into a section of emotions such as anxiety, anger, etc. The user can scroll through their saved history of emotional discussions to reflect on their past experiences. In order to achieve this through the technical side, we used React-Native and Dialogflow to pick out the essential packages to use in our chatbot system. Inside ReactNative, we used the Gifted Chat UI to fine-tune details of the design we agreed on.

Challenges we ran into

One challenge we faced during the design phase of Bubbles was maintaining consistency across all screens in the design. Since multiple designers were working on different parts of the flow, we needed a way to make sure we were on the same page and using the same design criteria. After struggling with this, we decided to set up multiple components with different variants for all of the designs. We then built the complete flow using only components as the building blocks. This was extremely helpful since the components could not be changed by accident and at the same time, making small adjustments across all pages became a much faster process. Another challenge was that the development team had no experience with mobile development. This barrier meant that they did not have the experience to pick a language in which to code and had multiple attempts before settling on React-Native. Once the language was chosen, there was a significant learning curve because mobile applications do not have a “document” like the web has. React also works very differently from javascript, using an internal state rather than a localStorage system. Furthermore, there were different screen UI/UX, especially in terms of colors and text alignment between Android and iOS. We believe this is an inherent issue, which in the future, we will solve by adjusting the margins of the text depending on different operating systems.

Accomplishments that we're proud of

From the development side, one of the most impressive accomplishments was that we had no experience with mobile development, and were still able to pull together an application in less than a week. We learned to accept a challenge and tackle it effectively even when we did not have all the answers right away. From the design side, we were proud of how we were able to make our app more fun and engaging using a simple illustration. We knew it was important to go beyond following standard design principles and incorporate strong emotional appeal in our application. By adding a cute character (Bubbles) into our flow who asked all the questions, we were able to make the complete experience less robotic and effectively engage the user. This project pushed us to experiment and become better at designing impactful experiences.

What we learned

One of the things we learned from testing our prototype with users was that there are various modalities through which people process and cope with anxiety-inducing situations. While many people mentioned how writing down their feelings, thoughts, and to-do lists when they were stressed was very effective, some mentioned how they like to verbalize what they think or feel. For instance, when they are feeling anxious, they would start doing things that would help take their mind off the situation, such as going for a walk or a run and cooking. For these types of users, having an audio functionality that transcribes and interprets what they say and communicates back to them through audio would enable them to use the app while doing these activities. Although we did not have enough time to implement this functionality, it will be an important part of our next step. As we took a deep dive into this problem space, we learned that everyone’s mental health journey is a unique and personal one. While the social stigma around mental health has been decreasing, openly talking about our mental health is still very difficult. Our mental health journey is still more of a private one. Through trial and error, people find their own unique strategies to cope with stressful situations, which is why there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Nevertheless, there are still things we can do to help. Like the audio functionality, we can find ways to seamlessly integrate our product into people’s existing coping strategies and help them better manage their mental health.

What's next for Bubbles

Currently, our prototype is designed for all populations who have gone through emotional hardships. But one of the next steps we envision for Bubbles is making it context-specific. As an example, we believe this application will be particularly useful for college freshmen who are in a transitory phase of their life and are very likely to experience a lot of different anxiety-inducing situations for the first time. Specifically for these college students, we want to add prompts and questions that are more relevant to their experiences like test-taking, job hunt, etc. We believe making Bubbles context-specific will further enhance its value by directly targeting the needs of its actual users. Also, we believe that we could take advantage of collective group power to overcome mental health struggles. If fictionalization allowed people to distance themselves from their catastrophic thinking, sharing their thoughts with others could help them view their problems objectively and prohibit them from overstating their situation. To lower the barriers of sharing their private stories, people can share them anonymously. Also, by viewing others’ stories, people could consider that they are not the only ones that are suffering from those negative feelings which could be a turning point for them to find ways to deal with those feelings.

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