Mental health has been a growing topic of discussion in recent years. During the pandemic, people became more aware of mental wellbeing and many reached a turning point in deciding to take better care of themselves. However, a growing reliance on technology, especially social media during the pandemic years, can potentially have adverse effects on our mental health. Frequent tech users can be at higher risk of depression or anxiety. Globally 1 in 4 young people are experiencing clinically higher depression symptoms, and 1 in 5 are experiencing clinically higher anxiety symptoms. Psychologist Jean Tweng explains that “the rise in depression might be caused by the overuse of screens leaving less time for activities more beneficial for mental health such as seeing friends in person, sports and exercise, and sleeping.”
So what is it specifically about digital products that can negatively impact a person’s mental health? And what can we do as designers to mitigate this? We’ve identified three key factors we believe contribute towards exacerbating these issues or creating feelings of discomfort for users.
Products are often designed with user engagement in mind - aiming to keep users coming back to the product repeatedly, and using the product for as long as possible. One key UI feature that can achieve this is infinite scrolling. The more a user scrolls, the more they engage and the more money the company makes. Infinite scrolling ingrains a habit of browsing content continuously with no clear objective and with no sense of how much information has been consumed. The inventor of endless scrolling himself, Aza Raskin has said he feels guilty about conceiving the feature. "If you don't give your brain time to catch up with your impulses," Raskin said, "you just keep scrolling”.
The ‘unit bias’ is the psychological principle that the human brain is naturally motivated to complete a unit of something. The brain believes that there is always an optimal sized unit of a specific item or task. So when a person is presented with an endless list of content, there is a subconscious belief that upon finishing scrolling the list, there will be a feeling of satisfaction, hence making endless scrolling a very naturally addictive behaviour for humans.
One potential solution to this is to consider implementing pagination in your product - it can provide users with a sense of control and indicate how far through content they have traversed. Users are able to decide how much content they are able to scroll through, and can estimate how much it’ll take to find what they’re looking for.
We can also consider how the tone of voice in our products can shape the user's experience. Users can make mistakes while using our products, misread copy, input incorrect information accidentally - however the way that we communicate these mistakes can be impactful on our users’ feelings. The NN group writes about the importance of using positive and non-judgemental language, and ensuring that you don’t place blame on users or imply they’ve done something invalid, illegal or incorrect.
Incidentally, Duolingo’s owl mascot went viral for their “infamous passive aggression”. Many users found the app’s notifications funny, however long term users described the feeling of being “harassed” , one user saying “Duolingo consistently makes me feel like a failure”.
Users are able to turn off the notifications, however if you ignore the app for long enough you receive the passive aggressive message: “These reminders don’t seem to be working. We’ll stop sending them for now” prompting users to feel pressured to jump back on the app, rather than accepting failure to complete their language course.
The right tone of voice can positively shape the user's experience on your platform. In a study carried out by NN Group, users were shown 2 versions of 4 product websites (an insurance company, bank, hospital, home security system) and asked to provide feedback. The websites were identical except for the tone of voice and users showed clear preferences for the websites with casual tones over the more formal counterpart. The ‘casual’ hospital website was perceived as friendlier and more trustworthy, whereas the ‘formal’ website was considered “businesslike” and didn’t feel reassuring to prospective patients.
Implementing robust privacy settings and giving users control over their data is a fundamental approach to creating a sense of safety for users of your products. By empowering users to manage their own privacy, designers create a positive experience that fosters trust and confidence in our app. This sense of control is especially crucial in digital spaces, where users may feel vulnerable. Offering options like private accounts, reporting, and blocking enables users to tailor their experiences to their comfort level, providing a greater sense of security.
Additionally, the ability for users to easily abandon tasks, backtrack steps, and undo changes enhances their feeling of control and autonomy while using the product. Clear exit points and undo features ensure that users do not feel trapped within the app and have the power to rectify any unintended actions. Allowing users to review and edit the information they have submitted after a completed action instils confidence in their answers and reinforces their control over their data. Ultimately, prioritising privacy and user control leads to a more positive and inclusive user experience that builds long-term loyalty and trust in a product.
In the quest for creating innovative and accessible products, the impact of UI and UX design on mental health should never be underestimated. As the world grapples with the aftermath of a global pandemic and societal challenges, our responsibility as designers to empathise with our users becomes even more important. By prioritising mental health in our design discussions, we not only promote a more inclusive and compassionate approach but also create a positive impact on the lives of those who interact with our products.