The research showed that certain mental conditions could be avoided in adulthood if difficult periods were dealt with positively at a younger age.
To ensure our design skills were applied to the right context, we conducted research at every phase of our project. We looked at the mental illness data for children in London, read up on psychology theories, conducted in-person interviews with families and psychologists and finally tested our ideas in workshops with parents and kids.
Our research showed that we were tackling a huge problem and an intangible one so the first step we took was narrowing the brief. We decided to focus on 5-8-year-olds as kids' cognitive abilities changed significantly over the years and what was appropriate for a 5-year-old would not be for 10-year-old.
We also wanted to create a service that focused on meaningful interactions between parents and kids and one they could practice at home that integrated into their routines.
Finally, we wanted to apply the theory pioneered by Susan A David called "emotional agility" that essentially meant that we need to be able to deal with all our emotions both negative and bad in a constructive way and not push away normal emotions to embrace false positivity. Being emotionally agile often leads to people that are better equipped to deal with the difficulties in life and battle conditions like depression and anxiety.
We came up with a service proposition that we called "Feelings Lab". Feelings lab is an emotional learning program for both parents and kids that creates a safe space at home where they can play and reflect on the wide range of emotions. Feelings lab would consist of both physical materials that would arrive weekly as well as a parent app that provides daily learning exercises and access to expert information. All exercises and materials would be co-designed by experts like child psychologists and we were mindful to not introduce more screen time for the children.
Feelings Lab would work by implementing four components that would each trigger a learning cycle. The first was playful activities that triggered emotional learning into a routine - these exercises were in the form of physical materials. The second was reflection and documentation that would help emotional learning in the context of daily events. The second two components were for parents that were on the app. The app would have a guide to decoding the activities they did to make sense of how their child was doing and finally access an expert for specific needs and advice.
We showed the prototypes of the learning exercises we had developed to a child psychologist and conducted a workshop for parents and kids at a park.
The workshop at the park was probably one of the most fun and challenging workshops I have ever run. We had picked anger as a topic to discuss and the workshop created an open dialogue with the parents. We saw how much they were worried about mental illness and how much a program like this could ease their guilt. As for the kids, they seemed to have a blast but we weren't sure how much of our teachings really stuck- which stressed to us that it was all about a calm home setting and repeated learning that would really be valuable for emotional learning over time.
How to design for kids and use technology in a responsible way.
We realised more screen time was not useful and it would be better to have activities that parents and kids could do together in person. Additionally, as we were dealing with very sensitive issues we positioned our service as an emotionally wellbeing service rather than one for mental illness.
Immersive ethnographic research
We went into people's home and spent a significant time with them. Parents opened up to us about their own mental illnesses and worries and all that provided critical insight for designing the service.
Design for something intangible like mental illness and still make a tangible impact
The process made me think critically about my practice as I was using my design skills in a brand new way and allowed me to design expert activities without being an expert myself.
Think about long-term implications
What would the success of this program be? How would we measure it? How would children who went through this program interact with children who hadn't? These were all the hard questions that I had to think about how we would measure the impact of our service.