11 Apr 2014

10 top tips for mental health technology

By Lily

On Monday March 10th Mark Brown spoke at our Tech For Good Meetup about Doc Ready, a web app to help young people make their first visit to the GP about their mental health.  Developed by a partnership of Enabled by Design, Neon Tribe, FutureGov and Social Spider CIC, the app grew out of young people’s ideas developed through the Paul Hamlyn Foundation/Mental Health Foundation Innovation Labs initiative.

We asked Mark to write up his talk as a guest blog and he did! Here are Mark’s ten points to remember if you want to innovate and develop tech for use by people with mental health difficulties:


1.  People have mental health difficulties. Mental health difficulty isn’t just a set of symptoms.  Mental health difficulty is an experience of mental distress, upset or disorder, affecting mood, thoughts, physical sensations, actions or motivations that lasts over a period of time and gets in the way of doing the things that you want or need to do.


2. Mental health difficulties present challenges.  What these challenges are will depend on where someone finds themselves, their previous experiences and the severity of the difficulties they face.  Challenges change over time.


3. People with mental health difficulties aren’t problems to be solved, we’re people with problems to be solved.  There’s a difference.


4.  Many people try to develop tech as a treatment for mental health difficulties.  This is extremely difficult, hugely complex and currently under invested in.  A more fertile area is to develop things that act upon the challenges a mental health difficulty causes.  Tech can enable a person to do things that they may otherwise not be able to do.


5.  There’s no reason why designing things to help people with mental health difficulties should be any different from designing things for any other group of people.  You can’t design from abstracts.  To know facts and figures about mental health is not the same as having insights that lead to good design.


6.  No matter how well you think you know a particular condition you can’t design anything until you understand the challenges it presents to those who experience it.  If you want to design something that will help mental health difficulties, spend time with people who experience them.


7.  Don’t ask people for solutions to their problems.  If they knew the solutions they’d already be doing them.  Ask people to help you to refine definitions of the problems they face. Often hidden in a proposed solution is the detail of a well-defined problem.  When young people came up with the initial idea for the app later became Doc Ready it wasn’t for an app to help them prepare for GPs appointments.  They asked for an app to translate young people’s language into GPs language.  They identified a huge problem – consultations with GPs not working well for young people – but not being app developers, they came up with a solution that wasn’t the best way of solving it.


8. If your tech doesn’t have the potential to make life better, people won’t use it.  It’s easy in mental health to talk to service delivery professionals before you talk to the people for whom your tech is intended.  Professionals want to make services better as that is their route to making life for people with mental health difficulties better.  Making services better isn’t synonymous with making life for people with mental health difficulties better.  Already existing services might be the ones currently holding the money, but your end-user isn’t them: it’s the people who have the difficulties.


9. There’s very little horizon scanning in mental health.  This makes it an area ripe for innovation, but an area currently under-capitalised.  While tech that aids mental health service delivery looks like the place to invest development time, the actual real innovation space is in tech that makes life with a mental health difficulty better, more fulfilling and easier to live.


10.  Spend most of your time speaking to people who experience mental health difficulties.  Too many people have an idea of what’s best for us and too few people spend time talking to us.  The last thing people with mental health difficulties need is more heroic problem solvers who can’t be bothered to spend time with the people they profess to care about so much.


Mark Brown is development director of Social Spider CIC.  He is @markoneinfour on twitter.  He does lots of mental health stuff which has grow from his own experience of mental health difficulty and drinks a lot of tea.