Anyone who decides to build a mental health app faces challenges with understanding the functionality, design, and psychological components necessary to provide the most benefit to users.
Mental health is a sensitive subject requiring a special approach. Even doctors who have been practicing for years wonder how to apply their knowledge and experience to the development of mental health apps. An app’s design may alienate users, or in-app mechanisms may not motivate them enough to overcome a mental health problem. Users might also abandon an app if they feel they aren’t receiving the support they expect. The list of possible issues goes on and on.
In order to develop healthcare apps that meet many people’s needs, it’s important to find all-around UX solutions. The purpose of this article is to help you find them.
Mental health app target audience
People all around the world suffer from depression, behavioral disorders, and mental illnesses. Many of these individuals can’t afford traditional therapy, worry about the stigma of in-office treatment, or don’t have access to this treatment for various reasons.
Recent statistics collected by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) show that 40 million adults in the US suffer from anxiety disorders. Worldwide statistics show that nearly 75 percent of people with mental disorders go untreated in developing countries, which proves the necessity of accessible and effective solutions for treatment.
On the other hand, many mentally healthy people want to find internal balance and become happier. Some people both with and without mental illnesses have already discovered the benefits of mHealth solutions for mental health. These solutions can be an alternative to therapy as they’re lighter on the wallet, available for all smartphone users, and ensure greater privacy.
According to research by digital due diligence firm onefourzero, in the UK, demand for mental health apps increased by 566 percent between 2014 and 2018. The success of apps like Talkspace, with its more than one million registered users, demonstrates the prospects of mobile mental health solutions for businesses.
Categories of mental health apps
The first thing for a business to decide when building a mental health app is what their app should focus on. This decision will affect all logic of the app and will be critical for its development and subsequent success.
Mental health apps can be designed for different age groups and genders. For instance, Mind Shiftis tailored to young people, taking into account the psychological characteristics of this age group. However, some mental health apps target all age groups and genders.
Mental disorder apps are tailored to the treatment of certain mental illnesses. There are also mental self-improvement apps designed to improve the psychological state of mentally healthy people. Mental health apps can also be dedicated to anyone with mental health needs: mental health apps for all. Let’s look at the differences and peculiarities of apps in these three categories.
[The Mind Shift app]
Mental disorder apps
There are literally thousands of apps on the market created for people living with depression. Some are built on the principle of exchanging messages with doctors, while others offer tips, mood training programs that people can do on their own, and elements of gamification. The depression app MoodTools takes depression seriously, even ensuring a suicide safety plan is in place in case of a crisis.
Besides depression, there are various disorders such as schizophrenia. The market also offers apps tailored to these mental illnesses.
However, doctors claim that apps designed for people with psychological disorders are ideally a supplement to traditional therapy; unlike apps for mentally healthy people, apps for people with psychological disorders must have doctors on board. These in-app professionals should be responsible for providing specialized support 24/7, thereby bringing maximum benefit to users.
In addition, apps for people with mental disorders often connect people sharing the same diagnosis, building communities. This helps users share feelings with those who will understand and support them.
Mental self-improvement apps
Mental health apps can be created for mentally healthy people wanting to monitor their mood swings, cultivate positive thinking, and break bad habits.
Meditation is often placed at the heart of these apps. For example, Calm applies different meditation techniques as its core feature, since many people find them effective for handling stress and relaxing.
Some existing solutions for mentally healthy people also offer in-app psychologists for those who want to enlist the support of professionals to overcome psychological problems.
In general, apps for mentally healthy individuals can be divided into general mental health apps and apps for addiction recovery.
General mental health apps. These apps enable users to enhance their self-awareness by controlling their mood, maintaining good habits and breaking bad ones, and cultivating positive thinking. For example, What’s Up? provides more than 100 questions to recognize your feelings and a Thinking Patterns page that helps you overcome negative thought patterns. The 7 Cups of Tea app has free trained “active listeners” available, who volunteer to care for people needing psychological help.
[The What’s Up app]
Apps for addiction recovery. The main purpose of these apps is to help people beat bad habits such as drinking, smoking, and taking drugs. Additionally, these apps allow people to track how much time has passed since they started fighting a bad habit. Twenty-Four Hours a Day, based on the namesake bestselling book, offers twelve steps to finally get rid of a bad habit.
Stress and anxiety apps. These apps specialize in helping people struggling with stress and anxiety. By providing 24-hour anxiety toolkits and diaries, they enable users to track and document thoughts that provoke restlessness. For instance, CBT Thought Record Diary claims to help users make long-lasting changes to their patterns of thinking and behavior.
Mental health apps for all
One app can be tailored to both mentally healthy individuals and those who suffer from serious mental disorders. Some mental health apps offer a range of services from doctors who provide scheduled care. For instance, Talkspace has more than three thousand licensed therapists available via text, video, and voice call.
After you’ve decided on your app’s specialization, the next step is to define the app’s functionality built around the core value it will deliver: provision of mental health services.
What features will make an app effective at solving people’s mental health problems?
There are a variety of tools and techniques that can be applied to modern mental health apps, including cognitive-behavioral and acceptance-commitment therapies, mood training programs, gamification, customized settings, and forums.
So as not to get confused by this great variety and not to offer redundant functionality, it’s best to draw a plan explaining how your app will handle a user’s problem. Each step of the plan should be matched to relevant features.
We’ve identified the essential features of a number of top-notch, feature-rich mental health solutions that have onboard therapists and are tailored to self-care. Some or all of the four following features may be implemented in a mental health app for healthy people and for those with mental disorders:
Self-monitoring. Mentally healthy people mainly use mental health apps to explore their mood patterns and handle stress, while people with serious mental disorders also use these apps to track their symptoms and progress. RR: Eating Disorder Management is much appreciated by users, as it helps them conduct self-monitoring research and record meals, thoughts, and feelings.
[The RR: Eating Disorder Management app]
Notifications and reminders. Notifications offer tailored suggestions, encouraging self-monitoring. Reminders suggest that users practice relaxation, go out for a walk, and do other things that are good for their psychological state. Busy users find it helpful to get notifications reminding them to perform mental health exercises. However, a too-high frequency of notifications is likely to annoy users, as psychologists warn that constant notifications are a toxic source of stress.
Sharing. This feature enables users to share on social networking sites to get support from friends or share directly with third-party healthcare providers, family members, and caregivers. iMoodJournal is highly rated by users for its Sharing Moods feature, which allows people to share their moods on social media, export their data in different formats, and send it via email
Support groups. Lots of people find support groups helpful for solving their mental health problems. By sharing your experience in a safe and confidential setting, you can gain hope and develop supportive relationships. Users can take part in discussions with people sharing their psychological problems. These groups are usually monitored by a mental health professional. For instance, What’s Up provides open forums for discussion between users.
Though there are apps with in-app doctors, a web-based mental health service that provides all the information needed by patients and therapists is preferable. The following list of features refers to apps that have onboard therapists:
Matching clients with therapists. Based on initially obtained information from a person seeking a consultation, a matching algorithm will recommend suitable doctors to choose from. Talkspace provides a welcoming therapist who, during a conversation with a new user, matches them with the most relevant doctor by asking a set of questions.
[The Talkspace app]
Dashboard for therapists. These dashboards are usually available on a provider website. They’re specifically tailored to therapists and allow them to manage cases and record patient progress to keep all information in one place. This information is received from patients through their smartphones by means of customizable surveys and journals tailored to a disorder or problem. This data is securely forwarded to the therapist’s web-based dashboard and shown in the form of understandable reports. A therapist can look through these reports before the session or together with the patient.
Text/audio/video messaging and chats. Communication within an app is usually performed via text messages, which doctors are obliged to reply to a fixed number of times per day. A mental health app can also provide communication with therapists by means of audio and video messages as well as live video and audio sessions, allowing the patient to choose the most comfortable communication channel.
Privacy and confidentiality of mobile apps for mental health
Reliability is critical when it comes to creating a successful mental health app. One of the reasons why people prefer medical mobile applications for mental health to traditional therapy is that they’re considered safe. The privacy of an app helps individuals minimize the number of people who know their sensitive information.
There are various regulatory guidelines for mobile mental health providers to take into account. The following are important components to consider for your app’s safety and reputation:
HIPAA compliance. When it comes to health app development, it’s often tricky to determine if the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules apply. To figure that out, answer the following three questions:
- Who will use the app?
- What information will it contain?
- Will the app be used by a covered entity (doctor, hospital, or health plan)?
Most mental health apps on the Google Play Store and the App Store don’t fall under HIPAA. This is because these apps are tailored to a patient’s personal use – don’t imply sharing private information with covered entities and don’t contain PHI (protected health information).
A healthcare app becomes subject to HIPAA if it includes protected health information (PHI), such as information about a user’s physical and mental conditions, digital healthcare services, payment details, and other information that can be traced back to a specific patient. If a covered entity uses an app, that app will also most likely have to comply with HIPAA regulations.
GDPR privacy standards. Client data must be stored in an anonymized form according to GDPR requirements, a set of European regulations on how businesses must manage personal data. A company that’s based, for example, in the US and has clients in Europe needs to comply with GDPR regulations to avoid penalties.
Regulatory guidelines. Mental health services must be provided only by licensed therapists in order to avoid criminal and civil penalties. In-app therapists also have to be acquainted with federal and state laws (in the US), as mental health practices are regulated at the federal and state levels. If you’re not sure about what regulations your app should meet, use this interactive mobile health apps tool designed by the Federal Trade Commission.
Encrypting app data. Stored or shared data has to be encrypted at all stages to meet guidelines. Encryption implies translating data into another form or using a secret code to provide access to this data only to assigned people who have the key or password.
Passcodes, usernames, and biometrics. A username and password allowing a client to log in to their account adds security to an app. Biometric authentication techniques such as fingerprint and iris scans, facial recognition, and voice scanning are a step toward sophisticated security of mental health apps.
How mental health apps bring profit
The most popular ways to monetize an app are ads and paid downloads. It’s also common practice to attract new users to an app by offering a free trial period. For instance, Calm grants a 7-day free trial to allow people to weigh the pros and cons of the app and website services. However, there are also two other options for getting revenue from your app. They’re explained in detail in one of our previous articles as variations of the freemium model. Let’s have a quick look at them:
In-app purchases. In this case, most of the app’s features are free, but a user can buy upgrades or additional items. For example, MoodTools offers paid premium features such as a generous amount of educational materials on different types of depression.
Subscriptions. This revenue model involves regular payment for constantly updated content. For example, Calm receives revenue from its premium plans, which offer more guided meditations, a library of Sleep Stories, masterclasses, and so on. Talkspace is also a monthly subscription service with three paid therapy plans to choose from.
[The Calm Premium Content]
More important points to consider for mental health app development
In-app human support. If an app offers psychiatric assistance, it’s important to provide an opportunity to receive the support of doctors. This might mean the ability to get in touch with specialists or with a support system in case of an attack of suicidal thoughts or any other emergency situation.
Clinical basis. There are tried and tested therapeutic approaches that clinicians use to treat mental disorders. It’s essential to choose one approach, carefully study it, and implement it in your app to bring value for clients and build an effective mental health solution.
Accurate and up-to-date information. It’s important for a mental health app to contain verified information. There are many apps on the market that provide information that’s either years out of date or plain false. Inaccuracies vary, from the use of outdated treatment recommendations to advice for those with bipolar disorder to drink alcohol during a manic episode. Offering clients false or dangerous information is also dangerous to an app’s reputation. Don’t forget the first rule of medicine: do no harm.
Comprehensive testing. Usability testing is even more important for health mental apps than for other apps. Some mental disorders interfere with people’s ability to concentrate, so usability testing that involves participation of the target audience is often justified.
Understanding the target audience. A mental health app should be designed to engage customers and meet their needs. To make sure your app does this, answer the following questions:
- What will motivate the target audience to become regular users?
- How and how often will the app send notifications to users?
- How will the app be interwoven into a user’s daily routine?
- What might annoy users (frequent surveys and controversial questions, for instance)? How can we avoid this?
- What other factors related to the target audience — cultural, financial position, background, age — must be taken into account?
Design and sounds. Visual and audio components as well as usability are a matter of the utmost importance for a mental health app. The app should calm down a user, and should therefore be aesthetically pleasing and easy to use. For example, #SelfCare, with its self-care game in which a user virtually chills in bed, has engaged guest artists to work out the design and constantly update it.
Motivational triggers. People often download a mental health app to achieve goals they can’t achieve on their own. This means an app should ensure achievement awards, such as digital coins and badges, as components of gamification, giving users a sense of accomplishment. Smiling Mind awards badges for some meditation-related achievements. However, motivational triggers don’t necessarily apply to a mental health app, as their availability depends on the problem the app is designed to solve. Some apps, such as #SelfCare, calm down a user by assuring them that there’s no purpose and no obligations — only enjoyment.
Positive communication. People seeking psychological help need support and acceptance, and they may count as an insult any ambiguities. Thus, if an app is intended to have a social community, it has to be monitored by moderators to make sure that all interactions are delicate and positive.
If you consider all of these nuances, your app is likely to be in demand with people seeking psychological help. If you’ve come up with an idea for an app for solving mental health problems, our software development company will gladly contribute to its realization.