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Project KOKORO – a mental health coach for teenagers

In the summer of 2015 we worked with mental health care organisation Ixta Noa on a project codenamed KOKORO, a mental health coach for teenagers and a life skills teaching tool for educators. The goal of the project was to help teenagers gain greater insight into and control over their thoughts and feeling. The idea was to provide teenagers with a digital tool that would allow them to help themselves deal with the everyday challenges of adolescence.

A coaching app and a teaching tool

We created a prototype of the coaching app and the teaching tool. The aim of the prototype was to enable Ixta Noa to (1) test wether the chosen approach would be engaging and effective and (2) convince potential partners to support the further development of the product.

The coach takes the form of a mobile chat app. Teenagers check in with a character called Noa and talk about what is bothering them. Noa offers support by helping them structure their thoughts and feelings and formulating courses of action. The conversational user interface is immediately recognisable and fun to use.

Screenshot of coaching app

The teaching tool contains lesson programs which supports teachers in the training of life skills in a classroom setting. It also provides teachers with insights from the data collected by the digital coach. Such data is anonymised and none of it is collected without prior consent from teenagers.

Screenshots of teaching tool

The coaching app also ‘knows’ which parts of the training teenagers have completed in the classroom and connects these to the issues a teenager reports to be struggling with. In this way life skills are contextualised by each teenager’s unique situation.

Workshopping, prototyping and playtesting

To kick off the project we ran a design workshop with the client in which we used our engagement loop model to collaboratively sketch out possible approaches to the problem. The workshop outcomes were synthesised in a design document.

We also interviewed teenagers individually about how they deal with life challenges and what things they already use to do so. This provided us with wonderful sources of inspiration some of which found their way into the product quite directly. Most notably, we included the idea of outputting aspirational images at the end of sessions for them to save and share. This acted as both a fun reward and also as an authentic word-of-mouth marketing mechanism.

Example of aspirational image in the coaching app

After the workshop and the interviews we proceeded to design and develop a prototype over the course of two sprints, each lasting roughly three weeks. Halfway through we ran a playtest and we finished the project with a demo.

We tested the prototype with a group of teenagers from different schools and backgrounds. We brought them together in one room and invited them to all bring their own device (most of them affordable Android smartphones). We began with an open-ended conversation about the subject which surfaced the broad range of individual experiences. After the discussion we invited them to use the prototype as we walked around and quietly observed and made notes on their behaviour. We finished the session by collecting feedback from each teenager individually, organising it and discussing it. The playtest outcomes provided us with the raw materials for the second sprint’s backlog.

Playtesting the coaching app

Technology and next steps

The prototype runs in any browser, is designed mobile first and requires no server side logic. The conversations were written in Gingko because of its unique branching model. We developed our own JSON format and Javascript engine for conversations. The frontend was rapidly developed using the ZURB Foundation framework and CodeKit.

Screenshot of the JSON format

The project provided Ixta Noa with a clear way forward for the product’s development. An independent team has been spun off from the organisation which is now planning the product’s further development. Our work has enabled them to test assumptions early and in a brief timeframe. They have also gained deep understanding of the resources they will require in order to move forward. We look forward to seeing the results.

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