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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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