I’m peeved at work, stuck in the middle of a "slow news day" (yeah, they really do happen), and I’m journaling. I think the last time I wrote down my thoughts in this way was probably middle school, but I’m testing a new app—Moodnotes ($4, available today for iOS)—that’s designed by ustwo, makers of Monument Valley. And Monument Valley was great. So when they asked if I wanted to try a prerelease of an app built to improve my mood, I said I’d give it a shot.
"What’s happening at the moment?" the app prompts.
"I’m frustrated, I can’t find stories to write," I type.
"Which feeling fits your mood?" it asks, listing all sorts of emotions from me to pick from. I spot "frustrated" and realize it’s the obvious pick.
So far, the exercise felt pretty silly. But then the app pushed me more. It had me describe my thoughts further—urging me to verbalize that I don’t like feeling unproductive, and like I’m not accomplishing my career goals. And then it offered up another list—a list of "traps" I may be falling into. They were presented as a simple list, each explained in just a line or two. Could I be "Catastrophizing" this by blowing things out of proportion... " Or "Blaming" myself too much? Could I be suffering from "Intolerance of Uncertainty" and struggling to accept things being uncertain or unknown.
Well, yeah! I quickly tapped a checkmark by each emotional pitfall. I saved the entry. And you know what? I felt better.
I just had a 2-minute tune-up, thanks to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a well-studied psychological science that focuses on reframing your negative thinking to alleviate stress and anxiety. And while it wasn’t quite as fun as a level of Monument Valley, I had to admit, I was surprised that Moodnotes had sucked me in so quickly. I’d been slowly transitioned from jotting down my thoughts to expanding them to clinical self-diagnosis. Of course, easing me into the principles of CBT was entirely by design.
"Journaling is a very simple, familiar activity for most people. We were looking to hide the vegetables in the meal," explains Dr. Edrick Dorian, co-founder of Thriveport, the two-man firm brought in to consult on and provide the psychological content of Moodnotes. "[We figured] if we can disguise healthy content in a relatively enjoyable, possibly delightful, experience, we’d truly be disseminating empirically supported wisdom in ways and to people we’d normally not have access to."
Moodnotes started as a design sprint at ustwo’s London office. The digital firm, which develops some of its own apps, but primarily works for clients, had learned from internal polling that employees wanted to delve into the health and wellness space.
Ustwo began researching the space. They came up with a very general concept of "resilience"—basically how people can manage stress day to day—and mocked up a website called Rituals, inviting people to sign up for a product improving people's emotional and mental capacity that, admittedly, didn’t exist yet. They started conducting interviews of what they call "extreme personas"—like a monk and an actress—and they surveyed people who’d suffered from depression and anxiety. In the research phase, they came across CBT, and knew that was the direction they wanted to go. But within a busy week of work, they realized that they needed help.
"What we discovered with early thinking we’d developed, we had something people were interested in, but as a product design studio, we know our strengths lay in strategic direction and design of that product," says ustwo Studio Design Lead Alana Wood. "We knew that we weren't health experts. We thought it’d be a good idea to partner with somebody to ground our thinking in the scientifi appraoch
They reached out to Thriveport, a company that had released their own mental health app a few years earlier. And over the course of eight weeks of cross-continental Skype calls, they developed what would become Moodnotes.
Whereas ustwo had originally toyed with building games into the app, and even making the entire design quite playful, when the team decided on the direction of journaling, the tone of everything needed to change.
"What we learned from testing it with users was, the impression and content should come from the user, because this was a facilitation tool," Wood says. "If we imposed too much of a style of the application, that got in the way of the experience."
But it couldn’t be too clinical, either. The result is an interface built from a somewhat muted color palette, one that’s not afraid of beige and brown alongside teal and yellow, with iconography that’s as inoffensive as clipart.
The graphics, though, aren’t just designed to portray the right aesthetic, but to actually function inside a CBT rubric. A small moment of brilliance in the app occurs each time you start a new entry. CBT generally asks patients to rate their happiness on a scale of 1-10, but ustwo pushed to shift this numerical scale to a series a emoticons. The user swipes through a gradient of smiles and frowns until they find one that matches their mood. "This was an area where we were back and forth with the psychologists," says Wood. "We managed to get to a delicate balance, of what’s important from a psychological point of view, but also in terms of producing a consumer facing application."
Speaking from my own experience with the app, I can say the emoticon approach works. With a swipe, the faces quickly morph and the background color changes in a perfectly executed bit of UX that just feels right. Rather than quantify your feeling with a number (what is a 7 when it comes to happiness?), you can mirror the intensity of your own smile or frown.
Another bit of brilliance within the app is that the act of journaling doesn’t always need to lead to deep psychoanalysis. You can save an entry at any point—recording just your mood or saving a brief journal entry without further self-reflection.
"It’s about reducing the barrier of entry of they can get into logging," Wood says. "In terms of the more positive experiences, we discovered through testing, when people are feeling a bit down, they seem to be OK with spending more time to analyze that. But when people are in an upbeat positive mood, they didn’t want to spend as much time in the app."
In fact, over time, part of the appeal of Moodnotes is that you might use it less. Much like a course of therapy, your time with Moodnotes could come to an end. "People start to become very aware of their own thinking habits in a way they weren't," says Dr. Drew Erhardt, co-founder at Thriveport. "Someone may ultimately, eventually want to continue to journal because they like the practice, but just like therapy, we teach someone to be their own therapist—to not need one anymore."
I’ve only made a few entries in Moodnotes since I started using it last week—in part because I’ve already begun to recognize my own bad thinking habits, and in part because I often just forget to journal in any given day. But for me, the best part of Moodnotes hasn’t been spotting why or how I’m stressed, but recognizing those moments that I’m content.
One night I’m cooking dinner in my cramped and never spotless kitchen, forced to scrub a few pots clean, prep vegetables, dig through cabinets, all when I could be zoned out with delivery noodles and Netflix binging. And I realize it’s the perfect time to journal a feeling: I’m happy.