Conduct research and design a product that allows licensed counselors to communicate with clients through synchronous telehealth encounters.
My first formal exposure to psychology came early. What started as a minor curiosity in high school turned into an educational obsession that carried me through college. So when Emotilink approached us to help design a platform that would connect people with mental health care professionals, I was immediately intrigued. Their project was ambitious and still in the early stages of development, allowing my team plenty of space to explore.
The project was completed over the course of three agile sprints. Working on a three-person team, I performed UX research and design that resulted in mid-fidelity wireframes and a mobile prototype. Although it has not launched yet, the client has stated that they are extremely pleased with our work and will be incorporating it into the development of the product.
For the Emotilink team, the goal was to create a product that addressed three main issues prevalent in the mental health care industry:
While the first two issues are solved through telehealth communication, we needed to address the stigmas society attaches to mental health care. This guided our direction and eventually helped us focus on the provider side of the platform while still working to address the needs of clients.
We also were presented with a few constraints to work within.
Before diving into research, my team and I discussed our assumptions.
In my mind, one of the biggest questions was cost. Would people want to pay out of pocket to speak with someone they’ve never met before? And if so, how much would they be willing to pay?
We also identified that the platform may need to allow for providers to have a consultation, as they do in traditional practice. How could we use design to help build rapport between both types of users?
Working to answer those questions and more, we combined desk research, competitive analysis, and interviews. Speaking with providers and people who currently use their services was the most insightful part of the process. After exhaustive synthesis, we gained a clear understanding of who the providers and users are.
The interviews also addressed one of our biggest concerns; would people be willing to pay out of pocket for this service? To my surprise, I learned not only that many people would be, but that it’s already a common practice for people to pay up to $200/hr. There are two main reasons for this.
Instead, a receipt can be provided for the clients to submit to their insurance provider for reimbursement. It was reassuring to learn that this product can fit into an existing system.
During our interviews, we also uncovered a few unanticipated things.
Most importantly, establishing rapport is a difficult hurdle and providers identified the potential for Emotilink to establish long-term relationships. Also, unless they have firsthand experience or knowledge, clients typically seek short-term counseling because they don’t realize that long-term help is more beneficial.
This led us to one big question. What happens if the provider-client relationship is just not the right fit?
Providers said that they offer 15-50 minute consultations at a waived or reduced rate, depending on the situation, and that they were very important.
Keeping these things in mind, I led a brainstorming session that allowed us to visualize our thoughts on a whiteboard and resulted in a matured focus.
We refined our scope to focus on the provider side of the application while keeping in mind how important it was to take their clients into consideration at all times. The relationships that Emotilink will facilitate are highly co-dependent and sensitive for all users involved.
Putting together everything we had learned, we identified that:
To guide our solution, I crafted four principles for our team to use for alignment.
With the problem and scope defined, we set out to explore a variety of solutions. Embracing the Google Ventures Sprint methodology, we broke off and started sketching ideas and concepts.
I started by outlining and sketching what I knew would be important.
The product would need to be efficient and easy to use. I wanted to offer a clean, stripped back interface that focused on functionality. I utilized cards that allowed me to emphasize consistent organization, make information glanceable, and allow functionality.
I also knew that pricing would vary. Our research indicated that providers set their own rates and clients occasionally send counter offers, although this is not universally practiced. It did add a layer of complication to the instant connection functionality that the client requested. Providers would need to be able to approve or decline offers before accepting. Interactive cards solved this. In my sketches, buttons for “approve” and “decline” sat neatly next to corresponding requests..
With our sketches complete, my team and I created individual paper prototypes to allow us to test them simultaneously with providers.
In order to learn the most from our concepts, we tested them with providers and people who have experience in similar clinical settings.
We found that:
Testing also led me to identify a critical issue.
With Emotilink intended to be a mobile product, would providers be able to hold their phone steady for hours at a time? What if they have a physical disability? What if they have 5 sessions a day? The fatigue from the extended use of a video teleconferencing app would be a turnoff. Providers may choose to rest their phones, but that would complicate where they appear in the viewing window, as well as making it difficult to charge and cool the device.
Because this was a major concern, we brought it to the attention of the client at our next meeting. They agreed and decided to follow the iOS app with Android and web apps.
One of the most important things we learned from concept testing, though, was just how sensitive it can be for a provider to decline to work with a client. We knew that providers on the platform couldn’t accept every request they received. Our initial prototypes made it possible to decline a request, but it wasn’t until seeing it in action that we really understood how important this interaction was.
We needed to design a system that handled this with sensitivity and care.
With feedback in hand and these questions in the back of our minds, we started synthesizing what we learned. To ensure that we were thorough, I mapped out provider user/task flows in Axure.
Using cards, we kept the layout clean and organized. Providers found them easy to parse for important information, and they allowed us to establish visual hierarchy and the careful balance of available information.
We also focused on functionality.
Declining a client would be a particularly sensitive interaction. Providers had identified that Emotilink should allow them to refer clients to colleagues as an alternative because feeling turned away is extremely negative for someone seeking help, especially if they are already in an emotional state. Working with them to find someone who would be a better fit solved the client’s and provider’s problem while preventing the client from feeling degraded or diminished. To incorporate this into Emotilink, I designed flows for sending a personalized message and recommendation any time a provider is declining to work with a client.
To further reduce the likelihood of having to turn away a client, we designed a system that allows providers to set themselves as “not taking new clients,” which hides them from search results by using a simple logic-based qualifier.
With the project coming to an end, it was time to put together everything we had learned. I created mid-fidelity wireframes and a prototype for the Emotilink iOS app using Sketch and Marvel, highlighting key screens and a few of the main flows. The prototype allows users to experience the dashboard, accept and decline requests, and even walk through a session.
You can view the prototype here:
At the same time, one of my team members created wireframes for the recommended web version of the platform. While these would need validation through testing, it was important to follow up on our recommendation to the Emotilink team that a web service be part of their offering.
While finishing this project, taking care of the clients was still on my mind. To address things that were outside of our scope, we created documentation of further recommendations.
Along with developing a web platform, this included functionality for the in-session emergency button.
Providers we interviewed made it clear that calling 9-1-1 in an emergency can be too extreme. Instead, they may call local mental health services. The in-session button will need to allow for this and be able to trigger the call from outside of the provider’s phone so the session is not interrupted. This also means that Emotilink will have to be able to access users’ GPS location data, information that will need careful handling to avoid any HIPAA violations.
Our recommendations also included the ability for providers to set themselves as available for instant booking. If a provider has a quiet afternoon without appointments, she should be able to log in, say she is in a private location, and set herself as available for a defined amount of time. This will allow instant connection with clients without worrying about interruptions or privacy.
In the end, the client was excited by our work. The value of this project was as much from research as it was from the final design. We gained a better understanding of the domain and the opportunities available, and then presented them to the Emotilink team to help shape the future of a product that will touch people’s lives in a very personal way.
Working on this project helped me understand the importance of being open and forthright about my assumptions going into a project. Our research showed me that something I believed to be far too expensive to survive was actually just right. By using comprehensive research I can overcome bias and doubts.
This project also hit home for me on a personal level. I’ve been interested in psychology and mental health care for my entire adult life. It was amazing to be able to work on a project that can help evolve the field and improve people’s lives. Increasing access to mental healthcare has the potential to save lives and I was very fortunate to be able to work on Emotilink.
There is one person we spoke to whose voice I can still remember clearly. Max is a young man who was seeing a psychologist for quite some time before he moved too far away. His words help embody the value Emotilink has to offer and serve as a reminder to me of the importance of being able to help.