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Mental Health & UX App Design: How UX Design Can Help

While our culture of social gratification continues to worsen our own mental health, how can designers use a more ethical approach to put our best interests at heart?


Design Ethics and the Impact of UX on Mental Health

Having worked on so many tech for good projects I’ve had to face many ethical challenges and dilemmas to which I’ve learnt there is no right or wrong answer.

Which is why I wanted to document my experience and explore ethics in the world of UX to help myself and others create experiences that always benefit our end-users.

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In a world where interacting with apps literally releases chemicals in our brains, what impact do online experiences have on our mental health and how can we, as designers, build products that always benefit our end-users?

Design Ethics Cover

Our modern mobile culture is destroying our mental health

It should come as no surprise that unethical tactics in design, both physical and digital, have become an extreme influence on mental health in the modern age.

The digital world provides us with many useful features, but sadly many features that force our addiction to online shopping, browsing social media, listening to music or watching videos. Companies, often without realising, are utilising this addiction and amplifying the effects, largely, with what has been popularised as “Dark Patterns”.

Dark patterns are set to be obtrusive, disruptive, and controlling over user behaviour, guiding users to make decisions unknowingly or that feel out of their control. Some dark patterns even use similar techniques as gambling to make our brains release dopamine, giving us a sense of false happiness that causes addictive behaviour.

Are you addicted to digital experiences?

  1. Are you on your phone right now?
  2. Do you ever check your phone and realise you have no idea why you’re using it?
  3. Do you ever feel like you’re missing out from watching your friends Instagram story?
  4. Do ever get annoyed that someone hasn’t read your message?
  5. Do you ever keep watching an episode purely because it has begun to autoplay?
  6. Do you ever not appreciate the environment and people around you because you’re looking at your phone?

Look around you how many people are currently looking at a screen?

These are all signs that you are addicted to digital experiences, many of which are largely mobile lead. The rise of mindfulness has been seen over the last few years to try and help counteract this, however many mindfulness solutions are within digital experiences, which worryingly use many of these hidden unethical tactics.

60% of U.S. college students consider themselves to have a cell phone addiction

Journal of Behavioural Addictions

A few examples of common dark patterns

Here are a few of our least favourite dark design patterns to look out for and be cautious using:

The like Model:

The whole model of the like, share, follow is based off of dopamine hits and this massively promotes people’s need for approval, from those they aren’t close to or have never even met.

Infinite Scroll:

Go back a few years and everyone was clicking; today, everyone’s scrolling. Infinite scrolling feeds our craving for consuming information by providing us with endless information with ease. The modern era sees us watching six to nine hours of media a day.

Disguised Ads:

We’re served ads constantly, often about things we’ve searched once, or spookily after having a conversation. Disguised adverts are camouflaged as other kinds of content or navigation, increasing the likelihood you click on them. Native ads are a form of disguised ads.

My least favourite dark pattern? False notifications

Putting the use of infinite scroll or disguised ads aside, my least favourite dark pattern has to be false notifications; those notifications that serve very little purpose, “you might have new messages.”

What’s worse is that these notifications are often very difficult to relinquish, meaning that little red dot appears continually, driving people to open their apps.

However, notifications play an important role in digital experiences

Notifications may seem nothing more than a reminder, but their mechanism is second-to-none in retaining users and encouraging them to keep returning to their mobile app.

We can set notifications based on marketing material, time away from the app, the time of day, location of the user… The opportunities are endless.

But how many notifications are too many notifications? How tailored should notifications be to prevent users from feeling uncomfortable or like their phone is listening to them? And is serving user’s non-specific notifications to get them to return to an application ethical?

Unintended and False Notifications Dark Patterns

Two cards from the Dark Design Patterns deck.

A world of instant gratification

As Simon Sinek put so well; we live in a world of instant gratification. Where younger generations need constant social approval to stay healthy and happy.

What makes things worse is that these kinds of platforms and mobile apps have become such a necessity in life, communities have started adopting them at far younger ages. 

Becoming reliant on the technology years before they can drink, gamble or take part in any other form of activity associated with addiction.

We have to be very careful that whenever we’re designing UX or UI, we do not succumb to these dark patterns and do not adopt an approach which priorities commercial goals over the wellbeing of our users.

What can we do as designers to make a difference?

There are many different opinions when it comes to UX, but one thing is for certain; there is no one-size-fits-all when designing for different projects and user experiences, especially in design-life where work is varied and differs to such an extent.

UX Design opinions and approaches aside, we should know the definitions of ethics and morality. Ethics being our approach to living and creating a better life and morality being what’s intrinsically right and wrong. There are three areas to modern ethics:

  1. Metaethics
  2. Normative ethics
  3. Applied ethics

Our first responsibility as designers is to be knowledgeable of modern ethics and be well versed in what can go wrong if we don’t design ethically, either through competitor analysis and online case study research or better…

Through personally conducting user research and user testing to highlight these potentially unethical areas. We should also ensure we are aware of case studies where dark patterns have been used in an unethical way.

Attempting to put ethical reasoning into words

Lines of reasoning such as Occam’s Razor: “among competing hypotheses that predict equally well, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected”, offers a good first step in prioritising ideas or hypotheses when designing, and can be helpful when discussing your design solutions.

However, perhaps following a principle such as Postel’s law/The Robustness principle is the best place to start. We have a duty to act cautiously in our approach to design and to be open to accepting the views and opinions of users, stakeholders and other designers.

Be liberal in what you accept, and conservative in what you send.

Postel’s law, Laws of UX

The hardest part is balancing design ethics with commercial goals

The difficulty is that all these digital products and services are only able to function based on existing and proven business models and monetisation strategies.

Usually built off screen-time, these can include everything from paid apps and monthly subscriptions to forced advertising and in-app purchases.

Which is why the majority of dark patterns and design tactics are trying to keep us on-site, in-app and interacting with whichever platform we’re becoming addicted to.

That’s why, realistically, it’s very difficult for designers to be ethical, but we have a duty to put our users at the heart of every decision we make and consider the wider implications of what we’re putting out into the world.

Ethical Design Process

How I've dealt with difficult ethical dilemmas in the past:

Balancing ethical design choices with a brands commercial goals is one of the greatest ethical challenges we have to face as designers.

Recently I got to work on a project that concerned helping children balance their emotions and improve their mental health. I was largely involved in designing prototypes and testing the app with parents and children.

The app delved into areas of using gamification and animation to increase retention and help engage kids in the activities the app provided. We also considered a lot of accessibility and inclusivity features to cater for children with disabilities.

This raised a LOT of ethical questions:

Such as which features, if any, we put behind a paywall, to ensure our client had the resource needed to provide a great experience. As well as, how do we avoid including dark patterns and ensure our app doesn’t have any negative knock-on effects.

Our user-centred design process and user testing process proved key in preventing this; there were some really interesting insights we gained that we had never considered! 

However, I still consider how other brands might have handled the design phase of such a project, and I’m sure their outcome would have been very different.

Published on October 10, 2019, last updated on May 26, 2023

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