BC Borstal Association is a community leader in crime prevention providing root cause treatment and rehabilitation services in support of public safety. For 70 years, BC Borstal has been supporting prison inmates to transition into the society by providing them housing, food and skills training.
The organization now runs a program to provide treatment of root causes to criminal behaviour focusing on trauma prevention, early intervention and aftercare. This puts the organization at the forefront of addressing needs of the community they serve through targeted intervention and trauma prevention.
BC Borstal Association
MVP mobile app, UX/UI
Duration of the project
During our initial client kick-off meeting, we had a chance to understand the problem that our client is trying to solve for their patients and to better their operational capacity. We unpacked the goals for the project, but first the problem:
BC Borstal strives to be a leader in crime prevention by tackling the root cause of most criminal behaviour - trauma. They want to:
- Provide holistic support to their patients, to avoid maladaptive response, a response pattern potentially linked to historical trauma.
- Ensure that patients see value in counselling and continue their therapy
- Support front-line responders with resources to help patients
The task at hand
With that in mind, we began to break down the problem, understand our end users and design a minimum viable mobile app that enabled PTSD patients. Here are the goals for the project:
- Design a safe and reliable solution that allows PTSD patients to experience immediate, temporary relief from their symptoms.
- Increase return visits of patients by showing them the progress they have made through counselling
- Support emergency responders to better support and help patients and improve public and personal safety
Early insights from experts
During our discovery session, we not only learned about PTSD from the experts themselves, we were also able to get a glimpse into the lives of people suffering from trauma or PTSD.
The app’s primary users are PTSD patients, more specifically patients who fall within the category of low socio-economic status. These patients neither have access to expensive treatment nor have sufficient awareness of their mental health issue.
Our secondary user group are front-line responders who often encounter and are required to support patients experiencing symptoms similar to that of PTSD. In many instances, they experience vicarious trauma as a result of being exposed to and witnessing trauma stories.
The team consisted of 3 UI and 3 UX designers, working on a 3-week design sprint to launch an MVP for the BC Borstal mobile app.
Overall, the team operated in a highly collaborative manner, converging and diverging at different points to work on all steps of the design process. While the UX team delved into research and product strategy, the UI team was exploring and expanding the brand elements to achieve the desired mood and feel of the app. Throughout the design process, we invited our stakeholders to collaborate in the design process. We also tapped into their expertise and specialized knowledge.
my role in the team
User research: Laid out the user research strategy for the project and played a key role in recruiting participants for user interviews. My contribution also shaped the user interview and survey questions.
Product strategy: Played a role in laying out the product strategy. I led the efforts of analyzing competitive apps in the market to carve out differentiating aspects of the BC Borstal app.
Designing the journal feature: Created wireframes for the journal feature of the app.
Usability testing: Facilitated user tests on low, medium and high fidelity designs to uncover usability issues and further shape the app.
Facilitated design studio: Facilitated a collaborative design studio among the team to explore initial design ideas for the app.
scope & constraints
One of the biggest constraints we overcame as a team was the lack of in-depth understanding about PTSD. To gain empathy for PTSD patients, we had a lot of learning to do within a very short span of time.
Working in a team of just designers did pose a challenge as we had no input from a development standpoint. We acknowledged this pretty early on and had informal coffee-break-style chats with developers at regular intervals to ensure our design solution was well within scope.
Here is how we arrived at a solution
Research goals and methods
We kick-started our design process by diving into research. During our research phase, our goal was to learn about PTSD, its symptoms, develop empathy for patients, their behaviours and context. We implemented a wide range of research methods to get an understanding of the medical condition and our users.
Cognizant of the time limitations we had, we aimed to make the most out of the time we spent on user research. So we started out with crafting some hypotheses based on what we learned from our discovery session with the client. Coming up with assumptions about our users and their context helped us optimize the time we spent on research. The hypotheses guided our interview and survey questions and the overall research arc.
Insights from secondary research
Our goal with secondary/ domain research was to learn about the medical condition of PTSD, the associated symptoms, causes and other medical information. This was important because it allowed us to learn enough about our users to frame better and more open-ended interview and survey questions.
As part of the secondary research, we also conducted a competitive and comparative analysis. We researched and tested out existing apps and websites that catered to PTSD patients and patients with other mental health conditions. We studied the features, looked at similarities and differences, strengths and weaknesses.
Insights from primary research
Tight timelines meant we had to conduct rapid but relevant user research. The insights from our secondary domain research and our hypotheses, shaped our understanding of our users’ conditions and pain points, allowing us to dive deeper through conversations.
We conducted 11 user interviews with a range of participants from PTSD patients, to volunteers working with at-risk youth, counsellors and paramedics. Since we found it especially challenging to recruit interview participants from the specific demographic (prison inmates, folks from a lower socio-economic group) we shifted gears quite early on in our research process. We learnt about our users through service providers, primarily front-line responders, who offer support to them.
To further bolster the insights we received through interviews, we designed and deployed two sets of surveys—for the patients of PTSD and for professionals who have experience dealing with patients. We received 16 responses for the professional survey and 24 responses from the patient side.
With all the information we gathered, it was time to look for patterns and themes and distill some key insights.
- PTSD patients cope with their symptoms differently. However, the most common coping techniques include deep breathing exercises and grounding techniques.
- At the time of experiencing symptoms, patients don't like to be talked down to but prefer simple language that is actionable.
- Many front-line workers and other service providers face vicarious trauma as a result of being exposed to trauma stories.
- Most front-line workers, other than counsellors, are unaware of PTSD and the most appropriate way to handle patients.
- Most patients just prefer talking to someone they trust while experiencing triggers and symptoms.
- Some patients reported that their symptoms are often translated into something physical. Their body moves slower.
- Journaling is a mindfulness practice. Patients are advised to keep a journal to keep track of feelings and record progress. It also comes in handy while talking to a trauma counsellor.
Our insights led to the creation of a user persona. The persona brought team alignment on our users' goals, motivations and the context of their lives. The persona was important as we navigated through feature planning and ultimately design.
Overcoming pivots and pitfalls
At the time of synthesizing our research, we kept encountering insights that made consider a product pivot. From being an app for patients, we were considering an app that caters to service providers and front-line workers to enable them as they support PTSD patients. Our research also showed that there was no comprehensive tool available to front-line workers to offer meaningful support to patients. This led to some differences within the team. Eventually, with some input from our clients, we got back on track to keep the focus. This was decided for two reasons:
- The clients’ primary purpose is to empower their patients. Demonstrating that they are helping patients would help them garner more support from donors and funding agencies
- To keep the focus on an MVP that can be improved on
Balancing user and business goals
While planning out features for the app, our approach was to design features that brought the maximum value to the users while addressing key business concerns. From the beginning, the team was aligned with designing an MVP.
Interactive coping techniques
Coping techniques form the core of our app. We designed the coping technique to be interactive and guide the user by setting the right pace.
The journal feature of the app is designed with three prompts that help the user reflect on their experience and symptoms. These entries help them keep track of their own feelings, and serve as valuable talking points on one-on-one sessions with their counsellors. From the business point of view, it provides them with a way to evaluate the patient as well as their services.
When the user launches the app, they have an option to either call their emergency contact or get started with coping techniques. Our research showed that people prefer talking to someone they trust while experiencing symptoms.
Non mandatory sign-up
To ensure a seamless experience, the sign-up process on our app is optional in the beginning. However, in order to access the journaling feature, the user will have to register for an account.
Pathways through the product
It took the UX team a few iterations to get the user flow just right. Keeping in mind the context of our users and their mental model at the time of using the app, we structured the journey through the app carefully. Storytelling was a tool we used to understand the full breadth of our users’ experience as they open and use the app.
Translating data into drawings
To gain clarity on the design direction, we took to sketches soon after some initial planning efforts. We wanted to create a shared vision for the app and be open to diverse perspectives in the initial design brainstorming phase, hence we facilitated a design studio exercise. We went through three rounds of time-boxed design iterations and presented our designs at the end of each round. As the facilitator, I moderated critiques of these designs and helped the team arrive at common themes and ideas that posed as valuable design options.
Designing for trust and comfort
Our UI team inherited most visual elements from the BC Borstal’s existing brand. The client wanted us to retain the brand as it carries with it a 70-year-old legacy and rich work. Within the parameters provided by the client, our team introduced a warmer color to the palate, enhancing the user experience significantly and instilling a sense of trust and warmth.
Introducing BC Borstal *drum roll*
The onboarding flow introduces the app to the users. It consists of an optional sign-up flow that allows the user to set up basic account information including an emergency contact that can be reached even if the user is unable to access their phone. The main purpose of the onboarding flow is to quickly and seamlessly move into the home screen (coping technique screen), which is the main functionality of the app.
Coping technique flow
The coping technique screen is the home page of the app. It consists of a list of coping techniques that the user can browse, learn more about and ultimately choose from to enable them to better manage their present. The goal here is to be as interactive as possible guiding the user during their dark and vulnerable times. We designed a feature that allows the user to set a timer on the technique to make it more customizable for their needs.
To keep the app customizable we designed a profile section. This is where the user records and saves journal entries. As discussed in the research section of the project, journaling is an important technique for PTSD patients to keep track of their triggers as well as see the progress they are making. The app notifies the user to fill out the journal after the completion of a coping technique. Furthermore, through this section, the user can edit their emergency contact as well. A future consideration is to also enable the user the book counselling sessions and manage their therapy through this section.
Testing with users
At every step along the way, we wanted to ensure that our design is both usable and functional so we conducted user tests. Results from the testing resulted in some changes to the app. Here are iterations on the two most important screens of the app.
Articulating and presenting design decisions
Three weeks, long hours of collaboration and many sleepless nights later we were gearing up for the final presentation. The team carefully crafted a story of the design process for the client which was quickly followed by formal hand-off session where all UX/UI documentation of the app were passed on to the client for development. We also identified future considerations for the app backed by research. However, we deemed it out of scope for the MVP.
future product considerations
- Book a session with a BC Borstal counsellor
- Video and audio content for coping techniques
- An online community for PTSD patients
- Free resources on PTSD and related mental health issues
"What struck me about the RED team was the level of care, attention and awareness they provided to sensitively handle our organization's needs, and the needs of our target user. The level of insight into the product, let alone the design process, truly impressed our organization's leadership. As the Executive Director, I entered into this agreement somewhat guarded given the complexity of our work and our app's needs - my caution quickly turned to confidence as the RED team helped us navigate the research, the intent and design." — Natan Rock, Executive Director, BC Borstal Association