Mental Health Technologies

Designing for Accessibility and Inclusivity


Supervised by Dr. Joanna McGrenere.

Computer Science, eDapt Lab

University of British Columbia

My PhD thesis explores the accessibility of mental health technologies with special emphasis on the intersection of stigma and non-Western cultures of university students. This page highlights the details of two projects, both of which are included in my thesis proposal. My roles include leading this research and advising 2 undergrad research assistants.

Background and Goals

Cultural psychology and counseling guidelines have routinely shown that an individual’s cultural background shapes how they think about mental health. This can be complicated by the fact that much of what is known of mental health is culturally laden towards Western understanding and practice and can privilege certain dominant groups (e.g., people who identify with Euro-centric, patriarchal, or middle to upper socio-economic values). Yet, surprisingly, there have been limited considerations for users that do not fall under the WEIRD paradigm in HCI mental health studies, creating barriers for adoption and entry for those who may need help the most.

The following two studies highlight ways to explicitly and thoughtfully bring in attitudes and behaviors of university students from non-dominant groups to inform a more inclusive and accessible design space for mental wellbeing.

Project 1 Goals

Understand how university students of E. Asian descent in Canada use and perceive digital mental health tools, with particular focus on how their cultural background has shaped that interaction.

Project 2 Goals

Collaborate with students and UBC counselors/administrators to understand and brainstorm designs and ideas to help UBC international students' mental health.

DFP poster that outlines the two studies (Best Poster Award)

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Project 1 Methods
  • Remote semi-structured interviews

  • Speed Dating: rapidly gather data on participants' perspectives by showing them existing mental health tools

  • Thematic Analysis


Project 2 Methods
  • Remote participatory design sessions with 14 students and 5 UBC counselors and administrators (split into 3 sessions)

  • Collaborative persona development activity 

  • Analysis of participant sketches and transcripts leading to the development of design dimensions (types of support, types of interaction, types of safety)

  • Development of 4 medium fidelity design mockups with storyboards

  • Post-session survey to gather perceptions on the mockups and storyboards

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Activity Cards for collaborative persona development

To help ground the participatory design sessions and address stigma that may hinder international students from freely talking about mental health, I devised an artifact that would allow us to generate a persona as a group. Informed by previous formative studies, I seeded several behavior and attitude variables in a deck of pptx slides. Participants combined them to form their own individual personas and then came together at the design session to discuss and consolidate them into one persona. Preliminary findings suggest that students felt more comfortable talking about the mental health challenges of the persona rather than talking about their own experiences more directly. 

What We Learned

Project 1 Findings

There are cultural factors in how E. Asian students in Canada use mental health technologies due to growing up with significant stigma and not knowing how to talk about mental health. This has led to: barriers to adoption and entry due to a perception that apps assume users have some prior knowledge of mental health and valuing support from peers online through stories and learning to be more confident ("self-advocate") about mental health.​

Project 2 Findings 

​Broadly, we found that international students weigh elements of trust, perceived benefit, and comfort level to determine which types of tools to use: those with features that support self-help (e.g. meditation), social-help (e.g. peer support), and professional help (e.g. telehealth). Stigma and lack of mental health literacy have led our participants to trust themselves and professionals the most.

Design Dimensions: Storyboards and Mockups

After the participatory design sessions, I analyzed the data to develop design dimensions that can address the needs and challenges of our participants. We then iteratively created four mockups of designs that span this design space. We embedded the mockups in their own storyboards to communicate how they can be used. To evaluate their impact, we sent our participants a survey with these storyboards to gather data on their attitudes and perceived usefulness.

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Storyboards with medium fidelity mockups of 4 different designs


Project 1 Impact

The write-up of this study has been accepted at CHI 2022, a top tier HCI conference. Preliminary reviews are positive, applauding the inclusivity of a very important and growing problem facing minorities today.

Project 2 Impact

​After concluding this project, I have received immense interest from the UBC community, and we have been discussing ways to apply ideas and designs more concretely with students. Study participants have also reached out to express their appreciation for being considerate of their stigma and comfort.

My Reflections

This project was filled with new and exciting learning opportunities. 

  • Taking on projects as a lead researcher

  • Advising undergrad research assistants on Design Thinking and UCD approaches

  • Networking with different stakeholders

    • UBC counselors, and department & campus advisors

    • Other grad students at the UBC HCI research clusters (DFP, MUX)

  • A lot of effort and time was spent developing ethical and considerate ways to minimize discomfort, hence many iterations of the Activity Cards

  • Doing everything remotely! Not ideal for participatory design.

One limitation was that even though the Activity Cards did successfully minimize discomfort, the personas were largely reflected on in an impersonal way. This resulted in insights that were not as deep as I would have liked. However, it is a tradeoff I am willing to take.