Understanding mental health: lessons from UX

Levelling Up and Productivity, Values based living

I love a good analogy.

(I mean of course I do – I’m a linguist. I love the interplay between understanding, language, and how the metaphors we use can change our perception of a situation. But we already knew I’m a nerd)

Mental health is notoriously difficult to discuss, but one thing that can make it more accessible is finding the right metaphor or analogy to guide your thinking. Mark Freeman (who we all know I love) is particularly good at this. One of my favourites is the analogy he makes between mental health and learning to swim. If you don’t know how to swim, then it’s unsurprising you might start drowning – but it wouldn’t mean you have a “drowning disorder” or there’s something wrong with you. Similarly, he draws comparisons between mental and physical health: both require targeted, sweaty practice on different skills. If you stop exercising, you’ll become unfit. Simple as that.

I’ve only been a UX researcher for a few months now but even then I’m starting to see the overlap between the UX principles I’ve had to learn and my approach to mental health. Done well, this kind of research is a wholly scientific approach, rooted in understanding how people feel, and generally being curious about people.

And done well, a holistic approach to mental health can be the same way.

The main principle I’m focusing on today is this: validate/violate your assumptions with evidence.

In UX research, you might have an assumption about what’s going to happen, or how users are going to behave when faced with a situation. Hunches are good. Having a decent idea of where you’re going helps you connect with the users of your product, saving precious time and resources in research.

However, these insights are far, far stronger after being properly validated with actual data. Observation (in person or remotely), surveys, etc. You have to actually talk to people, otherwise you’re probably going to be way off.

Similarly, with mental health, it helps to have a similarly curious mind and be open to the outcome. I first heard about the concept of ‘expectancy violation’ on episode 107 of the OCD stories with Dr Kevin Chapman discussing Exposure and Response Prevention (around 14:11). As it pertains to anxiety, this is rooted in a simple idea: identifying what outcome you are afraid will happen, and then are you afraid will happen? That you’ll lose control? Throw up? Wet yourself? Hurt someone?

With anxiety this can get extreme – avoiding certain foods, certain places, certain people, certain feelings, because we assume we can’t deal with it. In ERP, we’re exposed to the situation that we’re afraid of being in for as long as possible, to violate our assumption that we’re going to lose control. Our assumptions adjust based on this new evidence.

Have you ever properly observed how you respond when you actually have to face a fear, instead of avoiding it? Do you know how distressed something actually makes you feel, or are you just assuming? When carrying out a task, what triggers make you mentally X out? Have you ever actually questioned the assumptions you have about yourself, and your own ability to handle a task that seems unfathomable?

Often, we go into a situation and either predict how we’re going to react without evidence. Or, we ignore that evidence, in favour of supporting a narrative that paints us as weak or incapable. Similarly, it can be tempting to ignore an insight from UX research that doesn’t fit with preconceived notions of the client base. It might not be rooted in a few of losing control, but it’s certainly rooted in a reluctance to change.

But in the end, empathy beats intuition. 



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