Designing for an anxious and depressed world

In which we explore why and how to design for peoples’, sometimes, fragile state of mind.

A few weeks ago I needed to book a place to stay for an upcoming conference.

Like so many other people, I used a hotel booking site. In this case, Booking.com, where I entered my destination as search criteria and started browsing.

That’s when I was met by Booking.com’s snake oil salesman of a results page.

Aside from the useful price information I was looking for, each result also had one or more, though often three, of these brightly coloured messages demanding my attention.

  • 2 other people looked for your dates in the last 10 minutes
  • In high demand! Booked once for your dates in the last 24 hours on our site
  • Last booked for your dates 13 hours ago
  • Great Value Today
  • Only 4 rooms left on our site!
  • In high demand!
  • Risk Free: You can cancel later, so lock in this great price today!

Overwhelmed by the noise, it didn’t take long before I had to stop and walk away from my computer, taking a physical break from their exploitative anti-patterns.

Or, “misleading sales tactics,” as Andrew Tyrie, the chairman of Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) called it after concluding their eight-month consumer law investigation into hotel booking sites such as Expedia, Booking.com and Hotels.com.

If I was feeling this uneasy from trying to book a hotel, I can only imagine what someone with anxiety and/or depression might feel like.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines Anxiety as, “a natural emotion that includes the reactions that human beings have to threat of a negative or uncertain result”.

And Depression as, “characterized by persistent sadness and a loss of interest in activities that you normally enjoy, accompanied by an inability to carry out daily activities, for at least two weeks.”

Common but different mental health problems, they often occur together and their symptoms, causes, and treatments can often overlap—it’s why we’re looking at them together.

Worldwide, the WHO estimates that 1 in 12 people are living with anxiety and/or depression.

At 615 million, that’s almost twice the entire population of the U.S.

Meanwhile, in the UK, the numbers vary but the latest research carried out for NHS Digital, shows that 1 in 6 people in the past week have experienced a common mental health problem.

Looking at the statistics, it’s clear that what once was thought of as infrequent is in fact quite common.

So common that you probably know someone who has anxiety and/or depression.

A look at our own industry

Narrowing the lens even further this year, The British Interactive Media Association (BIMA) in their Tech Inclusion and Diversity Report, looked at exploring what it’s like for people who work in the UK’s digital and technology industry.

Their results show that people in our industry are five times more depressed than the national average.

More than 1 in 2 have suffered from anxiety and/or depression at some point.

The same survey found that the overall stress levels (at 66%) in our industry are equal to those reported in healthcare, such as the NHS. Compared to a sector renowned for its stressful conditions, it’s clear that the working conditions in this snake oil factory of ours, are very bad.

Matt Janes, Neuroscience, Functional Medicine and Mental Health Practitioner says, “Our bodies are designed to be under stress for only very short periods of time.”

He continues, “Prolonged stress, such as work stress, is highly correlated with mental illness such as anxiety and depression, as well as some forms of cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease.”

We need to stop making things worse.

Take action

By designing for people with anxiety and/or depression, we can build meaningful and mindful services from the start which will never subject people to unethical, misleading and exploitative anti-patterns.

Start with these simple principles from the Home Office Digital.

  • Don’t rush people or set impractical time limits, instead give them enough time to complete an action
  • Don’t leave people confused about next steps or timeframes, instead explain what will happen after completing a service
  • Don’t leave people uncertain about the consequences of their actions, instead make important information clear
  • Don’t make support or help hard to access, instead give people the support they need to complete a service
  • Don’t leave people questioning what answers they gave, instead let people check their answers before they submit them

Then take those principles and put processes in place which allow us to take responsibility for making sure they happen.

Returning to Booking.com, they could have put their customers’ mental health at heart but instead decided to agitate people into making hasty decisions.

Assuming they had their customers’ full attention, they then abused that attention instead of recognising that we only ever have a fraction of it and respecting it.

The truth is that people have more important things to do than engage with our businesses.

They’re often juggling a handful of thoughts and can only spare so much of their attention before they drop all their figurative balls.

By designing for a state of mind, we can change the state of the web and make it welcoming for people with mental health problems.

Including when that person is you.