Challenge: How can a narrative tool help a teenager with their fear of social situations?
Client: NYU/Master’s Thesis
Role: UX Consultant
User Research (Interview, Focus Groups)
Paper (Storyboarding, First Iterations)
Sonder is a narrative tool that teaches individuals over the age 16 or high school students how to deal with their fear of general social situations. The tool features a character that an individual with social anxiety could relate and has the ability to help the user with their own fear of social situations.
Having the character go through anxiety challenges, the user learns a step-by-step process of getting through the social situations they may be afraid of. Sonder provides strategies based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for the users to implement in their daily lives to help handle their anxiety.
The name of the character (and the tool) is Sonder. Sonder is the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own. The reason behind making and using this character is to show that the character itself is not intimidating at all. Sonder is someone who is quite approachable but looks a little timid. Giving such features to the character, makes the users of the tool relate to what the tool is trying to represent as the users can see themselves in the character and share the same issues as Sonder.
In 1975, the effects on four primary colors (red, yellow, green, blue) were tested using State-Anxiety Inventory as their dependent variable. Since anxiety involves displeasure and high arousal, the findings were consistent showing that red and yellow were more arousing than blue and green, red and yellow were less pleasant than blue and green. Since, the aim of Sonder is to help users feel happy and hopeful, rather than anxious, the blue-green hues were used throughout the tool to apply this color theory.
Empathy allows us to understand how others are feeling. It helps predict one’s behavior and experience emotions triggered by their emotions. Empathy allows a person to have an opportunity to feel other’s joy, pain, emotions and feelings, thus allowing us to understand and appreciate the mental state of the other person. As mentioned in the Applied Artificial Intelligence, virtual environments are becoming a promising new technology to be used for interactive learning spaces for children. One of the major factors that help build a relationship between the user and the interactive tool is the synthetic character that is used in the environment. This is a result of the fact that children are found to respond more empathically to something that is perceived as similar to themselves. Sonder features a character that who through the Anxiety Challenges with the users. Sonder highlights the character’s thought process to invoke empathy with the users and teach them techniques to get over their own anxieties.
Chris MacLeod created a list of the most common social fears in his book The Social Skills Guidebook. The book enlists scenarios where people feel uncomfortable. The situations focused on a few core worries of people who have some social fears as follows:
● That they could be rejected.
● That other person may judge them negatively (for being shy, awkward, weird, inappropriate, etc.).
● That the situation has the potential for them to be singled out and embarrassed.
● That they’ll annoy or inconvenience other people somehow.
● That if they make a mistake they’ll feel socially incompetent and bad about themselves because of it. Their error will offer ‘proof’ that they’re flawed.
People who suffer from social anxiety do not feel at ease with the thought of mingling and meeting new people. They sometimes discourage themselves by imagining that other people at the party are going to think that the person is lonely, creepy, or, a wallflower if they can’t keep up with the conversation. The anticipation of being uncomfortable makes them not go to the party itself. Thus, to help individuals with social anxiety, the notion of a CBT technique called exposure therapy was implemented. As the user of the tool, the participant has to follow a certain set of activities or steps, which would help them to get through the social scenario.
In order to further understand the inner machinations of social anxiety disorder, in Fall 2015, I attended the CBT group therapy sessions for Social Anxiety for NYU students which met every Wednesday at the NYU Counseling and Wellness Services, Student Health Center on Broadway in Manhattan. An NYU psychotherapist led the group. The group focused on discussing issues that each participant was facing in their daily life and then the application of evidence-based CBT techniques was introduced and practiced so students could become aware of these strategies.
The alpha version of the tool was made in the form of storyboards, where the users can see the flow of the tool and as they go through it, they would learn to be skillful observers. The very first storyboard showcased a story of a person going to a new school and having a hard time catching up with the lessons in his first class. As the class comes to an end, the tool will ask the user to opt for either asking for help or doing nothing. If the user selects the latter, the tool will move on to the next day and focus on the fact of how the character in the tool gets more confused. If the user chooses to ask for help, the tool helps the user form an introduction strategy to get started with the conversation.
User Test and Results
The alpha version was tested with the students from the CBT group therapy. The concept was appreciated, but the following changes and additions were suggested:
● Addition of reward system was requested.
● Demand for stronger learning system was made.
● Procedural and strategic theory was suggested.
For the next iteration, the feature of “Off the phone” activities was introduced in the beta version. The tool will ask the user to select the ratio of challenges they had to perform in real life versus the ones on the phone. This feature was added in the tool to empower the users to take control of their social interactions.
User Test and Results
The idea of selecting the ratio of private time vs. social time was appreciated. The users had the following feedback:
● Assurity of the user actually doing the real life challenges was unknown and the need of a verification method came up.
● Having a flow to the anxiety challenges was recommended
The gold version didn’t feature the real life challenges. It was here where the character–Sonder was introduced. The Gold version of the tool provided the users with two options:
● Anxiety Challenges;
● General Strategies.
The anxiety challenges part of the tool lets the user experience specific situations that one with social anxiety feels uncomfortable with. Each challenge provides the user with a step-by-step process to overcome the challenge. The users can learn from the process and implement similar steps in their lives.
The tool also showcases the thought process of the person who is having anxiety about a social situation. The intention is make the users relate to the character on the screen. Once the user starts with the process, he/she gets to have a visual experience of the process.
User Test and Results
The testers liked the updated design and the interactions between different screens. The following are the common suggestions received from the testers:
● Addition of journey status to let the users know how many steps are completed and how many steps are left to be done;
● Use of first person language was requested;
● Removing the focus on bubbles as the actual Button was getting ignored;
● Use of word “alternate” instead of “back” or using personalized phrases like “Let’s try something else” instead of “back to step #”.
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