Every Winter Has Its Spring

Contributors: Yanling He, Yadi Wang

In the Great Northwest, perpetually grey skies through Fall, Winter, and Spring are affecting most of us being doomed and experiencing the Winter Blues, or its more severe cousin, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). As a form of depression, it follows a seasonal pattern, usually begins in fall and ends in spring every year. Its symptoms include sleeping too little or too much, having trouble concentrating, low interest and motivation, feeling depressed, etc. Adding to the fact that young adults are the most vulnerable group for SAD, we find this problem particularly relevant for UW international students who don’t get used to Seattle weather, especially when they are trapped indoors for online classes. Therefore, a calming application for soothing the emotions can be designed to solve this problem. We proposed SPRING, a social platform for doodling the sound, which provides sounds extracted from the natural environment to the user so that they can doodle while emerging themselves into the sound. Then they can choose to share the artwork with others through the platform. Similarly, they can view, like and comment on artworks shared by the others. If the user finds comfortable talking to another particular user, they might choose to add each other as friends and send direct messages. We believe the positive attitude formed in the SPRING community will help those far-away-home international students getting through every winter.

During our design research we hope to learn the common emotional problems that occur on students during the winter, and how they solve those problems and if those methods being helpful or not. We choose interviews as our first research methods, because mental health is always related to personal experience, through the interview we can get to know the person well. In order to collect first hand personal accounts of experiences, feelings, preferences, behaviours, opinions, and perceptions, constructing certain trust with participants are very important, so in-person interviews will be better than surveys in this case. Diary Study is our second research methods, as mental health or SAD is a very personal related problem, getting to know the habits of users is the key for our design. Mental health is highly related to personal living schedule, and emotions are time related as well, so knowing their daily routine and status and collecting data across time would surely be helpful in designing more useful functions.

Stakeholder

UW students whose family is not located in Washington, focusing on the international students. These people are new to Seattle, and have to spend extra time adjusting to the new environment, which would be especially difficult during winter. In addition, being away from their family, they tend to have less emotional support — some might not realise the fact that they are under the impact of SAD, not to mention how to deal with those stress and anxiety. As students, it is unlikely for them to spend a large amount of time and money on its therapy.

Participants

We did 5 interviews with all international UW students. We find out about them by posting posts on Instagram/Facebook and contacting some international associations asking if any students find themselves has emotional problem or feel super stressed. The interview consists five parts: introduction and icebreaker, background and personal experience, mental health related questions, how to seek for help, and application usage related experience. We also found 3 student who expressed they had longer time experience fighting with depression and anxiety for diary studies. We conducted our diary study in five steps: preparation, onboarding, logging, post-logging interview, and data analysis.

Longing for Outdoor Activities in Winter

As our participants are international students coming from different countries, not all of them can get accustomed to the cloudy and rainy weather in Seattle easily. Specifically, they all mentioned how the darkness and dreariness of winter always get them down. Some of them express their longing to walk under the sunshine and listen to the wind rustling through bushes, but it is harder and harder to do so as the winter approaches and the pandemic persists. Therefore, it might be worth exploring ways for our design to help connect them to the outside world.

More Obstacles for International Students to Seek Help

While the lack of emotional support from close family members and friends makes international students more vulnerable to depression, most of our participants find it hard to go to professional therapists. Their concerns about insurance and medical costs usually become barriers for them to actively seek help. The most common and affordable place for them is the counselling center at UW, but most of them reported that they did not find it useful. Therefore, they are more likely to solve their problems on their own to avoid the possibility of their feelings being invalidated.

Social Interaction During the Pandemic

Being stuck inside home can easily give people a sinking feeling of loneliness and helplessness. Most of our participants reported that the lack of interaction with other people due to social distancing policy makes them more depressed than usual. However, while a common way for them to relieve this pressure is to spend more time with their friends, they are also afraid that it would increase their risk of getting infected. In addition, some of them also share the concern that it might be uneasy to talk about mental health with those familiar with them, while others talked about how they want to help strangers who are struggling with the same issue. So we believe there’s definitely a potential for our design to help them build a community where they can talk to others virtually.

The Complexity of the Sleeping Issue

In our research process, all the participants more or less expressed their concern on sleeping issues. However, their causes and symptoms differ a lot. For example, two participants reported that longer nights in winter makes them sleep too much, while three other participants said that the over-quietness at night combined with the academic pressure prevents them from sleeping. In addition, there are less ways for them to adjust their mood at night, therefore two common ways for them to solve the problem are taking pills or drinking coffee, which might create even more problems sometimes. While it is difficult for us to help them with studying problems, it is feasible for us to focus on tasks to help them with external issues, such as the lack of daylight, to help them maintain a stable and healthy routine.

Stress Handling Through Art

During our interview, four participants mentioned that drawing helped them shift attention from reality and hence relieve stress. Their drawing skills differ a lot, some can do complicated watercolor or pencil sketches, while others can only doodle with crayons. However, all of them reported that they felt more relaxed when drawing and had a sense of fulfilment after finishing it. In addition, one participant talked about how drawing with her brother helped them get close to each other. Their inspirations mostly come from their own daily life, but sometimes they can also be inspired by others’ artwork.

VR Gardening

The first design is on VR platform. We hope to simulate a garden visiting and gardening experience to help users shift their attentions on bad things, and building a community. Also the gardens are simulate the nature environment for spring and summer.

Create Plant: Users can pick the type of plants, either preexisting plants or choose the flower and leaves types, or even draw their flowers then paint on color. This function simulates as an art therapy that allows users to create in order to shift their attention.

Plant into Garden: Users can plant the plants they created into their garden, they can also design and decorate the garden. This task can be seen as a creative process for art therapy, and also simulates the natural environment, users emerge themselves to a summer or spring season.

Visit Friends’ Garden: This task builds up a community that users can visit, leave messages or help with some gardening tasks like watering. By visiting the gardens they also emerge themselves into different natural environments and shift their attention.

Sleep Manager

The second design — the Sleep Manager — combines different tasks across different devices with mobile as the central control (see external devices setup). Its main idea is to help with the sleeping issue by allowing the user to fall asleep/wake up more smoothly by gradually adjusting the light and sound in the bedroom to stimulate the natural environment, and by locking the pill bottle when needed to prevent the user from sleeping pill abuse (see mobile app setup).

External Devices Setup
Mobile App Setup

Doodle the Sound

The third design — Doodle the Sound — provides sounds extracted from the natural environment to the user so that they can doodle whatever they can think of while emerging themselves into the sound. This part would not be too complicated, as our goal is to calm the user down instead of making them even more anxious. After finishing the drawing, they can choose to share it with others if they want. Similarly, they can view, like and comment on artworks shared by the others. If the user finds comfortable talking to another particular user, they might choose to add each other as friends and send direct messages

Mobile App Setup

Design Choice We choose the third design and named it as SPRING, which enables our users to draw and share their artwork inspired by natural sounds, whereas the two main tasks we will focus on are art therapy and building community. We made some modifications based on our previous design, so that the user can draw on a piece of paper and upload it to the app instead of trying to draw on an electronic device. And we hope to encourage more interactions among users by allowing them to put their arts into a collection.

Compared to the initial designs, the advantages of this design lie in its accessibility and usability for our target users. Firstly, students usually do not have extra budget for VR devices or tablets, while phones, papers and pens are used by most of them every day. Also, we hope all our users can benefit from our design regardless of their art skills. It is easier for beginner artists to doodle on a piece of paper, instead of being anxious over which brush to choose on a digital platform. Therefore, we think this design is more affordable and easier to use.

We choose art therapy as a main task (see storyboard #2) because doodling and drawing is not something that requires a lot of effort at the beginning. It does not require people to consume a lot of new information to get started. Instead, art allows people to freely express their own thoughts. Providing a sound effect gives our users a starting point of their imaginations, so that they do not need to firstly come up with a new theme to draw, which would also be quite stressing sometimes. In addition, during the research process, a lot of our participants mentioned that they have been trapped inside their home, and would really like to be reminded of how it feels when enjoying themselves in a natural environment. That’s the reason why we choose to let the user listen to natural sound effects. By not providing any visual guidance, our users are given more freedom for their imagination: two people could come up with two completely different ideas while listening to the same sound. In this way, we hope that art therapy could be an activity that helps them to explore their imagination in a relaxing way, and bring spring in those winters.

As for the task of community building (see storyboard #1), it is a common need shared by all our participants during the research phase. In addition, it might be a bit depressing to always do things alone, but sharing your works to others offers more motivation. During our research, some participants mentioned that social distancing makes it difficult for them to meet new people, and we hope that artworks inspired by the same sound could be a topic to start a conversation with other users. As for those who are already familiar with each other, making an artwork collection together can help to maintain their relationship without the need to come up with fresh topics every time. We hope that communication through art, without face or voice revealing, would enable people to stay connected with other people more comfortably.

Storyboard #1
Storyboard #2

University of Washington Computer Science, Intro to Human Computer Interaction