Reflecting Mental Wellness

Smart mirror technology to help connect students

Contributors: Paul B., Alex K., Chase K., Rachel P.

Graduate school does not come without its challenges and stressors. Specifically, we are focusing on graduate students in the University of Washington Computer Science (UW CSE) program. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, much of school and research is done remotely at home, and social interaction with friends and colleagues is limited. Mental health is arguably the cornerstone of a student’s ability to handle graduate school’s inevitable challenges and stressors, and without a support network students can fall back on, mental health can suffer. An overwhelming portion of students feel that the pandemic has negatively influenced how connected they feel with peers in their department, and the majority indicate COVID-related lack of social contact as a primary stressor. We are interested in tackling this problem by providing a design to foster meaningful relationships with peers and colleagues, in addition to improving how students can reach out to advisors, therapists, or other professionals designed to help improve student well-being.

How Did We Conduct the Design Research?

For our user research we primarily focused on gaining insights from people in our target group. We interviewed seven graduate students, from a mix of backgrounds in terms of area of study and living situation. We wanted to learn individual stories about what stressors students faced in graduate school, and how they went about dealing with them. Inquiries included

  • What were primary sources of stress?
  • Did they handle problems on their own, or use outside resources (e.g., friends, advisors, etc.)?
  • Have they used any campus resources for improving mental wellness?
  • What were some of the upsides and downsides of the resources they have used?

We also interviewed a member of the UW CSE staff who is intimately familiar with stressors in the CSE grad program and also knowledgeable about resources available for students dealing with stress or anxiety. (For some students, advisors like them are the primary resource!) We also wanted to learn about the barriers hindering students from reaching out for help, and how this has changed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to interviews, we did a larger-scale survey to see more general trends, and gathered over 40 responses from UW CSE graduate students. We wanted to see how the smaller sample size we used in interviews compared to a larger population, and also get a sense for the more popular methods that students used when faced with a particularly stressful situation in grad school.

And Here’s What We Found

The design research yielded a wide range of insight into graduate student needs for mental health. While mental health varies from person to person, common themes presented themselves during our design research. One of the more universal themes was that many students desired much more social contact then they currently had in the pandemic. Over 78% of participants agreed that the pandemic has made it harder for them to meet and collaborate with people. Whether it be just a chat or full-on project collaboration, many participants are having trouble in engaging in social interaction given the current circumstances. Nonetheless, 75.6% of survey respondents listed talking with friends as a way of relieving stress. Difficulty engaging could be a possible result of another common trend that emerged in the design research: people want natural, low-stakes conversation. When reaching out to either peers or professors regarding non-work topics (e.g. just to chat), participants felt far less likely to do so in the current climate as there is always a level of preparation and formality associated with meetings.

Similarly, participants reported having trouble reaching out to proper mental health channels. Many said that they did not feel that their own issues were worth the usage of resources. The staff member we interviewed noted that many conversations between students and advisors occur spontaneously rather than through appointments. For example, their office is next to a shared coffee machine, so students will occasionally drop by and have a casual conversation. The lack of informal meetings during these times has created difficulties for a significant portion of participants. Hence, making it easier for students to reach out to advisors became another goal of our design. Additionally, 68.8% of survey respondents stated that they receive help from a licensed professional, so we also want our solution to accommodate students searching for more professional mental health support.

Designing for the Students: Smart Mirror

Our proposed design is a touchscreen smart mirror to support the grad students at home. We sought a solution which would support students in learning more about their colleagues, easily sharing their thoughts and feelings with their support network, and finding a professional to support them when things were rough. Furthermore, in a world where apps can dominate and students necessarily spend a lot of their time behind a screen, we wished to design an object which could be easily integrated into daily life while not causing excessive screen time. Research participants noted that they enjoyed being away from their workspace to destress, so we hope the mirror will provide them another stress coping method. The mirror would be able to

  • Log the user’s emotions at various times,
  • Share status updates with the user’s friends, and
  • Put the user in contact with an advisor or therapist when necessary.

We decided on these features after taking into account our users. During our research, participants often stated that they would not confide their emotions with close friends because they are uncomfortable or do not want to be a burden to their friends. We hope that the mirror will allow users to share their feelings much easier by knowing that their friends are also sharing theirs. By providing a feed of emotion status updates, the mirror will allow friends to know each other’s conditions and will notify friends when the user is feeling especially down. Moreover, recall that research participants indicated that

  • they did not feel like their stress levels or personal situation warranted reaching out to an advisor or therapist,
  • they were uncertain about finding a professional who is a good match for them, and
  • they did not want to crowd the limited resources despite their condition.

The mirror would provide a low-stakes mechanism to receive support which involves the advisor or therapist reaching out to the user rather than vice versa (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. A storyboard depicting how the smart mirror checks the user’s status
and contacts an advisor to reach out to the user.

We believe the mirror will provide a way for students to take the most important first steps when struggling with mental health conditions. Especially now with large isolation, it is essential that they know they are not alone in their struggles and that there are others that feel the same way.

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CSE 440 Staff

University of Washington Computer Science, Intro to Human Computer Interaction