Social media has permeated nearly every aspect of our lives. But we only just begun to understand how it impacts the way we think, interact and feel. In the little time we've had to study its impact, there has been an increasingly strong association between social media usage and negative implications for our mental health and wellbeing.

With mental health issues on the rise, interest in mindful practices such as meditation is at an all-time high. However, today’s research surrounding mindfulness and technology is relatively immature, providing a potentially valuable yet under-explored approach to combatting the negative influences of social media

With its high prevalence amongst those aged 16–24, a crucial period for emotional and psychological development, Instagram serves as a strong candidate for the purpose of this exploration. In this project, I used the problem below as an avenue to explore how mindfulness can be incorporated into technology: 

Casual Instagram users need a way to feel good on the platform because much of the content they consume leads to a compare and despair attitude.​​​​​​​​
Understanding Instagram's impact on users through surveys and interviews

Much of the research was geared towards verifying these opportunities in the cross-field of social media and mindfulness. With the research goals shown below, I hoped to define Instagram’s emotional and mental impact on its existing users, pinpoint its source and evaluate its severity.

•   Who are the current users?
•   What motivates the current users to use Instagram?
•   What do they like and dislike about their experiences with Instagram?
•   Do they notice an emotional shift while using the platform?
•   What is the source of this shift?
•   How do they react to or address these emotions?
•   How do we define mindfulness and wellbeing?

To answer the above questions with confidence, I needed a sizable sample of research participants and a list of evaluative questions, and because of the time constraint and limited amount of resources, interviewing alone seemed impractical. For this reason, I decided to conduct a survey, which also allowed me to narrow down the scope of the problem and uncover deeper insights through interviewing.

•   Survey responses: 23
•   People interviewed: 4
Main problem: "compare and despair"

I recorded the survey and interview observations on individual sticky notes. Organizing them based on similarity, I identified the most common trends and pain points. The top three issues that I uncovered are:

•   Compare and despair
•   Insecurity about personal content
•   Number of comments and likes having an emotional impact

All three of these issues highlight a range of emotional challenges that users experience while using Instagram, as well as surface areas of human-tech interaction that may benefit from mindful practices. But the first problem “compare and despair” stands out as the most valuable to solve. Not only does it pertain to features that users interact with the most (i.e., Instagram’s feed and stories features), it also proved to be the most severe given the lexicon of emotional adjectives used by research participants (i.e., terrible, falling short, lonely, etc.). This was underlined by the survey stats:

•   87% of the participants have felt FOMO while using Instagram
•   78% have felt insecure
•   74% have felt lonely
•   70% have felt anxious
•   57% have felt depressed

Current solution: "digital detox"

As illustrated by both the survey and interview results, users’ current solution to the above issues involves some version of “digital detox”, whether if it is unplugging from Instagram altogether or deleting the mobile app to restrict access. 78% of the survey participants said they want to cut down the amount of time spent on Instagram. However, this is not only regressive and unsustainable, it also goes against the business goal of maximizing user sessions on the platform.
Refining the problem statement

This calls for the need to frame the problem such that it unearths the underlying issue behind users’ need to unplug, so we can align business goals with user goals by helping users eradicate this issue on the platform. This leads to the following problem statement:

Casual Instagram users need a way to feel good on the platform because much of the content they consume leads to a compare and despair attitude.
Using HMWs to gain perspective

I then reformatted the problem into “how might we…” statements to explore a wide range of ideas. Referring to Stanford’s method of changing the HMW statement’s goal, I was able to discover a number of perspectives and adequately prepare for the ensuing brainstorming session. “How might we…”

•   Help users not to compare themselves?
•   Reduce the negative emotional impact of the content?
•   Help users consume more content that makes them feel good?

Defining Mindfulness

Now that I have a better understanding of Instagram’s impact on users’ mental and emotional wellbeing, my next step is to define mindfulness, through which I can then explore the applicability of its principles during the ideation phase. Gathering research from various sources, I defined mindfulness as such:

The usage of an awareness-based technique to cultivate self-awareness, embodiment, non-distraction and balance, in order to create the space within oneself to choose and respond in accordance to one’s wellbeing.
Sketching out ideas

Leveraging the HMW statements as a springboard and keeping in mind the definition of mindfulness, I generated the following ideas. Instead of recording them on individual sticky notes, I decided to visualize the ideas in order to quickly capture them in their original forms.
Prioritizing ideas

These ideas were then filtered through the project goals shown above, prioritizing the following ideas due to their alignment with both user and business goals, as well as their incorporation of awareness-based practices.
Integrating the new features

Because these features will be integrated into Instagram’s existing mobile app, a site map is helpful in figuring out the appropriate placement of these features to ensure a seamless integration and smooth user experience.
Task flows

Because of the site map I was able to see how users would flow through the updated Instagram app. Mapping out the flow for each individual task not only provides more clarity on the functionalities of the features, but also helps me visualize how the features will be integrated and what they will look like with the rest of the app.
Prototype & Test
Leveraging paper prototypes for quick iterations

I find paper prototypes extremely helpful, as it bypasses the added complexity of branding and technicalities, allowing for quick turnarounds and rapid improvements. Here’s the link to the paper prototype (screenshots are shown below).
User feedback

•   The happy face icon looks like a shortcut to the emoji keyboard
•   Not too much motivation to label posts with emotions
•   Will label posts with emotions if I can access it later or know what information or help I can get out of it
•   Why is grateful at 0%?
•   What is the time range of the data?
•   What is this line graph? How many posts?
•   Which mood does the “filter content by mood” toggle automatically filter?
•   Are the “filter content by mood” and “explore by mood” features based on the posts I’ve labeled or the posts that other people have labeled as well?

Incorporating feedback into mid-fidelity wireframes

Due to the time constraint I integrated the above feedback directly into the next phase — mid-fidelity wireframes. Below you can see how I changed some screens based on user responses.
Applying Instagram's UI

In creating the mid-fidelity wireframes I mainly referred to Instagram’s existing screens for various UI patterns to ensure a seamless integration. As you can see from the mood board below, I also looked for mood tracker- and analytics-related UI patterns for the emotion-based feedback and mood report features, respectively.

Working alone on a project can be challenging when it comes to time and resources. In these cases, it is crucial to validate the various assumptions and design decisions early on so that time and resources are used wisely throughout the process. Thus, I leveraged a simple paper prototype to gain valuable insights into user behavior, their expectations, what worked for them and what did not. Doing so helped me use my time and resources as efficiently as possible, iterate quickly and remain user-centric throughout.

Overall, this is my favorite project yet, as it aligns with my mission to improve wellbeing through design. Speaking about the industry as a whole, my hope is to at least inject more deliberation and creativity into the conversation surrounding social media and mental health, if not instigate real change. At the individual level, I hope these features will enable users to become aware of the negative emotions, such as self-shame, that arise during their interactions on the platform. In becoming aware, they are in effect stepping outside and simply observing the storm that are their negative thoughts and emotions instead of getting swept up and tossed around by it. This mindfulness and disengagement then create the space for users to actually understand the source of these negative emotions and learn how to diffuse them, leading to inner peace and long-term wellbeing.

Next steps

•   Test the usability of the high-fidelity prototype and iterate based on synthesized insights
•   Conduct a diary study to see if the features have indeed led to a change in user behavior and experiences over time, and make improvements accordingly

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