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Design for Mental Health: Creating an Effective Response to Student Loneliness with Denise Ho and Andrew Baker — DT101 E60

Denise Ho and Andrew Baker are our guests today. Denise is a design researcher practicing in the design space since the early 2000s and the Director of Design at Hopelab. Andrew Baker is living and working at the intersection of technology and experience design. He’s the Vice President of Product at Grit Digital Health and teaches Experience Design at the University of Colorado. Denise and Andrew collaborated on a way to combat loneliness in college students. We talk about designing for mental health, Nod, an app that is helping young people avoid negative health outcomes associated with loneliness, and how college students were involved in creating Nod.


Show Summary

Denise and Andrew had very different entry points into design. Denise’s journey began with a love for people and cultures. Portrait of Denise HoShe started her undergrad as an anthropology student, but she wanted to not just study culture, but to shape it. That led her into design. She studied product design at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and landed an internship at IDEO, where she ended up staying for eight years while also teaching design at the California College of Arts. Denise opened her own design practice and started doing design research into younger generations — not just designing products for them, but also working to understand their way of seeing and experiencing the world. Now, she works at Hopelab, where the focus is on creating digital technologies that help young people live happier, healthier lives.

Andrew’s interests were influenced at an early age by his father, a graphic designer, and his mother, a civic leader focused on social impact. He studied business and English literature at the University of Colorado, but also minored in technology, arts and media, where he studied software development and honed his self-taught graphic design skills. An internship at a Denver agency allowed him to continue developing that skill set, but also gave him the opportunity to dig into user experience and into understanding human behavior and using those insights to guide designing product solutions. He moved into Andrew Baker's Portraita dual role with Cactus and Grit Digital Health, leading both companies’ creative technology practices before moving into a full-time position at Grit Digital Health, where the focus is on creating digital health solutions for college students designed to help them improve their mental health and wellness.

Denise and Andrew talk about designing for mental health and their collaboration to create Nod, an app for college students. Nod is designed to help students make social connections and relationships in an effort to address the loneliness many students end up feeling when they arrive on campus and begin their higher education journey.


Listen to learn about:

  • Designing digital health products for younger generations
  • The Nod app
  • How Nod was designed and developed
  • Co-creating with college students
  • Hopelab’s work and projects
  • Grit Digital Health’s wellbeing tool and other projects


Our Guests’ Bios

Denise Ho — Denise Ho brings more than 15 years of creative leadership experience as a design thinker, strategist, and qualitative design research with expertise in healthcare, transformative technologies, and industrial design. She spent 8 years at IDEO, and is currently Director of Design at Hopelab. She leads a diverse team of design researchers, industrial designers, and creative strategists to create technologies that are engaging, sustainable, and scaled to impact as many lives as possible. Denise enjoys gardening and spending time with her twin daughters, husband, and puppy.

Andrew Baker — In his role at Grit Digital Health, Andrew inspires and guides the design of user-centered solutions across technology mediums and industry verticals. With a background in experience design and software development, Andrew and his team strive to develop wellbeing products that are rooted in research, behavior design, and business strategy. Outside of his role at Grit, Andrew is an adjunct professor at the University of Colorado, where he teaches user experience design in an MA program for Strategic Communication Design.


Show Highlights

[01:45] How Denise found her way to a career in digital design.
[05:25] Andrew’s journey into digital design.
[10:34] Denise gives an introduction to Nod.
[11:31] Andrew follows up with his “elevator pitch” for Nod.
[12:45] The question that drove Nod’s emergence at Hopelab in 2017.
[13:40] The connection between loneliness and college students’ mental health.
[15:05] Denise talks about the early research and discovery stage of Nod.
[16:00] Nod’s unique problem space.
[17:15] Collaborating with college students using an early paper prototype of the app.
[18:35] Nod’s next steps forward in development.
[19:28] Andrew talks about reverse engineering health outcomes.
[20:20] The three categories of psychological health outcomes Nod targets.
[21:52] Successfully changing behavior requires small concrete steps.
[24:30] College students continued to play an important role in the development of Nod.
[25:40] The challenges of working on a solution for a very personal and private issue.
[27:30] Co-creating with students on Nod has been an incredible experience.
[28:11] Nod’s pilot phase with the University of Oregon.
[28:38] Service design and delivery is one of the biggest challenges for digital products.
[30:30] Nod’s pilot phase at the University of Colorado Denver focused on service design.
[31:45] COVID-19’s impact on the development of Nod.
[33:38] Hopelab’s tri-discipline approach to collaboration and co-creation.
[35:32] Denise talks more about the randomized controlled trial at the University of Oregon and how it proved Nod was working.
[36:42] How people reacted when they heard about Nod’s development.
[38:00] Andrew offers insights into the rise and future of digital-only health and wellbeing design.
[39:30] Why Nod is such a special project and product.
[41:45] Where you can find Nod.
[43:47] How universities can participate in Nod’s pilot program.
[44:45] Denise talks about another project Hopelab is working on, focused on identity affirmation of LGBTQ+ people.
[47:35] Andrew talks about Grit Digital Health’s digital personalized wellbeing tool.
[48:35] Grit Digital Health is hosting a panel at an upcoming Innovation Learning Network conference.


A Note from Robin Raskob at Hopelab on the Lonelines Epidemic

“According to a recent Active Minds Survey regarding the impact of COVID-19 on their mental health, 80% of students reported experiencing loneliness and isolation, putting it among the top three most common problems alongside stress and anxiety (91%) and disappointment/sadness (81%). And before COVID hit, it was a problem with ~30% of college students reporting feeling very lonely in the past 2 weeks and ~67% reporting feeling very lonely within the past year. At Hopelab, we work with young people to understand what they’re dealing with and then to design and co-create a solution that can help them. Everything we do is really inspired by a feeling of hopefulness, realized by science, and co-created by Gen Z.

More than 100 students contributed their wisdom and experiences to shape Nod into a tool that resonates with other Gen Z students. We believe that’s why it works so well. In a randomized controlled trial conducted with 221 first-year college students, four weeks of Nod use prevented loneliness and depression among those students most at risk at the start of the year. Additionally, there were similar patterns of improved outcomes for sleep quality, belonging, social support, and intention to return to college among students who used Nod compared to those in a control group. You can read more about our research findings here or if you want to dive deep and read all of the results published in JMIR check them out here.

If you want to read about some students’ struggles with loneliness (pre-covid) here are a couple of their stories:
Hitesh’s story
Lena’s story

Recent college grad, Grace Green, now a member of our research team, reflects on the importance of design in the adoption of health tech. Read her piece here. To that end, Nod was recognized as a finalist in both the Social Good and Apps and Games categories from Fast Company.

Our Nod product page can be accessed here.
Here’s a video demo of the product.
If administrators are interested in bringing Nod to their campus they should reach out using this contact page.

Here’s a great piece by my colleague Dr. Danielle Ramo about how tech can be used to address loneliness in young people.” ~ From Robin Raskob at Hopelab.


Denise on LinkedIn
Andrew on LinkedIn
Andrew on Instagram
Andrew on Grit Digital Health
Nod’s product overview
Press release on efficacy data for Nod
Hopelab Milk
Hopelab’s LGBTQ+ Youth Mental Health and Resilience Project
Grit Digital Health
YOU at College
University of Colorado Boulder, Master of Arts in Strategic Communication Design
Elon University, Elon By Design
Fast Company’s “Innovation by Design” award (Nod was honored in 2 categories)
Journal of Medical Internet Research Mental Health: Smartphone App to Address Loneliness Among College Students: Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial


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