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How design is addressing the mental health crisis

The products we design can make a difference in people’s lives. It’s up to us to ensure the change they create is a positive one.

Illustration by Anita Goldstein.

Profile picture of Theodore Brown


3 min read

All good design is about empathy. Exceptional user experiences are based on understanding who is engaging with what you’re creating. That includes taking into account the mental health and emotional wellbeing of end users. Designing for mental health has become a vital topic in the design industry over the last few years and interest in the practice has only grown since the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19’s impact on mental health is tough to overstate. According to a recent survey, 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. experienced symptoms of anxiety or depression at some point in the pandemic, up from 1 in 10 in 2019. Stress and isolation, two environmental factors that COVID amplified, can be accelerants for emotional and mental duress as well.

But so can design. Social media platforms that were designed to respond to a user’s needs and desires—to “empathize” with them—have become flashpoints for conversations about mental health during COVID-19. One Peking University study found that a high use of social media during COVID-19 lockdowns was correlated with worse mental health among college students, while two professors at Washington University in St. Louis are investigating a similar phenomenon in the U.S.

"the technology that could bring us together could tear us apart just as well.”

Designing for the wide range of human emotion

Designers are taking note of their obligations to the mental health of their users and taking empathy to new levels. Aaron Walter, the Director of Product for US COVID Response at Resolve to Save Lives and author of Designing for Emotion, talks about that elevation as the evolution of empathy to inclusivity. “When our design decisions leave large groups of people out of the loop, we create feelings of alienation and disempowerment,” he writes in Designing for Emotion. “But when we design inclusively for all, we can create deeply positive experiences that resonate with people—all people.”

That deeper layer of empathy can be seen in how designers are approaching their practices across industries, as well as in the burgeoning digital wellness space. Apps like Headspace and Calm that integrate mental wellness into their UX to match their utility, while not overlooking uncomfortable feelings like stress and anxiety. There is also a growing cadre of designers that are thinking about how to translate complex emotional states into their work. (See also: zen design)

Garron Engstrom, a former designer at TurboTax, wanted to transform how the company’s mobile app interacted with users by taking a normally detached, transactional experience and humanizing it. For example, the death of a family member or guardian can have tax implications for users, especially if a first of kin has to complete a deceased loved one’s tax forms. Instead of stopping at a simple yes-or-no regarding death, Engstrom decided to extend empathy towards grieving users doing the mundane but necessary exercise of filing taxes for relatives who have passed away. The app acknowledges loss simply but powerfully through text, creating a UI that empathizes with emotional anguish instead of ignoring or shying away from it.

An app screenshot of the TurboTax app placed in a mobile mockup
The TurboTax app acknowledges users' grief over the loss of loved ones as part of filing their tax return.

Embracing the power of design in users’ lives

Designing to empathize and include those perspectives has become even more vital in the last few years as designers have realized their practice can have negative impacts on their users. “We found a pretty huge gap between our good intentions and the actual outcomes of those who were affected by what we created,” Aarron Walter told host Rob Goodman on Now What?, Wix’s new podcast.

A profile headshot of Aarron Walter and his name

In his role at Resolve to Save Lives, Walter has been tasked with creating products that speak to users directly impacted by COVID-19 and its myriad emotional and mental repercussions. He’s also been vocal in advocating for designers to do more when it comes to creating experiences that speak to the full mental and emotional makeup of a person, and understand that how you design something might have negative impacts. “We saw technology and design shape our elections in very negative ways, shape our communities. In a nutshell, the technology that could bring us together could tear us apart just as well.”

It’s a withering criticism, but designers aren’t taking that responsibility lightly. Industry influencers like Walter and Engstrom are leading a new community of designers that are focusing on creating experiences that put mental and emotional wellbeing first. Entire UX frameworks are being developed to embrace that prioritization, and there is a growing intersection of mental health professionals and designers working together to create design experiences that utilize best practices from clinical practice. The conversation around mental health and design may have been kicked into high gear by COVID-19, but the discussion will last long after the pandemic is over.



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