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The mobile app landscape is constantly changing. There are literally hundreds of mobile apps for depression and anxiety treatment and prevention with new ones published all the time. Of course I’ve seen and used many of these apps before, but I wanted to get an overview of what is currently out there, common features and limitations, and how app developers are weaving tutorials into the user experience.

Headspace App (image: Headspace Meditation App)

Searching both the App Store and the Google Play store for the word “depression” and ignoring results that were obviously unrelated (a mobile study guide about the Great Depression, for example), I found 158 relevant apps on Apple’s App Store and 157 on the Google Play store. And that’s only apps for depression that include the word depression in the title, description, or keywords. Searching for “anxiety” or “happiness” adds in a load more, though with much overlap.

The apps I found could be sorted into a few basic categories:

  • depression tests – provides the user with tools such as the PHQ-9 and the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression to “self-diagnose” depression
  • “mood boosting” apps – inspirational quotes, gratitude journals, etc.
  • informational apps – text-heavy apps that offer information and suggestions for dealing with depression
  • meditation apps – audio files with guided meditations or relaxing music
  • mood trackers – apps that allow users to track their mood changes over time, sometimes alongside potential triggers such as sleep deficit

This last category interests us most since it’s most related to what we do. I was particularly curious to learn how many apps took advantage of Android and iPhone’s context sensing technology the way Purple Robot does. I expected to find a lot but I actually only found one, and that app used the data very differently than we do.

There are a few features that are common to many of the mood tracking apps I reviewed:

  • mostly manual input – as I said, only one app that I found used context sensing to gather information the user hasn’t expressly entered herself
  • timeline-based graphs – pretty much all of the apps offered graphs to view the user’s mood (and sometimes other inputs) over time
  • simple sliders – most apps offered simple sliders and other quick and easy ways for users to enter data
  • emoticons for mood selection – rather than words, many apps relied on colorful emoticons for labeling mood
  • text notes – most apps allowed users to enter text notes for any given entry
  • trigger tracking – many of the apps allowed the user to track other potential factors aside from mood: sleep, medication adherence, menstrual cycle, etc.

We were specifically interested in learning how other mood intervention apps educate users on how the app works, how to use specific features, and on a more conceptual scale, why the user might want to use the app in the first place and what she can hope to get out of it. Almost all of the apps I reviewed had some sort of tutorial built in, though some were more sophisticated than others.

There were five main types of tutorials I saw:

  • text-based welcome – The first time the user opens the app or accesses a certain screen, a page or pages of plain text instructions are displayed.
  • semi-transparent overlay – The first time the user opens the app or accesses a certain screen, a semi-transparent overlay with arrows and text bubbles explains how it works. Often screens like this will display right away but sometimes another screen with more advanced tips will show up later after the user has used the app for awhile.
  • video – The first time the user opens the app or accesses a certain screen, or when the user requests it, a short instructional video plays. Sometimes these videos are animated, others are just a static view of a talking head. Videos usually require sound to be fully understood and if they’re too long or not interesting enough, the user may not watch all the way through.
  • slideshow – The first time the user opens the app or accesses a certain screen, she’s led through a short series of illustrated, low-text-density slides that describe that app or feature.
  • help icons – These apps don’t use tutorials at all. Instead, the design is intuitive, making use of familiar standards and offering unobtrusive help icons for when the user is stuck. More detailed instructions may be accessible through a menu if the user seeks them out.