Emma Dessau is the Senior Producer of POV Digital. She is currently working on an independent project – a mobile interface and story platform to help people deal with social anxiety by finding media that helps put their experience in perspective. This is her first in a series of blog posts on her process creating a platform to support mental health through art, storytelling and software.

It is my first instinct to jump into a new project with a big idea and figure it out from the top down. Even after many, many POV Digital Labs where I’ve seen that the best practice for interactive work is to start small, I still began to talk about this project as a big concept.

Luckily, I am collaborating with two friends who work in the tech industry – Marie McGwier, a UX/UI Researcher at IAC Applications, and Jackie Benowitz, Lead Front-End Engineer, Full Stack Engineer, and Product Manager at Indicative – to create a prototype. At our first meeting, they approached my idea from an Agile perspective and suggested that the best way to shape and understand the scope of this platform would be by creating personas and user stories. A good break down of Personas and how to create one here.

In a way, the inspiration for this project comes from my own persona and user story, so I began there.

For as long as I’ve had a smartphone, access to 3G – and grudgingly began attending gatherings billed as “Networking Events” – I’ve found that I cope with awkwardness and extreme social discomfort by going into what I will heretofore refer to as a “mobile loop.”

The “mobile loop” is when someone experiencing social anxiety at a social event backs themselves into a dark corner, leans against a wall, and proceeds to mindlessly yet ferociously refresh their social media feeds, email accounts and messages on loop. A kind of muscle memory takes over, and that person begins relying on the relief of the “pull-snap” timeline update to assuage their stress, in hopes of making time move faster, or at the very least, appearing to be busy and signal to other “networkers” that they should not come “network” with them.

I adapted the experience above into a design persona and user story for “Denise”. Denise’s document is broken into nine sections: Goal; End; Experience; Life; Attitude; Aptitude; Context; Scenario and Research. We decided Denise’s scenario should be a first time user example, to set up the process of on boarding.

I wrote out how I imagined someone who has never used this platform would find their way to it and interact with it while already feeling stressed.

What would the user’s goal be after using this platform? To put their phone away and be present at a social event. This brought up an additional feature to develop for the platform – a timer that people can set to be notified when they’ve been using the application for a while.

What would the end of their experience look like? They would find a sense of comfort in remembering social anxiety is a common, acceptable feeling.

What is this user’s social anxiety experience in life, outside of this specific moment? They identify as an introvert and struggle with anxiety, and know to name it as that, but they don’t have a set routine for how to move past it. They get frustrated and angry when they feel unable to be as social as they would like to be.

What would their attitude be? They’d likely be skeptical and impatient, so we’d need to make the navigation intuitive and have the script strike a personal tone that didn’t feel too gimmicky.

What is their aptitude for navigating mobile media? I decided that Denise would be a regular social media user, used to navigating the paradigms most often used in social media platforms – swiping, scrolling, clicking, etc. – but who still might be confused by an interface like Snapchat.

In what context would they be using this platform? Denise is feeling socially anxious at a concert.

For scenario, I essentially wrote a four part description of my own user story, imagining how I might find myself using this app if it existed.

  1. Denise is at a show at a venue she frequents but doesn’t always feel comfortable at alone. She decided to go because a band she loves is playing, even though none of her friends were able to come. She talked herself up for it, but now that she’s there, finds herself in the back looking at her phone and texting people who aren’t actually in the space rather than talking to people who are. After 10 rounds of switching between feeds, she opens the app a friend recommended, expecting to be let down or irritated by its tone.
  2. The tone of the web app – it’s color scheme, minimal but not off putting aesthetic, and intuitive – is so inoffensive she barely considers it. After choosing the categories of media and amount of time she wants to spend on the app, she begins swiping through different media until a timer goes off asking if she’d like to keep using (like an alarm or a snooze). She snoozes once out of the allotted three, finishes taking a short quiz she found) and puts her phone on silent and into her backpack.
  3. She doesn’t talk to anyone new or feel a sudden burst of social energy, but seeing a bunch of media and engaging with it allows her to feel less alone with that experience. She stays for the band, feels like leaving afterwards, and doesn’t feel bad about that or measure her worth by this one night.

Last, in the research section, I wrote a series of questions that came to me while writing Denise’s persona and user story. These questions weren’t written to be answered right away, but to identify holes in the conceptualization of the app, or things that need more research – through user testing, crowdsourcing or other means. Some of my research questions:

  • Do people feel able to minimize or move on from social anxiety when it comes on in a social situation, like at a party, work, or during a phone call?
  • Is there a sense that access to a mobile device is helpful or harmful in those situations?
  • How does interacting with social media apps – like getting “likes” or comments or Snaps or responses – effect that experience?
  • Is there a sense of self-consciousness that comes from looking at one’s phone in an anxiety provoking?

Defining Denise’s motivations, current behavior and situation allowed my collaborators to clarify their first steps in user design and software development. On my end, I was able to quickly see at least two other personas and user stories I’d need to build out our prototype. Denise’s story also prepared me to think about the questions the app would have to ask a new user to gain enough information to begin to personalize the experience, while keeping in mind that asking too many questions would turn a new user off. It also helped me think about the tone I’d need to define, both in terms of copy and visual design.

Based on Denise’s user story and persona plus two others – one for someone returning to the platform, and one for someone looking to contribute media recommendations – Marie was able to create a paper prototype showing the on-boarding flow of the application, while Jackie was able to begin defining specs and requirements.

This phase of this project is an app development process, but I expect that personas and user stories can be applied to many steps of building this platform. I want to build something that is useful to people in a wide array of circumstances, and can appeal to folks whose experiences with social anxiety may be very different from mine. I also want this to be a platform to discover work by artists, writers, and media makers that created work addressing social anxiety they may have otherwise not found. I expect to make many more personas and user stories as we continue to develop a prototype.

Do you have any examples of media you’ve come across that helps you understand, manage or contextualize social anxiety that you’d like to contribute to this resource? Please consider filling out this survey.

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Emma Dessau
Emma is the Senior Producer of POV Digital. Since joining POV in 2012, she has produced new media and interactive projects including Whiteness Project and the Emmy-nominated Empire. In addition to helping to launch new storytelling initiatives for the series, Emma leads digital production and online outreach for POV’s documentaries on PBS. She helped grow the POV Digital Lab (formerly POV Hackathon), which is now a signature POV event. Prior to her work at POV, Emma helped develop an interactive city and community planning game platform ‘Community Plan-It’ with Emerson College’s Engagement Game Lab. She has contributed to several alt-weeklies and online publications as a freelance videographer and writer, and co-produced two digital documentary projects, Folk to Folk and The Story Store.