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Designing with Empathy: The Importance of User-Centered Design in Mental Health

We can attempt to gain the most realistic perspectives of others by putting aside our own preconceived notions about the world

UX/UI Design
5 minute read

Have you ever found yourself struggling with distress or anxiety while using an app? Perhaps you've experienced negative emotions when browsing through social media. Designing with empathy is a critical element in user-centred design, and it's especially important when designing for mental health. Mental health is a sensitive, complex, and important topic, and user-centred design can create products and services that support those struggling with their mental health. Designing environments, apps, or platforms that acknowledge cultural biases and support varied mental health conditions, can help transform stigmas and usher in a more human-centred approach for the users who interact with them.

In this article, we will explore the importance of user-centred design in mental health and provide some practical tips for incorporating empathy into your design process.

What is User-Centered Design?

At its core, user-centred design is about empathising with your users throughout the design process. It's an approach that focuses on understanding user needs, goals, and behaviours and designing products and services that meet those needs.

User-centred design is a cyclical process that involves several stages, including user research, prototyping, testing, and iteration. Involving users allows designers to understand their needs, creating more effective solutions.

Designing for accessibility is extremely important in this process. It's important to keep physical disabilities at the top of your mind when designing user flows and experiences in digital products. This should also include designing for disabilities that we can’t see, including the cognitive implications of using digital products.

The Importance of User-Centered Design in Mental Health

Designing for mental health requires a nuanced understanding of the user's needs and experiences. Mental health issues can be complex and multifaceted, and potential design solutions must accommodate a wide range of needs. I believe that if one of our goals during product design is understanding our users fully, including those with mental health struggles. When we understand our users we can help to reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues. We can create products and services that are user-friendly, easy to use and don’t impart more stress on the user.

It all starts with empathy; our ability to see the world through other's eyes. As designers, we can attempt to gain the most realistic perspectives of others by putting aside our preconceived notions about the world.


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Practical Tips for Designing with Empathy

Incorporating empathy into the design process requires a mindset shift. It requires designers to put themselves in the shoes of their users and consider their needs, preferences, and experiences. When you immerse yourself in the environment and context of the people you design for, you can often find a completely different perspective than what you might have assumed. Here are some practical tips for incorporating empathy into your design process:

Conduct User Research

User research is a crucial component of user-centred design. Gather insights into the needs, preferences, and behaviours of users. This can involve conducting interviews, surveys, or focus groups with people whose experiences are different from yours, including those with disabilities or with mental health struggles.

User Personas

Personas are fictional representations of users that are based on user research. Personas can help designers understand the needs and preferences of their users better. When designing for mental health, personas represent different types of users with different needs and preferences.

Create a Detailed Task Analysis

Task analysis, as highlighted by Debbie Levitt, CX and UX strategist, designer, and trainer, is a systematic approach in UX design that breaks down complex tasks into smaller steps to understand user behaviour and needs. It involves identifying the task, breaking it into sub-tasks, analysing each step, determining user goals and needs, and documenting the findings. The insights gained from task analysis are then used to inform the design process, ensuring that the user interface aligns with expectations, addresses pain points, and enhances usability.

By conducting task analysis, designers gain a deeper understanding of user workflows, allowing them to create intuitive and user-friendly designs. This iterative process involves research, observation, and feedback gathering to capture user goals and needs accurately. Ultimately, task analysis helps designers design products, systems, or services that meet user expectations, resulting in improved user experiences.

Involve Users in the Design Process

Involving users in the design process is essential for creating user-centred design solutions. This also includes running validation of designs through usability testing. Involving users allows designers to get feedback on their designs and to make adjustments based on the user's needs and preferences. When designing for mental health, involving users in the design process can help designers create solutions that are tailored to the needs of people with mental health issues.

Create Inclusive Design Systems

There are a few strategies that designers can use to incorporate a more inclusive approach to user experience.

  • Visibility of system status: Keep users informed about the current state of the system. Provide timely feedback to convey what is happening and ensure users are aware of system processes.
  • Time limits: Avoid imposing short time constraints that can create unnecessary stress. Allowing users sufficient time to complete tasks reduces errors and enhances the user experience.
  • Information review: Enable users to review and edit the information they have provided. This empowers users to be confident in their answers and offers them the opportunity to verify their input.
  • Clear and concise delivery: Use language, word choice, and context that are clear and concise when communicating with users. This eliminates barriers to understanding and minimises confusion.
  • Error prevention: Rather than solely providing support after mistakes occur, strive to prevent errors from happening in the first place. Identify and remove error-prone constraints, or confirm user actions before they proceed.
  • User support: Offer users an effective support system that provides access to resources, information, and guidance. Being responsive and addressing user problems or concerns enhances the user experience.
  • Privacy customisation: Allow users to manage their privacy settings, such as private accounts, reporting and blocking options, and custom visibility to specific users. Providing privacy controls fosters a sense of safety for users.
  • Help recognise, diagnose, and recover from errors: Assist users in recognising, diagnosing, and recovering from errors they may encounter. Offer guidance and clear instructions to alleviate stress and help users resolve issues.

In UX design, paying attention to these details can make a significant difference between a positive and negative user experience. True empathy involves understanding users and striving to improve their interactions. This is the essence of UX design and why we pursue it.


Designing with empathy is critical when designing for positive mental health. User-centred design can help designers create solutions that meet the needs of all people. By conducting user research, using detailed task analysis, involving users in the design process, and keeping inclusive guidelines in mind, designers can create solutions that are tailored to the needs of their users.

Designing with empathy has the potential to break down the stigma surrounding mental health issues and offer valuable support to individuals. By prioritising user-centred design principles, we can create inclusive and accessible solutions that cater to the unique needs of people struggling with mental health challenges, and begin to include these conversations across more companies. Through thoughtful design, we can foster a more compassionate and understanding society that empowers individuals to seek help, find comfort, and navigate their mental health journeys with confidence.