Know Thy User

TLDR: Talk to users. Iterate fast. Tell a good story.

1 in 3 students at Imperial College London face mental health problems. Almost half will never reach out for help.

Over the last month I’ve been working with 3 friends to change the way we tackle mental wellbeing at universities — our solution is called Wave Wellbeing.

In a nutshell, it involves training student mentors in “mental health first aid”. We give them the skills they need to be good listeners, deliver useful advice, and signpost students to existing counselling services. We want to match each new student who comes to Imperial with a student mentor who can be a point of contact for all wellbeing related issues.

This project was our first experience of Human-Centred Design, a framework which advocates for the user to be put at the core of the design process. Here are some of the things we learnt:

1. Go deeper than data

Data is great for validating your assumptions but it can’t help you truly connect with your user. You want to know their needs, their motivations, and what they value. The best way to uncover this is to talk, face to face, to as many potential users as possible.

In fact, to get real insights, you must understand the ecosystem around the user. Talk to all the relevant parties involved. One mistake that people often make is to only talk to users during the market research or “discovery” phase. Instead, the HCD ideology places the user at the centre of every phase of innovation. This means that you must continue to talk to users as you design the product, using their impressions to guide the direction of development.

Each circle indicates one person we talked to in the last month. Notice how the number of conversations we had in the development phase is almost equal to the number we had during the discovery phase.

2. Relentless incrementalism

To produce a valuable prototype, your build -> measure -> learn cycle must happen fast. This ensures each iteration is in the hands of users ASAP and you can get rapid, workable feedback. Here are things that worked for us:

  • Start with low-fidelity prototypes (preferably hand-drawn on paper). It saves time and people are less hesitant to offer criticism.
  • Co-create. If your user suggests a change, draw it out with them or let them show you what they mean.
  • Challenge your ideas. If your user can’t understand the purpose of an existing feature, investigate why and reconsider your assumptions.

3. Feelings over features

To quote Maya Angelou

People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Whenever you pitch your product to someone, remember that you’re trying to make them feel something. A technical demo can only go so far in doing this. One technique we used when pitching was user journeys. Imagine your ideal user. Show their current life with all strings attached — their pains, troubles, and insecurities. Now show what your product can do, how it improves their life and how it makes them feel.

Immerse your audience in the user’s perspective. Enable them to feel both the conflict and resolution. Humans are built to be receptive to stories — so make sure your story is a good one.

Next steps: We are looking to move this project forward in the coming months so follow this Medium page for more updates. If you are someone working in the mental health or wellbeing space, we’d love to hear from you! — Please reach out on LinkedIn:




Maths + CS @ Imperial College London

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Manuj Mishra

Manuj Mishra

Maths + CS @ Imperial College London

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