Marvellous Capability: Mental health and ‘people dependent technology’.

Internet and Everyone (Brain Pickings)

This is a lovely page, from a book called ‘The Internet and Everyone’ by John Chris Jones, which I came across on the Brain Pickings site a few years ago. It rang true to me then, and even moreso now, that the philosophy the author talks about is one we really should try to embrace when designing mental health technologies. In this section on “people dependent technology” he makes a plea that:

“We design everything on the assumption that people are not heartless or stupid but marvellously capable, given the chance”

I love that phrase, ‘marvellously capable’. Certainly the first generation of mental health technologies I’ve come across, the online packages of digital CBT for example, seem designed as if the people using them are heartless (in the sense of unemotional or willing to drudge through drudgery with no personal sense of frustration or need – quite the opposite of course to how people really are, and certainly people experiencing a mental health problem) and stupid (in the sense of needing the most obvious things explained ad tedium but given no opportunity to be flexible, creative or to personalise the system the way they see fit.)

He also writes:

“The main obstacles to this at present are not so much the machines or technical processes, but the presence of our other selves…enforcing rules of behaviour and design which assume that ‘users know nothing and producers know all.”

The last bit is becoming something of a mantra of mine – I’ve spoken before on this blog about the need to ‘follow the user‘ and how technology provides us with great examples of ‘bricolage’, of users blending and mending tech into their own lives in ways that suit them, and ways that the original producers and designers should learn from.

But the first bit really strikes me as well – the idea that is ‘our other selves’ that we insert into software that really prevents people from doing what is best. Those online CBT packages for example are designed almost as if to deliver therapy the way a therapist would – you have a 1 hour session, you sit and listen and are expected to learn, and you get given homework that you report on next time. It’s absolutely daft of course that a technology, which could be made so flexible and integrated so much more elegantly into everyday life, is still following a set 1-hour-a-week routine as if the patient is turning up at their therapist’s office for their regular slot. But I think it goes deeper than that. The fact that the programme still assumes the role of the patient is to receive information and respond to instruction – this doesn’t seem like a design that recognises people as “marvellously capable, given the chance.”

I think this is a great shame. I think it would be very sad if we abandon the idea of mental health technology because this first generation got in the way of people, rather than supporting them to do better. I think this is especially true given we have such a clear path laid out for making the next generation better – follow the user, and embrace the idea of “people-dependent technology”. The technology depends, not on us as the designers, to be clever and assume we know what to produce, but instead on the people who are using it.

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