PTSD Family Coach Mobile App


PTSD Family Coach

PTSD Family Coach

A design partner and I were approached by the Veterans Administation's Mobile App Development Team to redesign their PTSD Family Coach App.  The app is intended to provide education, resources, and stress-management tools to the partners of PTSD Sufferers.  

The Challenge

In pre-release user-testing the app showed issues with maintaining user engagement and a perceived lack of value.  Given the nature of the app these were crucial problems that would need to be solved for it to be successful.  Development resources were extremely constrained, and due to privacy concerns, the app could not transmit any data.

The Solution

To address this problem we improved the information architecture, implemented extended onboarding and coaching, designed improved navigation interfaces, developed a new content strategy and style guide, and suggested changes to update the app's visual style. 



Competitive Analysis

Click through for the full analysis documents

Click through for the full analysis documents

We began by researching the context the app existed within. Among similar apps and services a certain set of common features emerged.  

  • Ongoing onboarding to orient and encourage users.
  • Consistent branding to reinforce credibility
  • Small, achievable tasks with a proactive mindset
  • Forums and social media opportunities to connect
  • Elements of gamification
  • The motivation of sunk financial costs to encourage engagement

Features which set PTSD Coach apart from its competitors included:

  • A globally unique focus on the partners of PTSD sufferers
  • A massive and well-researched catalog of PTSD-specific educational information
  • A directory of outside resources to connect users with
  • An unusually large catalog of scientifically validated self-care tools and advice 
  • A completely unmonetized business model - the app is entirely free

Subject Matter Expert Interviews and Survey

We conducted interviews and surveyed mental health professionals working with PTSD affected populations within the VA to gain insights into the daily challenges of those whose partner was living with the condition.

Key Insights Included:

  • The focus of the app needs to shift from its current vet-oriented state toward caring for partners of PTSD sufferers 
  • Education is paramount - Users need a framework for understanding and a sense of control
  • Intimate Partner Violence risk is high among target users - content addressing it must be prioritized
  • The educational materials in the app are formatted in a way which makes them inaccessible
  • The app should support the ideal outcome - the PTSD sufferer getting into treatment
  • Daily engagement is optimal for progress within a mental health treatment plan
  • The visual design of the app is obsolete
A quote from our interviews

A quote from our interviews

Initial User Testing

To better understand any usability issues that the app might have, we tested it with a number of users given tasks like seeking out a particular type of information, or seeking relief from a stressful situation with their partner.  

Key insights included:

"There's just so many words here.   It's not like a normal app."

"There's just so many words here.   It's not like a normal app."

  • Navigation within the footer was confusing for users
  • Initial setup of the app was seen as heavy handed
    • Access was requested to contacts, photos, and music - too much for an untested app
    • Requests for a safety plan and emergency contacts felt "ominous"
  • Users found much of the educational material inaccessible due to its volume and organization - users weren't getting to the information that could help them
  • Stress exercises were random and often inappropriate, greatly undermining user confidence especially since the flow for stress exercises was finicky and frustrating 

User Personas

Based upon the user feedback given to us by the VA and our own research, we created several user personas to help us understand the steep drop off in engagement immediately after the initial setup that the Mobile App Team had approached us about.  


Key Changes to the App

Basic App Functionality

  • Redesigning the navigation as a global header to be located where most users would be looking for it  
  • Including an emergency help button in the  header to make sure users were always a single tap away from their safety plan and support 

Educational materials

  • Undertook a complete redesign of the information architecture to locate information in ways intuitive to users
  • Added related links and actionable tips to each section end to make sure "near misses" resulted in access to the correct information
  • Created an interactive prototype to test the new text organization
  • Provided a general style guide to aid in formatting text for readability on a mobile screen

Onboarding Flows

  • Personalized onboarding by asking users to specify what their goals are upon initial setup
  • Designed new ongoing onboarding, reducing the intimidating front-loading of the existing app
  • Included a daily reminder to bring users back to finish setup of the app, as well as to engage with exercises and  information
  • Coach marks illustrating how the app works
  • Rating of stress exercises to future tailor recommendations

Stress Management Tools

  • Used initial onboarding to ensure that initial recommended exercises were appropriate for individual users
  • Changed the text content preceding and following exercises to be less clinical
  • Changed the UI for rating distress levels and exercises separately and with greater ease

Visual Design

  • Created multiple versions of the home page in the style of more recent VA apps and conducted online A/B testing of user impressions
    • Found no significant user preferences updating to the style of other VA Apps
  • Created higher fidelity mockups of simple visual update options showing "low hanging fruit" changes

Recommendations and Next Steps

Since we realized development resources were scarce, our final presentation to the VA provided a prioritized road map for future iterations of the app.  

We recommended three levels of changes:

  1. Easy changes implementable by the current mobile app team
    • Implementing of our IA redesign,  style guide, and editing of the educational texts
  2. Simple changes with big returns
    • Our proposed updates to the education navigation interface
    • Changes to the stress exercise flow and interface
    • Image backgrounds for appropriate screens
    • Onboarding tutorials and coach marks
    • Exercise recommendation algorithms
  3. Important, but developmentally expensive changes
    • Visual redesign
    • Implementing ongoing coaching and reminders
    • Solicitation of testimonials and feedback
    • Analytics for exercises based on ratings and usage

If we were continuing forward with this product, we would be excited to:

  • Begin collecting use data and user feedback for iterative development.  
  • Exploring possibilities for social connection through exercise testimonials and anonymous story sharing.
  • Looking at possibilities for interaction with other VA apps, most notably PTSD Coach. 
  • Pursuing relationship-building via mediated communication through bluetooth connected PTSD Coach and PTSD Family Coach Apps 

Thanks for checking out my work with the VA.  I also worked on a redesign of Life Alert, and co-created a workshop.  Or, you could go back to that great view of the Sydney Harbor on my home page.