A few years after I moved to the UK, the South African Revenue Service emailed me a “final demand” for back taxes and hefty penalty fees that had been accruing—unbeknownst to me—for a decade.
I’m a conscientious person, so this bill was a shock. I immediately logged on to the revenue site’s new self-service portal that claimed to make filing tax returns and raising disputes easy.
It was not easy.
The navigation was flat and baffling; key actions were buried and given no priority on pages. Important information appeared as alert modals that were impossible to locate once they were closed. The “Get help e-filing” call to action was a fake door leading to a page saying no agents were available.
As a UX/UI designer with more than 15 years of experience creating user-centric sites, apps, and systems, I was appalled. I also have ADHD, anxiety, and depression; and as a person with a neurodivergent brain and these mental health conditions, the unusable website triggered increased agitation, rumination, and panic in an already stressful situation.
Nearly one billion people worldwide live with a mental health disorder, and hundreds of millions have ADHD. In 2021, mental health issues were the leading cause of absence from work in the UK, accounting for employer losses of up to £43 billion ($57 billion).
Research about UX design’s effect on mental health is in its early stages, but good design is accessible and accommodates a multitude of baselines. A confusing UX could trigger anxiety, as it did for me; repetitive tasks could exacerbate depression; for someone with an attention disorder, an avalanche of alerts might derail a productive workday.
Improving UX Design for Mental Health
For workers struggling with mental health disorders, the demands of poorly designed enterprise products can worsen symptoms. Designers can help by improving a few pain points endemic to knowledge work. Many of these proposed UX solutions build on existing technology or expand the availability of underused features. Others rely on advances in machine learning.
Streamline Workflow Management
Researchers have linked chronic boredom at work to depression, and repetitive, menial tasks can trigger frustration and anxiety around wasted time. Increasing office automation for repetitive tasks and incorporating anticipatory design through machine learning could help free workers from these ill effects and allow them to apply themselves to creative problem-solving.
Create bulk editing options. Much of what we do in tools like Jira, GitHub, and Excel are variations on previously completed work. Tables, for example, are ubiquitous in enterprise applications, but being able to filter, select, duplicate, and manage content in bulk is often missing at the table level.
Offer smart templates. I know project managers who prefer to create their own templates in workflow apps such as Jira. In these cases, machine learning-enabled templates can offer shortcuts by suggesting actions and formats based on a user’s workflow history.
Remove Communication Barriers
Remote collaboration across cultural and language boundaries has become more common since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. A glut of virtual communication and collaboration tools exist to facilitate this, but audio/visual lags, the absence of body language and eye contact, and app notifications can increase anxiety and reduce productivity—even in people without mental health disorders. Improving enterprise communication tools in a few key ways can help.
Translate context, not just language. Translation has come a long way over the last decade, but offering multiple potential meanings for high-context languages and indicating the confidence level of each translation would allay non-native speaker discomfort when using chat apps such as Microsoft Teams’ instant messaging platform. Ideally, these features would also flag common idioms that have no literal translation and pose risks for misunderstanding.
Reduce interruptions. Jira and other product management tools are notorious for producing reams of notification emails. However, muting these notifications can mean missing important developments. In the future, tools could be programmed to send alerts based on the volume of chatter, anomalies (such as your boss jumping onto a thread), and keywords.
Designers at Slack, for example, are working on an AI system that would display one message at a time, in order of importance. Tools that triage information like this can help inform users without overwhelming them.
Compensate for video’s shortcomings. Video calls are now business as usual for most knowledge workers. But users with “Zoom anxiety” fear that technical mishaps make them look incompetent. Apps could normalize and depersonalize glitches by automatically notifying attendees with a badge or chat message when another user is experiencing connection issues.
Automatically increasing the volume for users who speak softly, and muting other attendees until a speaker is finished to avoid accidental interruption, could also increase colleagues’ confidence. Another smart tweak: Defaulting to hiding self-view. Seeing an image of oneself for an entire meeting can cause people to fixate on, and feel anxiety over, their appearance—a phenomenon researchers are calling “Zoom dysmorphia.”
Upgrade Training Resources
People with depression are prone to self-blame, which can flare up in response to clumsy UX architecture. Too many enterprise products rely on lazy walkthroughs or incomplete help guides to communicate core features or updates. (The internet is packed with tutorials on how to complete basic functions in tools like Microsoft Word and Jira.) Instead, product designers should push to offer robust and varied training and support options.
Provide thorough walkthroughs on first use. Guiding users through their first task during onboarding will quickly acquaint them with key features. Use video clips, animations, and images as much as possible. People won’t read if they don’t have to, but movement will draw their attention.
Use real people for customer support. Ramp up your human support whenever you release a major update or make changes that affect user workflow, since these events are the most likely to cause confusion. The sooner you resolve that confusion, the less likely it will generate anxiety. Chatbots may be excellent at triage, but they should always connect users with live agents immediately upon request or when they’re unable to provide a satisfactory answer. Live customer support is expensive, but getting stuck in chatbot loops can make users feel more anxious and isolated.
Integrate mini tutorials. For veteran users, feature updates can disrupt workflows, and explainer videos or walkthroughs are difficult to fit into a busy workday. Instead, try adding mini tutorials that are triggered when a user attempts to perform an action related to the update. For example, highlight new tool locations when a user opens a project.
Make sure that all tutorials are easy to find in a help center. It’s frustrating to dismiss a pop-up and later realize that was your only chance to learn about an update.
Increase Focus and Efficiency
Better UX can reduce bottlenecks and increase feelings of autonomy, making work more efficient and reducing stress.
Integrate tools for micro catch-ups. Calendars are often overstuffed with stand-up meetings, reviews, and briefs. Imagine if workers could instead request huddles within a project or document when necessary. (Slack, Figma, and Miro make great use of integrated collaboration tools.) This empowers users to ask for help, cuts back on scheduled meetings, and reduces boredom and stress.
Encourage focus and downtime. All tools, including email, should include the ability to mute communication during predefined periods of concentration or relaxation. Ideally, these tools would respond to a user’s work hours (set within the tool or pulled from a work calendar) and suggest breaks for exercise and food. Statistics on a user’s recent activity, such as a graph displaying their overtime hours that week, coupled with health data supporting self-care, could encourage healthier work habits.
To prevent users from losing track of time, enterprise tools could also mark the end of working hours with a celebratory message or brief shift to a grayscale UI to encourage users to log off.
Discourage micromanagement. Managers may use collaboration features to monitor or interfere with employees’ work. For example, some Figma users report that managers and executives use multiplayer mode to watch them work, which breeds anxiety and resentment. Users need privacy to think well and be comfortable with mistakes. This might mean locking their projects until they request stakeholder review, and sharing a progress checklist that managers can refer to in lieu of “spying” or messaging employees for updates.
Resolve bottlenecks on the spot. Let workers request a “rally”—a feature for active projects that would push an urgent issue to the top of a manager’s queue. This would resolve problems more quickly, and also give micromanagement-prone bosses a clearer sense of when to get involved.
Design for Peace of Mind
Remote collaboration tools have incredible potential to make work more efficient and flexible. But enterprise UX can also bring frustration and anxiety that negatively impacts neurodivergent workers and those with mental health issues. Even users without these concerns can benefit from design that reduces distractions, inefficiencies, and misunderstandings. If we as designers prioritize mental health accessibility in UX we can make remote work a life-enhancing option for everyone.
Do you have other design ideas that would ease burdens on office workers’ mental health? Let us know in the comments.
Understanding the basics
Design for mental health reduces or eliminates features that can aggravate symptoms of a disorder. For example, automating menial tasks may decrease the risk of boredom-induced depressive symptoms, and reducing the need for video calls may alleviate anxiety for users with body dysmorphia.
UX design is built around a user’s psychology, from how they learn and make decisions to what makes them happy. It can affect a user’s mood, efficiency, job satisfaction in remote work, and mental health.
Enterprise UX is the design of applications and services that companies use to perform business functions. Such products include communication tools and project management platforms.