ALLY ― supporting Teenagers suffering from PTSD

UX, Product & Industrial Design ✕ Psychotherapy
Summary
In my B.A. thesis I collaborated with therapists and patients to develop ALLY ― a therapy-accompanying product to help teenagers affected from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) cope with emotionally stressful situations in their daily lives discretely.
university | type | grade
University of the Arts Berlin | B.A. thesis | 1,0
my roles & responsibilities
research
UX design
product design
industrial design
concept
prototyping
testing
adademic report
How might we discreetly support teenagers with PTSD in their daily lives?
goals
The aim of this project was to create a device that helps teenagers to deal effectively and discreetly with emotional stress situations in everyday life.

Patient involvement should be promoted by utilizing the existing therapeutic relationship between therapist and patient as well as offering opportunities for personalization.
challenges
There are several coping strategies that are currently recommended for the treatment of PTSD, which are rather unsuitable for use on the move and are perceived as too conspicuous or embarrassing by the young people concerned. As a result, many affected adolescents do not have adequate support in dealing with emotionally stressful situations in their everyday lives.
opportunities
As smart gadgets are on the rise, a small device like ALLY can visually integrate seamlessly into teenagers' lives. Instead of using conspicuous objects, such as a massage ball or hand trainer, a more discrete product will attract less attention in use, especially if it looks like it could be a device with a different purpose - like a piece of smart jewelry or a tiny external hard drive.
Primary & Secondary Research
Apart from extensive literature and online research around treatment methods and coping skills I had the chance to gain first hand insights around the everyday life with PTSD, psychotherapy and current coping mechanisms from both therapists and patients perspectives.
initial research fields
Research on Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and psychotherapy
Expert interviews with therapists from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Design probes for patients on their daily lives and coping mechanisms
Background ― Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
In Germany there is a high number of young people who are affected by traumatising events such as sexual or domestic abuse, bullying, accidents or serious illnesses from an early age. They suffer from flashbacks and panic attacks, relive parts of the traumatising event and are exposed to extreme physical reactions that are difficult to control.
psychotherapeutic treatment
In contrast to pharmacotherapeutic treatment, for which there is insufficient evidence of efficacy, behavioral interventions such as Trauma-focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (Tf-CBT) are empirically well established for the treatment of children and teenagers. The basis for successful therapy is the therapeutic relationship and the creation of a familiar and safe environment.
The crux of everyday life
Teenagers suffering from PTSD are most often exposed to emotionally stressful situations between therapy sessions. In order to get out of such situations on their own, they need to acquire strategies within the therapy session that can help them in an emergency and implement them responsibly in everyday life.
Qualitative user research
By developing design probes for a group of adolescents currently undergoing outpatient treatment for PTSD, I was able to gain detailed insights into their daily life with the disease, relevant background information and their current coping mechanisms in emotional stress situations.
Selected pages of the design probes, which were inspired by psychotherapy questionnaires and coloring books for adolescents, were given to the teenagers by their therapists for a period of two weeks.
Selected insights into one of the completed design probes, which I may use anonymously with the consent of the person, their therapist and their legal guardians.
Main User Insights
Many coping strategies are not feasible for young people on the move because they would attract attention or need unpractical items.
daily accessible skills are missing
There are various coping strategies called "skills" that are often recommended, such as rolling a massage ball over the skin, holding the head under or rinsing the face with cold water, melting ice cubes in your hands, biting on chilli peppers or walking on cat litter. Most of the strategies are not used by affected young people because they are too eye-catching, not feasible in public or are perceived as too embarrassing or impractical.
helpful mechanisms
In order to help themselves in their everyday life in public places, such as school, public transport or other places with many people, teenagers resort to their own methods, which should cause as little attention as possible. After evaluating the research, the methods could be divided into the following four main areas:
Listening to a soothing song
Hearing the voice of a trusted person
Feeling a strong tactile experience
Breathing in a calming rhythm
Design Principles
After gaining important insights into the fields of PTSD and helpful coping strategies, I extracted design principles to guide the ideation.
practicability
A tool must be available as a constant companion in everyday life and be quickly at hand. For these reasons, it has to be both compact and portable.
discretion
A tool should be visually integrated as well as possible into the young people's personal belongings so as not to attract attention. The actual usage should also be as discreet as possible.
Unbiasedness
It should not feel like a medical tool that increases feelings of illness, but spread a positive feeling with the help of a simple and contemporary design.
participation
Both young people and their therapists should be involved in the selection of properties and materials in order to choose the most helpful feature and to build a personal connection with the tool.
Exploration & Prototyping
Based on the three categories from user research, I started to develop a modular concept and built prototypes with different functionalities. In the course of the exploration, proportion models, functional prototypes and design models were developed and tested in iterative cycles using Arduino and 3D printing.
Rapid prototyping of the 'Listen' function with 3D printing in 1:1. Through bone conduction an audio file is transmitted via the cranial bone without being audible to other people.
Rapid prototyping of the 'Feel' function with 3D printing and programming with Arduino in 1:1, using different surface structures and pressure-sensitive vibration feedback to create a strong, haptic experience in a small space. The greater the pressure applied, the stronger the vibration feedback.
Rapid prototyping of the 'breathing' function with 3D printing and programming with Arduino in 1:2, with the two outer shells rising and falling in a calming rhythm once the device is turned on.
Concept & Design
Ally is a discrete, therapy accompanying product for the everyday life of teenagers suffering from PTSD. It offers three different functions for discreetly coping with emotionally stressful situations in the everyday life of patients discretely.
Listen
Listen to a soothing song or the voice recording of a trusted person while no one else can hear it
feel
A strong tactile experience in a minimum of space - the harder you press, the stronger the answer
breathe
Follow the tangible guidance of a calming breathing rhythm
Modular Structure
ALLY is modular and consists of a core that can hold a pair of different functional halves. They are surrounded by outer shells consisting of materials that depend on the chosen functionality.
Intro, Tryout and Customization
The patient is familiarized with the product within the protected environment of psychotherapy. After the therapist has presented the different functions and they are tried out within the therapy setting, patients can take a test device home to test the different functions in their daily routine.

Once the patient has decided on a preferred and most helpful functionality, they can create their own individual product from a selection of materials and colours.
ALLY 'Listen' -
something no one else can hear
Patients can save a helpful audio file, such as a particularly soothing song or the voice recording of a loved one, on ALLY. Bone conduction allows them to listen to the audio file while their peers cannot hear it. This is especially useful in situations where headphones cannot be used.
ALLY 'Feel' -
a strong, haptic sensation
ALLY provides surfaces structures offering great resistance to friction. Switching on and pressing the device starts a haptic dialogue between Ally and users, which makes their micro movements more perceptible through the amplification of the given pressure by pressure-sensitive vibration feedback. Despite a small surface area, a strong haptic sensation is created.
ALLY 'Breathe' -
a tangible breathing exercise
Relaxation through a deep and even breath: The surfaces lift and lower in a calming breathing rhythm. Like this, patients receive a haptic guidance without having to count seconds or take the device out of their pocket to look at it.
Charging Dock
ALLY comes with a portable USB type C charger and a dock for charging at home. The status LED on the front of the base tells the user the current charging status by flashing in different rhythms.
Conclusion
experiences
During the time I have been working on the topic of PTSD, I was able to learn a lot about the disease and young patients' daily lives with it. Trougout the process I was very happy about the openness and trust of the therapists and patients involved.

In addition to the young people who were actively involved in ambulant psychotherapy, former adolescent patients have been a really great resource for insights and regular feedback in my process.
learnings
As this was the first attempt to work at the intersection of design and therapeutic treatment, it was a continuous learning experience. As a non-expert in the field of psychotherapy, it can seem intimidating to look for experts who are open to share their insights with a non-expert such as a designer and to get them involved in a process and approach that is unfamiliar to them. It is crucial to find therapists who are willing to cooperate in time.

In addition, the issue of young people affected by PTSD requires a high degree of empathy and caution, involving not only potential users and their therapists, but also their legal guardians.
Outlook
The project was very positively received by various therapists. They felt that ALLY would be an effective support in the daily life of patients and encouraged me to make the concept a reality. As part of the team that is working on the development of the App LINK, the realization of ALLY is being considered as well.

Feel free to drop a line if you're interested in the future of this project!
LINK
mustermann