You may know ustwo as the developer of Monument Valley and the recently released Monument Valley 2. The former is a multi-award winning mobile game from 2014, which struck a chord with iOS and Android users thanks to its elegant design, Escher-inspired puzzles and gorgeous art.
What you may not know is that the developer is about far more than mobile games. ustwo has studios in Malmö, New York, Sydney, and London which, between them, are involved in client work as well as their own IPs. It’s the London office that is responsible for a mental health app known as Moodnotes, which will soon make its way to Android.
I recently spoke to Jarod McBride, Developer in Test at ustwo, and the technical lead for Moodnotes, to find out how the company went from helping us navigate the shifting architecture of Monument Valley, to the shifting architecture of the mind.
The ustwo method
Moodnotes is pitched as a tool that can assist people in exploring, and possibly improving, their thinking habits. It’s based on the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and was developed in collaboration with ThrivePort, a company lead by a pair of LA-based psychotherapists.
“We’d seen a number of CBT apps and journaling apps and none of them really felt of the quality of work that we like to do,” McBride said. “A lot of times, if you have a mobile health app, it can be really kind of dry, and so we wanted to create something that was going to stick with people and that people found enjoyable to use.”
McBride told me that a couple of members of the ustwo team, in particular, were eager to explore this particular subject area, so ustwo reached out to ThrivePort and began working on the app in a small capacity. McBride said that their work on Monument Valley and previous client jobs had already given them experience in making apps that people enjoy using — they just had to conscientiously apply it to something else.
We’d seen a number of CBT apps and journaling apps and none of them really felt of the quality of work that we like to do.
Like apps that track your daily exercise, which activities you’ve done and for how long, Moodnotes asks you to keep tabs on your current feelings. When you log into the app, you are presented with a face and a slider which you use to make it appear ‘happier’ or ‘sadder’: this is a representation of your current mood.
Once this has been selected, you can add further details about your feelings, and Moodnotes will present a list of “thinking traps,” thought patterns that can trigger negative feelings, such as “blaming,” “downplaying the positives,” and “fortune telling,” to help the user understand how and why they might have these feelings.
“If you’re having negative thoughts, or you’re having self-doubt, it helps walk you through how you can identify that first, and then how you can take those thoughts and turn them around to something that’s going to be a little more positive and to help you in the long term,” McBride said. “So it gives you those tools to help rethink some of the thoughts that you might be having that lead [you] down a negative thought path.”
Moodnotes, then, isn’t just a log of your thoughts, but something that can actively be used to evaluate and repurpose them.
Writing about Moodnotes is difficult. Not because it’s a complex idea, but because the subject area itself is so delicate. I have to pay close attention to the language I choose to avoid misleading or misrepresenting what Moodnotes offers (McBride called Moodnotes a “tool” from the off, and never strayed).
I can only imagine how this must have been for those actually developing it, and I was curious as to how ustwo had navigated that, and whether the app could be potentially harmful or misused: particularly if you were to compulsively log in to detail your every thought.
“We don’t want to do anything that’s going to cause anyone harm or make their situation worse,” McBride said. “Like all things, overuse, or excessive behavior, of anything, can be harmful […] if you’re obsessing about it, then yeah that can be an issue.”
But McBride explained that the focus was on helping users identify when they were getting into problematic behavioral areas like this, and why. He also noted that when you first launch the app it says you should seek professional help if you are overcome by negative thoughts — Moodnotes is not a one-stop anxiety cure, nor is it intended to strap a permanent smile to your face.
“We’re not saying you should be happy all the time, what we’re saying is, we should reflect on ourselves and look at how we feel, and understand how we feel, and how the different things around us impact the way that we feel,” he said, adding. “That itself is really important.”
The principles of CBT, and its effectiveness in treating mental health disorders, are backed by a wealth of studies. But what about the Moodnotes app — can ustwo track its effectiveness, too?
McBride said that ustwo hasn’t conducted any clinical studies with the app and that the feedback the team had received so far was mostly anecdotal. On the subject of data tracking specifically, though, McBride was firm.
“We purposely do not gather any user-inputted data,” he said. “We get aggregate analytic data, saying that someone has created an entry and that they’ve done ‘this’, but we know nothing about that entry, whether it was a positive, a negative, what people wrote, we do not know anything about that.”
We’re not saying you should be happy all the time, what we’re saying is, we should reflect on ourselves and look at how we feel.
McBride told me that this was quite intentional, that “it would be great to have all this data and to create some more services based on that data, but for us, one of the big things was the privacy aspect of it.” Similarly, he said you can sync the (encrypted) data between handsets, but that this is switched off by default on the iOS version.
Moodnotes has been available on iOS since last year and it’s currently at version 2.0. Outside of the upcoming Android release, I asked what the future held for the app.
We wanted to stay true to the Android platform and not just throw out an iOS copy on Android.
There’s “definitely more to come,” McBride told me, but revealed that Moodnotes is essentially a side project for the studio. ustwo doesn’t really have a roadmap because it’s not something that will always have a constant team in development on it (he had only about two weeks to work on it right now and had just come off the back of another project).
As for why the Android version is coming so many months after the iOS version, McBride said, “We wanted to stay true to the Android platform and not just throw out an iOS copy on Android […] that doesn’t take advantage of all the things that Android has to offer.”
This isn’t just in aesthetics, like Material Design implementation, but also technical features, like Android Wear integration (though this won’t be available at launch).
I believe that mental health is a worthwhile subject to explore in a mobile app and not just because of frequent reports on the dangers of digital content consumption. We have many great apps focused on tracking physical wellbeing, but mental health, which it would probably be fair to say is profoundly important, is a subject that doesn’t seem to have received the same degree of attention (save for a handful of noteworthy exceptions like Headspace).
ustwo appears to have a particular ethos and corporate culture that is unlike most others working in the mobile space. It isn’t just responsible for making a wonderful mobile game that can be enjoyed by adults and children alike (free of in-app purchases, I might add), but also a healthcare app, which it so far seems to be handling with great sensitivity.
“The true idea behind Moodnotes is we want to help people,” McBride said, “and we want to learn how we can help people, better.”
As far as the reasons for pursuing an app go, I think that’s a pretty good one.
McBride wouldn’t be drawn on the precise release date, but you can look forward to Moodnotes arriving on Android “soon.” You can find out more about it over at the official website, and if you wish to share your initial thoughts on it in the comments, please feel free to do so.