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A Physical, Expressive and Multisensory Drum Tool Changing The Perspective on Relaxation for People With High Levels of Anxiety

Design Research
for mental healthcare

M1.2 Design Research

Assistant professor dr. Max Birk

psychotherapy research experts
prof. dr. Julian Rubel & dr. David Rosenbaum

in short

Design research challenge, approach, methods, results & contribution

We are living more and more in an inclusionary world, in which people with all kinds of differences are accepted and offer a source of inspiration to society. However, people with elevated trait anxiety, aged 18-35 years old, experience expressions of worrying and rumination, meaning streams of negative thinking which restricts in daily life functioning, disabling them to be their ‘best self in society’ decreasing empowerment and social integration. This causes a high need of support in relaxation for this target group.

The designed creative drum tool RELAX-CHANGE, is focused on providing a novel physical, expressive and multi-sensory perspective on relaxation and support for this target group. RELAX-CHANGE, provides the opportunity to build up towards a point of full physical and multi-sensory expression in drum play (highlight in play) to flow from there into relaxation (release).

In this project, the probe RELAX-CHANGE is designed; together with a very first prototype; two highly qualitative and evaluative online focus groups were done, with in total 7 participants; and 3 expert interviews, with 2 experts from the field of clinical psychology. It was found that in general, RELAX-CHANGE has the potential to support in relaxation and is expected to have positive relaxation effects due to its underlying principles and engagement potential of specific design aspects.



Why I loved this project?

What I loved about this project is that I finally got the opportunity to combine my passion for music and sounds with playful interaction design, in the context of supporting people in special need groups. Aspects that drive me as a design researcher. I also loved the initial in-depth exploration of three potential target groups to do design research for: children in the autism spectrum, people with ADHD and people with elevated anxiety, that I did in the beginning of the project as part of the scoping procedure. Together with desk research around the benefits of active music engagement I could scope the direction towards the design of RELAX-CHANGE more and more.

Furthermore, I learned a lot from the psychotherapy expert interviews, with dr. David Rosenbaum and prof. dr. Julian Rubel. These enhanced my empathy with the target group, enriched my understanding of the depth of the problems people with anxiety experience on a daily basis and foremost helped scoping & shaping my design direction.

The online focus groups were a first for me, but it was a very interesting UX research method to explore within the field of design research for mental healthcare. The focus groups allowed the participants to more easily open up around their current anxiety experiences, relaxation activities and sparked a more diverse discussion around the relaxation potential of the design probe. Moreover, guiding the focus groups based on video probes about introducing the problem space of people with anxiety; the design probe & its interaction functionalities; and the design research contribution, worked. Even though not being able to have the target group interact with the non-optimal functional prototype, I learned the power of videos in creating discussion over distance.

Finally, programming & electronically engineering the feedback functions of the prototype supported me further developing my tangible & multi-sensory interaction creation, which was a very satisfying experience. To grow into realizing my vision.


When revising my goals for this project, taking the current COVID-19 into account, my priority was on growth within the areas of Technology & Realization, User & Society and Professional Skills. However, I also experienced unexpected learnings in Math, Data and Computing. 


To create tangible interaction I learned the importance of ‘background processing’ in programming the interaction flow, using Arduino. Next to that, I learned multi-sensory feedback plays a big role in tangible interaction to supporting user experiences. Therefore, I learned to program and electronically realize various multi-sensory feedback mechanisms based on touch inputs from the drum pads. Most valuable was that I learned to program these multi-sensory output functions (musical and light) using for me unknown electronic components or code e.g. auditory feedback (musical drum tones) through programming a micro SD card module or programming LED color fading through HSV values instead of RGB. 

Furthermore, I learned to store drum touch inputs from each of the 8 touch pads as touch frequencies based on user input. This gave me insights in other contributions that programming can have in design research, as supporting in evaluating user experiences, e.g. visualizing play patterns of people with high level anxiety. Discovering this new potential of programming made me enthusiastic to proceed with this in my project and include more behavioral measurements in programming in a follow-up prototype to evaluate in therapy contexts. Next to programming, I massively improved my electronic circuitting skills because of the use of unknown electronic components. Therefore, I learned to find the right SPECS, recreate schematic circuits and combine these circuits for a combination of functions. I learned this is especially useful in designing your own specific interactive system, especially relevant for the ‘special needs’ target group. Furthermore, I have grown in my soldering skills, at home with self-bought soldering tools, without the help of lab experts, which has increased my speed and precision enabling me to faster prototype interactive systems as UX designer.


Regards practical prototyping, I mainly learned about planning the physical prototyping process  (prioritizing prototype elements in the ‘making’ process), efficient materials use and creating elements of the prototype with limited prototyping tools. Regarding the process planning I learned to think practical, make schematic drawings of the prototype layers, define what parts have priority when combining its layers and consider electronic circuitting issues when implementing in the prototype to adapt the circuitting. Furthermore, I learned to make technical drawings for paper molds to easily create the right shapes for prototype elements, such as the drum touch pads. These practicalities gave me lots of insights in how to efficiently use and select materials for rapid prototyping, to best study user experiences. Moreover, communicating my design and prototyping plans with these experts improved my presentation and communication skills tremendously, enhancing my professionality. 


Regarding User & Society and Design Research Processes, I have enriched my methodological approaches, improving online user evaluation skills, visual communication and presentation skills. Next to that, I improved my visual communication skills by making ‘video probes’ for the focus groups to support me and the participants in discussing anxiety experiences (scenario video) and design research potential (design and wrap-up video). This, by improving my Adobe Illustrator skills, creating clear and appealing visual screens for all videos; improving my photoshop skills for pictures in the design video; and video editing skills, including sound editing, to create all video probes. 


Regards data analysis, I got new insights in how to combine quantitative self-reported data about anxiety levels (from the STAI) with qualitative discussion results to still answer the research question and conclude upon the ‘potential’ design effects instead of on the actual. In this way, I learned to make sense of a bunch of data (2 focus groups, 1 expert interview, 7 filled-in questionnaires), combining the thematically analyzed qualitative results with outliers in the quantitative STAI dataset to build up a narrative to conclude upon the research question. This analysis process really got me excited to improve my quantitative and statistical analysis skills in my second year master.


Due to working online I have made great professional skills development, especially in visual communication, presenting, planning & organization, as already mentioned before. I also improved my reflection skills by reflecting and reporting individually and collaboratively on all insights about the target group, context, design qualities, online evaluation methods, prototyping and approaches taken in Microsoft PowerPoint documents. 


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