Exploring user needs for a mobile behavioral-sensing technology for depression management: Qualitative study

Jingbo Meng, Syed Ali Hussain, David C. Mohr, Mary Czerwinski, Mi Zhang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


Background: Today, college students are dealing with depression at some of the highest rates in decades. As the primary mental health service provider, university counseling centers are limited in their capacity and efficiency to provide mental health care due to time constraints and reliance on students’ self-reports. A mobile behavioral-sensing platform may serve as a solution to enhance the efficiency and accessibility of university counseling services. Objective: The main objectives of this study are to (1) understand the usefulness of a mobile sensing platform (ie, iSee) in improving counseling services and assisting students’ self-management of their depression conditions, and (2) explore what types of behavioral targets (ie, meaningful information extracted from raw sensor data) and feedback to deliver from both clinician and students’ perspectives. Methods: We conducted semistructured interviews with 9 clinicians and 12 students with depression recruited from a counseling center at a large Midwestern university. The interviews were 40-50 minutes long and were audio recorded and transcribed. The interview data were analyzed using thematic analysis with an inductive approach. Clinician and student interviews were analyzed separately for comparison. The process of extracting themes involved iterative coding, memo writing, theme revisits, and refinement. Results: From the clinician perspective, the mobile sensing platform helps to improve counseling service by providing objective evidence for clinicians and filling gaps in clinician-patient communication. Clinicians suggested providing students with their sensed behavioral targets organized around personalized goals. Clinicians also recommended delivering therapeutic feedback to students based on their sensed behavioral targets, including positive reinforcement, reflection reminders, and challenging negative thoughts. From the student perspective, the mobile sensing platform helps to ease continued self-tracking practices. Students expressed their need for integrated behavioral targets to understand correlations between behaviors and depression. They also pointed out that they would prefer to avoid seeing negative feedback. Conclusions: Although clinician and student participants shared views on the advantages of iSee in supporting university counseling, they had divergent opinions on the types of behavioral targets and feedback to be provided via iSee. This exploratory work gained initial insights into the design of a mobile sensing platform for depression management and informed a more conclusive research project for the future.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere10139
JournalJournal of medical Internet research
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Counseling
  • Depression
  • Mental health
  • Mobile sensing
  • User-centered design

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Informatics


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