Independent Project: Hearth Heart

After taking several HCI classes at Stanford, I found myself wanting to put what I had learned to the test and to continue to learn and improve. And what better way to do that than through your very own project? Thank you so much to Professor Christina Wodtke for agreeing to take me on and for all of the guidance and advice throughout the process!

I honestly did not have a very clear idea of what I wanted to focus my project on or what I wanted it to be. All I knew was that I had this general idea of wellness that I wanted to tackle, which is something that has come to the foreground during the pandemic. It is also something that is very personal to me, as I’m sure it is to everyone—we only live once, so we have to make sure we care for ourselves throughout our lifetime. With this vague inkling, I decided to conduct needfinding interviews and a competitive analysis to shed light on what could be done and improved on.



To kick off the needfinding process, I interviewed four individuals for 15-20 minutes, recruiting them through convenience sampling. Participants were of the early 20’s age range, and three identified as having issues with their mental health. Casting a wide net, I asked about a lot of things—their relationship with technology, their habits of care whenever they find themselves in a downward spiral, their perspective on social media—and gained a few key insights:

  1. When in a state of negativity, three participants stressed the idea of writing and/or verbalizing their thoughts, either in a physical format (a journal, a sketchbook) or in a digital format (Notes app, personal blog). One participant mentioned that they “use it every once in a while as a way to converse [with] myself, uplift myself, and ground myself.”
  2. One participant mentioned that when they feel like they are approaching a negative spiral, they tend to reach out to friends. “Knowing someone is there for you and cares” is something that they find comfort in.
  3. Technology, particularly social media, can be so isolating and distracting all at the same time. Two participants went through a social media cleanse of sorts because of this. One of these participants took particular comfort in that “time kept going and she spent her time in other ways.”

Competitive analysis

To get an estimate of existing wellness apps, I spent some time getting to know them. I primarily focused on wellness apps that involved journaling, keeping a personal log, evaluating moods, etc., however I also branched out to other sub-categories within wellness, namely meditation and fitness. These apps included Remente, Habitica, Day One, Routinery, Noom, and Headspace.

Here is what I noticed:

1. Paywall
Many of these apps were locked behind a paywall of varying extents. Some apps locked all functionality behind a monthly subscription, whereas others had certain features limited or locked unless you subscribed. In many cases, it made using the app… unusable. Apps like Headspace offer a sneak peek of what you might get out of a subscription, but the bulk of their content must be paid for… And by bulk, I mean basically all of their content.

It was a little disheartening to see that even someone with the right intention to grow and improve would be met with this barrier upfront and caused concerns about accessibility — if these popular wellness and health apps are gated by subscription, then what resources are out there for those who simply do not have the luxury to be able to afford them? Furthermore, taking care of one’s health should not be considered a luxurious practice, bringing to question if these wellness apps truly have the best in mind for their users… or should I say their customers?

2. Long onboarding
Some of these apps, particularly ones that track your progress, require a long onboarding process before you can even see what it offers. Their onboarding typically ranged from asking users to watch motivational videos to inputting personal information. It was cumbersome, to say the least, when apps like Remente would ask me to already make commitments all of a sudden before I could even exit the “tutorial.” Not to mention that I was giving them a lot of personal information.

3. Weird messaging
Some physical fitness apps have incredibly strange messaging. Through the long onboarding of Noom, it constantly equated healthy behavior to losing weight (not at all true!) despite me explicitly selecting the option to gain weight. Also apps that used images of real people to convey their message chose to have a white woman as a representative about health, leading again to the question of who exactly these apps are meant to target and who might be left out of these practices.

Setting daily reminders helped me particularly when I timed them just right.

4. Habitual
In my usage of these apps across a few days, I noticed that the most effective ones tended to use notifications as a means of reminding users that the app exists and is here to help. Habitica and other apps allow users to customize when they want to be notified, and combined with Stanford psychologist BJ Fogg’s idea of tiny habits, it’s easiest for me when I time reminders with a consistent daily trigger (for me, that means after a meal).

5. Disruptive
Some features of these apps, primarily journaling ones, felt disruptive to my own existing wellness habits. I already have a physical notebook and a digital platform I use to record and store my thoughts and making the switch to a completely new app that I was not even sure I would continue to use created a little bit of friction in my use of the journaling aspects of these apps.

Moving forward

In creating my prototype, I hope to keep these insights in mind. Summing up my needfinding, I found myself thinking about it in terms of these three F’s:

Focused, Free, & Friends

  1. Focused on daily and habitual introspection. No necessitated collection of data that is not necessary or deemed too repetitive. I want to make this as painless as possible for users and leverage their existing wellness habits.
  2. Free for anybody and everybody to use. No weird gendered or racist or exclusionary undertones should be anywhere in the prototype, including in any graphics or text. It should also be free money-wise, so as to not impose a financial burden on anyone seeking mental health help when they might need it most.
  3. Friends. The world, especially now, can feel so disconnected, and being in a good mental state often means finding a sense of belonging. In order to feel less isolated and to feel cared for while navigating mental health, perhaps the secret is interacting with friends.

Synthesis and Ideation

With these principles in mind, I followed the typical design thinking process of generating how-might-we statements in order to bring definition to the scope of ideation and probe different avenues.

How Might We…

…provide a space to write/speak to debrief and destress?
…create a habit of mindfulness and introspection?
…foster emotional connections? Foster a network of support?

…connect with each other in more meaningful and intimate ways?
…cross the digital barrier to intimacy and sharing?
…allow for emotional intimacy in a digital platform?
…provide users tools for when they most need it?
…tailor wellness approaches to an individual?
…leverage psychology research to create a more pointed attempt at wellness?

I focused my brainstorming efforts on the three bolded HMW statements.


I brainstormed two different times from these HMW statements. The first round, I had been anchoring too heavily on the idea of writing out thoughts that I had gotten from needfinding interviews. As a result, many of the solutions that I came up with were indeed more of various features surrounding a journaling type of app. In the second round, I removed this journal limitation I had inadvertently put on myself in order to brainstorm a wider variety of ideas. Thank you, Christina, for pointing this out!

Here are some of the highlights that I came up with for both rounds:

Round 1: Too narrow features

  1. Daily optional prompts to guide introspection that could be done mentally or in the journaling app that I had been thinking of initially.
  2. Setting a schedule for notifications to do certain tasks or to journal.
  3. Speech-to-text diary where users could dictate their day or journal entry and the app would transcribe it for easy journal entries.
  4. Daily mood indicators that you can allow friends to view so they can check in with you.
  5. Resource platform/section for grounding, introspection, and stress management.
  6. Roll-ups and tracking of your behavior and habits with monthly/weekly summaries to gauge your growth.

Round 2: Broader, more encompassing ideas

  1. A physical space to visit for introspection with a calming atmosphere and introspective prompts to chew through.
  2. In that same vein, a digital, customizable space where you could do the above. It would allow you a space to go to for reflection while also indulging in the idea of having your own, personalized space that some people might not otherwise be able to have.
  3. “Matching” (as in with dating apps) with accountability partners to achieve a goal (working to a daily habit of exercise, journaling, meditation, etc.) and create a community.
  4. Journal “subscription” program with printable monthly journals with planning resources and introspective thoughts.
  5. On that same journal vein, having a highly customizable journal for self-expression, with various widgets that would allow you to format your entry with to-do lists, habit trackers, and more.
  6. Visualizing growth and habits in some metaphorical way… which led to the idea of a digital garden that you could raise by completing tasks and habits.
  7. A gratefulness gallery that would resemble a Pinterest board of sorts, to be filled with positive moments as a way to create a “happy place” to look back on when you feel down.
  8. Anonymized blogging community of vent-/rant-type thoughts. You would be able to create your own posts and comment on others’ without having it necessarily tied back to you. A community of honesty.
  9. Utilizing parasocial relations for venting. Something that frequently comes up in therapy is the idea that you tend to be harsher on yourself than on others, and if your friend said those same negative thoughts, you would likely be in a rush to console and comfort them. Perhaps having a physical (or digital) target that parrots your thoughts would help with grounding and introspection.

The above bolded ideas (2, 6, and 9) combined with the idea of friends resonated the most with me as ideas that were interesting and had the potential to help.


Combining ideas 2, 6, and 9, I sought to make something of an Animal Crossing fine-tuned specifically for wellness. The digital space from idea 2, the aspect of seeing progress visually in idea 6, and the parasociality from idea idea 9 all harken back to Animal Crossing, which many have said feels like informal therapy to them. I personally do not own a Nintendo Switch, however I have played Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp and Animal Crossing: Wild World. For me, playing ACPC honestly was very comforting and provided a daily routine of sorts, allowing me to feel baseline accomplished by completing the bare minimum in a digital sphere. It also brought me joy when I would witness novel dialogue with villagers (NPCs) that I liked and pride when I could model my camper and campsite to my liking. However, there was definitely a lot to say about its predatory micro-transaction system.

With all of this in mind, I wondered how I could leverage the therapeutic aspects of Animal Crossing for my prototype. To that end, I came up with…

Hearth Heart

Similar to Animal Crossing, you have your own customizable area (room) to tap into the idea of creating your own area of peace and quiet, away from the hustle and noise that everyday life may bring; you get to indulge in the idea of your very own safe space while engaging in wellness. Peering outside your window, you have access to a way to keep your mind clear and focused through a garden of progress that takes into account your habits and goals and to do list items. You can also call on others—your real-life friends and the prototype’s characters (something like Animal Crossing’s animal villagers)—for a chat or for a “verbal journaling” session. Calling on friends will invite them to your room and allow for video or voice calling. Calling on a character will have it to listen to you, and as it does, it will do something with your words as it processes speech to text. For negative calls, it would show some sort of eating animation to “eat away” your negative thoughts, and for positive ones, it will log them down in a diary entry format and save it to your gallery for printing or for uploading to wherever the user might normally keep their journal.

I included these two primary functionalities to serve different understandings of wellness: the garden for decluttering the stress of that everyday life might bring and the verbal journaling/calling to serve as a support for when someone might need it most, as a way to emulate someone being there to care.

Rapid experimentation

I performed two sets of rapid experimentation studies to evaluate the efficacy of my idea, focusing on the verbal journaling and progress garden aspects of the prototype due to them being two very core functions of the app. For each of these experiments, I recruited three participants to test my underlying assumptions.


One underlying assumption of this prototype was that participants would enjoy the idea of verbal journaling (dictating their thoughts and the prototype using natural language processing to transcribe them) and prefer it over typing or writing out their journal entries. The other underlying assumption was specifically for negative thoughts: I wanted to test the assumption that participants would feel better upon them being eaten away or having their words “transformed.”

For this experiment, participants were of the early 20’s age range from convenience sampling. I required participants to participate in two journaling sessions in total throughout the week, spaced however participants would like, and I concluded the study with a 15-minute follow-up interview and debrief. Journaling sessions were carried out over Zoom with me sharing my screen. This experiment involved a key Wizard of Oz aspect of me acting as the prototype’s speech-to-text functionality by transcribing what participants dictated. In the follow-up interviews, the idea was to gauge how this experience shaped them and to understand the context of journaling — publicly or privately — in their everyday life.


All participants seemed to find the idea of verbal journaling to be a bit bizarre and preferred manually typing. One participant mentioned that voice-to-text software made them feel self-conscious about their speech habits and that they did not like such software because they believe that “writing [things] down is easier than going back and translating transcribed material.” Additionally, one participant mentioned that the content in the verbal journaling sessions a lot less thought-out and structured than their normal, typed out entries and that typing helped them realize what they wanted to write in their journals. It is also worth noting that all journal entries in this rapid experimentation session were more of recounting what had happened in their day, rather than really telling a story or introspection.

Two participants did note that they did engage, albeit to a limited extent, with voice messages, using them in situations where they had long stories to tell or when they felt too lazy to type. One of these two also stated that voice messages were convenient for when they felt like text could not convey how exactly they wanted to tell the story.

The verbal journaling sessions during rapid experimentation were not meant to have any sort of social aspect to them (I would mute my microphone and not comment on their journal entries to limit social interactions during this time), however it is inevitable that there would be some sociality due to my presence in these journaling sessions. However, I did not expect it to be the most enjoyable part of the experiment. In the follow-up interviews, all three participants commented that they really enjoyed the idea of there being a passive listener and that they knew that their words were reaching someone; “When I verbally dictate, I know someone is listening for sure,” one participant remarked, whereas “when you tweet out your thoughts, I’m just tweeting it out to the void, who knows if anyone’s listening.”

I had also not expected participants to only select neutral-to-positive entries, and so I failed to test my second assumption of whether applying some sort of transformation to negative thoughts shaped their mood or perspective afterwards. However, this realization that participants were more likely to choose neutral-to-positive as a quantifier for their mood was also an interesting insight, serving as a reminder that much of human experience is not simply black and white, but rather many different shades of gray. Informed by this, I aim to not have such a binary categorization of journal entries and extend the idea of “preserving” or “destroying” journal entries to these other categories, although it would be better to do additional rapid experimentation to test this new hypothesis.

When I asked about participants’ journaling habits, it seemed that participants primarily used them as a way to either log events/emotions (primarily when they felt overwhelmed and needed to vent) or as a tool of introspection (answering diary prompts). Participants also rarely looked back on their entries, and all participants stated that they really only would look back on their own journal entries whenever they were on the same diary platform; “it’s more of just like if I’m there, I might as well take a look,” one participant remarked.

It also seems that the primary reason why participants choose to journal over venting or talking to their friends depends largely on the content; for topics that they “don’t want to discuss with other people or [have people] be in a position to handle that sort of information,” participants choose the privacy of their journals.

Progress garden

For Hearth Heart, another underlying assumption resides within the idea that people would like having their progress visualized in metaphorical way. I primarily chose to make this analogy of a garden, since real-life gardens must also be cared for and cultivated in order of them to grow. However, I also included the idea of a points system where completing tasks would award a certain amount of points as an informal AB testing to see how people interpreted growth differently for these two representations.

In order to test this assumption, I told participants to tell me at least one of each of the following: a daily task, a weekly task, and a daily habit they would like to build up. Participants were to then inform me when they would complete any of these, and I would refresh their garden with a growing flower and the appropriate number of points. Gardens were created in the software Clip Studio Paint and were done roughly so as to not place too much focus on the particulars of the garden, ensuring that participants would focus on functionality rather than aesthetics.

For this experiment, participants were members of my household, ranging from teens to middle-aged individuals. I specifically aimed to recruit members of my household to evaluate if there was a social aspect to this habit garden experiment. This session lasted for 2.5 days and concluded with a follow-up interview to gauge if and how their behaviors were influenced by this progress garden as well as their own relationship with progress in their daily/weekly tasks and habits.


On the general experience of the progress garden, participants overwhelmingly favored it. All participants primarily interpreted the garden as a tracker of progress and reaffirmation of progress rather than as a motivational tool, however one participant commented that “other than the personal satisfaction of you completing the task, it’s sort of like a challenge: I dare you to complete this thing.” One participant also remarked that the garden kind of helped them evaluate the quantity of what they had to do in a day. There was a budding curiosity from all participants about how their garden might look like when tasks and habits were completed.

Two participants enjoyed the garden more, attributing it to them just being more of visual people, with one of these two stating that “it’s nice that it’s in the form of a garden. Then you can see what’s growing in your garden… It makes you feel happy to see you have something growing in your garden.” This participant particularly liked the idea of a garden: “it’s just like when I look at a real garden and see flowers growing. It’s in that same way [that I feel happy] if I have more plants too.”

One participant did prefer points because they felt like numbers had more of an impact: “points are always better because people can relate to it. Like ‘Ooh, 100 points’ versus 1 plant.” It seems that the relativity of numbers was something that participants all understood, as another mentioned that “in terms of numbers, you know how much you have,” offering a fail-safe method of evaluating your progress.

One participant, particularly interested in psychology, mentioned that the idea of rewards is very powerful, but to be aware that there can be a limit to rewards; “the reward system depends on how much value participants perceive,” they remarked.

It is also worth noting that at some point, each participant would forget to contact me to have their garden and points updated. One participant commented, “Sometimes I forget, but that’s like when I’m busy. But when I remember, it would be like ‘Oh, garden time.’” I had avoided implementing a notification system for this rapid experimentation session due to wanting to strictly evaluate the efficacy of the visualization, and I wonder how this experiment would have gone differently if there were indeed built-in reminders.

I also asked about if they have existing ways to keep track of things to do, and two participants stated they did, and the other said that their to-do list was mental. The two who did make explicit to-do lists made them digitally, in the Notes app or in Stickies app. When asked about why these particular platforms, they mentioned ease of access and convenience, as these two participants were usually near their phone and computer, respectively.

It also seems that none of the participants engaged in any sort of interaction with each other in regards to the progress garden, meaning that for them, there were no social aspects of the progress garden.

Revisions and further steps

From these two rapid experimentation sessions, I have come up with potential solutions to address pain points and areas of friction with the initial idea of my prototype:

  • Give participants ability to type their own words for their journal, rather than just limiting them to speech-to-text. Since most participants prefer text and view speech-to-text functionality as a side feature, why not treat it as such?
  • Implement some sort of explicit check-in to allow for a passive listener. Some ideas for this include an Instagram live type of feature for calling to allow for friends to check in, having a communal diary with you and your friends to all write in so all users of the diary have access to each others thoughts, and giving friends access to your journal entries (with a privacy toggle). The idea of Hearth Heart characters “listening” and being attentive to your diary entries is also a possibility. More research and experimentation will have to be done to evaluate the efficacy of these ideas, however.
  • Because no participants in the first journal rapid experimentation sessions recorded negative journal entries, further testing is needed to evaluate transformation aspect of negative entries.
  • One participant brought up the idea of perceived value of rewards. Further testing is required to determine what the most effective rewards in the progress garden are (i.e. how many points should be awarded for a completed task, is immediately growing a plant after the task is complete too much of a reward, etc.).
  • There should also be a notification system in place for participants to remember to tend to their garden, since many participants forgot to tend to their gardens in a timely manner. Perhaps another round of rapid experimentation could involve evaluating how effective notifications are.
  • For the progress garden, there are also more minor adjustments to be made. Moving forward, I should establish clarity in language (i.e. between a habit and a daily task) and take advantage of the initial novelty of seeing the flowers bloom by having more interesting graphics and additional interactivity.
  • Should social aspects be included in the progress garden, and if so, to what extent? One idea to introduce sociality into the garden would be through customization, which would enable the idea of comparing your garden to others’ gardens, perhaps leading to friendly competition.
  • Regarding the room in general, rapid experimentation would need to be performed to understand how individuals might interact with their own personalized and customized space and how, if at all, that shapes their perceived state of wellness.


Mood boards

To get a general idea for the aesthetics of Hearth Heart, I created a two mood boards that each captured a different spin on wellness.

The image below is less of a mood board, but I also created a compilation of various characters that I hope to sort of emulate with Hearth Heart’s own characters.

Style tile

Here is the finalized style tile for the prototype based on the second mood board. I chose to proceed with the second mood board due to how calming and gentle it is, compared to the vibrancy and higher energy of the first mood board and other comparator wellness apps. To complement this, I chose a round and soft font for the header and contrasted it with a more firm and less stylized body font.


Paper prototype

I created a paper prototype for Hearth Heart along with a “map” of the main interactions of the prototype. Due to time constraints, I was not able to do any sort of RITE testing or usability testing to evaluate interactions in the prototype.

In accordance with the idea of having a concrete (digital) room, I have been learning 3D modeling in Blender in order to add promise to the concept of having space. This also means that characters in Hearth Heart have this three-dimensionality to them, too!

I am also in the preliminary phase of creating characters for the calling a character aspect of the prototype. I aim to keep characters to be somewhat in the the low-poly style for playful simplicity in how emotions might manifest as characters. You may have seen some of these as headers for different sections!

Next steps

Some next steps regarding refining the functionality of the prototype can be noted in the “Revisions and further steps” section above. To test these revisions, I also hope to recruit a wider variety of participants, as most of my prior recruitment had been done through referrals and reaching out to individuals I was already acquainted with.

As mentioned, because I was not able to test prototype interactions, I hope to do a few rounds of RITE testing in the future in order to find areas of friction within the interactions of the prototype and to understand, in general, what users’ mental models of the prototype are like so that I can implement changes to better align them with the vision of Hearth Heart.

I also plan to learn more about Blender, particularly in the realm of rigging, which would allow for more expressive interaction with Hearth Heart characters. This would also help to flesh out any parasocial relationships that users might develop and hopefully approach the idea of a stand-in passive listener for when users might not want to engage with others. Due to all of the 3D modeling aspects of Hearth Heart, I will also be taking steps to learn Unity as a means to implement the models in an app format.