Postsecondary Student Engagement With a Mental Health App and Online Platform (Thought Spot): Qualitative Study of User Experience


Background: There is growing interest in using mobile apps and online tools to support postsecondary student mental health, but most of these solutions have suboptimal user engagement in real-world settings. Poor engagement can limit long-term effectiveness and usefulness of these tools. Previous literature has proposed several theories that link factors such as low usability and poor user-centered design to app disengagement. However, few studies provide direct evidence showing what factors contribute to suboptimal user engagement in the context of mobile mental health apps for postsecondary students.

Objective: This study focuses on understanding postsecondary students’ attitudes and behaviors when using Thought Spot, a co-designed mental health app and online platform, to understand factors related to engagement and user experience.

Methods: Students who were given access to Thought Spot for 6 months during a randomized trial of the intervention were invited to participate in one-on-one semi structured interviews. The interviews explored participants’ overall experiences and perceptions of the app, along with factors that affected their usage of various features. All interviews were recorded, and template analysis was used to analyze transcripts.

Results: User satisfaction was mixed among users of Thought Spot. The degree of engagement with the app appeared to be affected by factors that can be grouped into 5 themes: (1) Students valued detailed, inclusive, and relevant content; (2) Technical glitches and a lack of integration with other apps affected the overall user experience and satisfaction with the app; (3) Using the app to support peers or family can increase engagement; (4) Crowdsourced information from peers about mental health resources drove user engagement, but was difficult to obtain; and (5) Users often turned to the app when they had an immediate need for mental health information, rather than using it to track mental health information over time.

Conclusions: Content, user experience, user-centeredness, and peer support are important determinants of user engagement with mobile mental health apps among postsecondary students. In this study, participants disengaged when the app did not meet their expectations on these determinants. Future studies on user engagement should further explore the effectiveness of different features and the relative importance of various criteria for high-quality apps. Further focus on these issues may inform the creation of interventions that increase student engagement and align with their mental health needs.

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