Growing rates of mental illness, including depression and anxiety, are placing ever-increased pressure on health services and professionals nationally and globally
. In response to these emerging public health challenges, many have turned towards technology for answers. Health technology researchers and developers
alike have focused on the capacity of mobile devices in particular to support and expand access to care through practices of automated data collection, self-report and intervention.
Smartphones and smartwatches have received considerable attention in this regard for their relative low-cost, near-ubiquity, accessibility and connectivity. And yet, these technologies are increasingly but one possible medium for digital interaction, impose certain inescapable constraints on users' self-expression, and often require significant effort to support the engagement
of users. At the same time, the growing popularity of commercial smartspeaker systems, from Amazon's Alexa
to Google's Home
, has made voice-based interaction via conversational agent an everyday reality for many. These converging developments have surfaced the possibility of employing smartspeaker devices to support the self-report, and possibly even treatment, of diverse mental health conditions; although we yet know little as to the feasibility, ethics nor experience of doing so.
The work of Dr. Raju Maharjan's PhD faced these questions head on; investigating in particular whether and how smartspeaker devices might be designed to support the conversational self-report
of mental health in the at-home context. Through literature review, automated topic modelling, interview, lab and real-world deployment studies, Raju identified key factors in support of the functional, reliable, usable and pleasurable design of conversational health agents, demonstrated significant correlation between self-reports of wellbeing provided on-paper and via conversational agent, and provided rich insight into at-home smartspeaker interactions as experienced by users with depression and bipolar disorder — initial evidence for the feasibility of conversational agents as means to support the self-report of mental health and wellbeing.
Read more about Raju's work including the Sofia conversational agent he developed here