Wakey! Evaluating the feasibility of a mental wellbeing app

Dr Sophie Turnbull



By Sophie Turnbull, Senior Research Associate, Centre for Academic Primary Care, University of Bristol

I have an ongoing interest in how industry and academia can work together to produce really good evidence-led products that can be accessible for the target users, and have more longevity than those produced in purely academic settings.

From experience, when we produce digital interventions in our academic bubble, they are brilliantly researched, but often not maintained in the long-term, meaning they disappear soon after the research funding stops. Or we do not have enough budget to develop something that people are going to want to use.

While exploring how academia and industry can come together to reduce inequalities in access to good quality healthcare, I discovered ZINC. ZINC runs mission-led programmes with people from across disciplines to build commercial solutions to solve some of the most pressing societal issues. I was invited to become a Fellow for ZINC, advising on novel and sustainable ways to improve access to digital healthcare for people with chronic conditions.

In this role I was introduced to Deborah Coughlin, whose mission with her company Method X Studios was to develop accessible, fun and engaging wellbeing support for people from lower income groups, who are often not usually the target market for mental health apps.

Deborah was about to launch Wakey!, an app that delivered a 9-minute morning edutainment show using content designed to communicate the underlying principles from a variety of evidence-based treatments of, and preventative strategies for, common mental disorders. Topics covered included: change and growth; energy and exercise; connection; validation/self-compassion; wellness; and routine and isolation. Content was delivered through in-app live events, engaging activities, such as challenges and competitions, and a moderated live-chat.

Deborah and I discussed ways in which research could inform the development of Wakey! and support Method X’s aims of creating evidence-led products. We subsequently planned a pragmatic mixed methods feasibility study to explore engagement with their app Wakey! and how users experienced using the app. We also conducted a Think Aloud study with people who lived in a deprived area of London (Southwark and Lambeth).

We were awarded a grant from the ESRC: Economic and Social Research Council knowledge exchange programme, to support my time overseeing the research project, and we brought Dr Mariliis Öeren on board to conduct the research. We started data collection, in parallel with the launch of the app (on Blue Monday January 20 2020).

The trial didn’t go without it’s challenges of course. Wakey! uses video to make it more accessible and entertaining. When the first COVID lockdown hit, filming was stopped. During the lockdown, the show was presented by a comedy drag queen (Ginger Johnson), a previous cast member from Love Island (Christopher Taylor), and Dr Iain Jordan who were occasionally accompanied by special guests. They quickly adapted to the restrictions, the format was re-written and the presenters began recording content from their homes.

The findings from the 12-week trial indicated that app Wakey! could potentially be engaging across different socioeconomic groups, and that it could positively impact the mental well-being of those engaged with the app. The app and its content were well received by those who were interviewed, and several people perceived a positive change in their mental well-being.

Personally, I have learnt how dynamic research needs to be outside of the academic context. I learnt that, in these contexts, you need to move quickly and be flexible, and to fulfil the needs of business it may not be necessary to produce ‘gold standard’ research.

The paper detailing the feasibility evaluation of Wakey! – ‘Improving Access to Behavioral Strategies to Improve Mental Well-being With an Entertaining Breakfast Show App: Feasibility Evaluation Study’ – is available here https://lnkd.in/dBsJvCbd.

The Wakey! app was retired after the project, but Method X have taken forward learning from the research and have developed a new product whathelped.me. This is a peer-led platform, that allows people to share stories about what helped them managing mental health issues.

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