Fighting Depression With Moodtune

There’s a whole realm of possibilities in the digital area that we haven’t tackled yet, and a lot of interesting science is suggesting that we’re not even imagining a little bit of what technology is capable of. For many of us, technology is a way of living or a way of simplifying our lives, but what happens when it really helps us live?

That’s why I was so excited when I first heard about Moodtune. This is an app that’s designed to help conquer depression, and I don’t use the word design loosely. My conversations with the folks behind the app at BrainTracer lead me to believe that they really know what they’re talking about, and some of what’s going on behind the scenes is fascinating. But the real question is: How is an app like Moodtune going to help you? And can it help you? Will you want to use the app enough to turn it into a healthy habit? Read on to find out.

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Fighting Depression With an iPhone

This is such a novel concept to me, and I have to admit, it’s one that I haven’t quite wrapped my head around. But I have to applaud BrainTracer for doing what is tremendously important work right off the bat: Apps like these make a difference in people’s lives.

With that in mind, I’m being careful of what I disclose. Revealing too much could influence the way you use the app.

The app includes a page about the science behind it.

The app includes a page about the science behind it.

The most important part of the equation is the science. To BrainTracer’s credit, they’ve provided a Science page on their website and even a research section on the website as well, so you can take a look through their silence.

At the end of the day, any research in this field is going to have a set of detractors who want nothing to do with it and think it’s all wrong. I’m fascinated by it. As somebody who spent their high school career depressed and was suicidal throughout much of his early university career, any science that can help find a cure for depression is good science.

The app tracks results as you use it, but you have to complete your chosen task in order to see any progress. And that takes 30 minutes or so.

The app tracks results as you use it, but you have to complete your chosen task in order to see any progress. And that takes 30 minutes or so.

Do I think the app works? Well, it’s hard for me to say. I’m certainly not a psychologist, although I did take a couple courses. And although I don’t often identify myself as a happy person, I haven’t been suicidally depressed for quite some time — years, in fact — but I still have days where I don’t want to get out of bed. Days when I’m not sure how to get up and face the world. And based on the research BrainTracer has provided, I believe it might help.

How It Works

Moodtune is sort of like a game, but it’s not exactly the most enjoyable game I’ve ever played. You’re going to choose from a selection of recognition-based games that play like digital versions and variations of word association. The games can’t be paused, and you’ll need about 30 minutes to play each one. It’s a bit of an exercise in tedium, but it’s also rewarding by the time you’re done.

The games are interesting and challenging.

The games are interesting and challenging.

You’re supposed to play one of these games every day, if time permits, and then your progress is going to be tracked. There are “right” and “wrong” answers for each question. Essentially, you’re retraining the neural connectors in your brain for more positive word associations. You’ll learn to recognize “sad” more quickly as a negative word, as one example.

If you see a word like Carefree after this, hit the "No" button because it's not negative. The games are easy to grasp, but you'll be surprised at how difficult they might be to play.

If you see a word like Carefree after this, hit the “No” button because it’s not negative. The games are easy to grasp, but you’ll be surprised at how difficult they might be to play.

By playing an activity every day (but not necessarily the same one every day), the app suggests you’ll feel an improvement in your symptoms after a short time. “Short time” is vaguely defined, but I think that’s because the time will likely variate from one person to the next.

The instructions for the app could be a little clearer. For example, the Welcome screen upon boot-up provides a list of instructions, but I wish it instead delivered them over a couple tappable screens. As it is, it doesn’t look like a list, so I tapped the Continue button and missed half the instructions the first couple times.

Communicating Awareness

Communication is really the only thing the app struggles with. I don’t know much more than most users do, but I do know that some of what the developer and I have discussed isn’t communicated as clearly as it could be in the app.

The app's instructions could be a bit clearer, but there's a fine line between giving the user too much information or not enough and Moodtune can't cross in either direction.

The app’s instructions could be a bit clearer, but there’s a fine line between giving the user too much information or not enough and Moodtune can’t cross in either direction.

The app is unusual, which makes sense given the topic at hand, but there are no assurances to the user that the app is bug-free. I asked the developer, and it is bug-free, but I’m not able to reveal any more details than that without affecting the way the app works. But before I asked, I was certain — horrified, actually — that the app was occasionally broken. The bottom line is that it’s not, but I do wish there was a way to communicate this better in the app.

And for $90, I do feel the need to illustrate that the app has to be perfect. This isn’t cheap. Therapy, of course, isn’t traditionally inexpensive either, but this is the first app I’ve reviewed that costs over $30 or $40, let alone $90. Expectations for a price range of this magnitude are much, much higher.

Designing for Usability

The other problem with the app is that the design is a little bland. I don’t need it to be filled with rainbows or transparent information overlays, but I do wish that BrainTracer had spent a little bit more time on the menus. Presentation is three quarters of the meal sometimes, and in this case, an additional sense of polish would really help me as a user know that the developer is in complete control of the app and knows what they’re doing.

As far as aesthetics go, Moodtune won't be winning any awards.

As far as aesthetics go, Moodtune won’t be winning any awards.

Without mincing words, the app looks like an iPhone app designed with Windows XP’s visual aesthetics. The buttons are very blue-on-white and bland. Rounding the corners of rectangles would make a great deal of difference in terms of how I perceive the app, and it’s a very little thing.

Breaking It Down

At the end of the day, this is what has been described to me as the “first [useable] prototype.” It’s not a beta, because the science is there and because it works and it’s bug-free, but the folks at BrainTracer are very interested in where they can take the app in the future. They want to keep improving it with time.

And although there’s room for improvement, I think they’re off to a very interesting start. This is the sort of app that I file under “tremendously important,” but I’m not ready to whole-heartedly endorse it yet. I want to see where it goes, but I do encourage anybody who struggles with depression to give it a shot and keep at it. It’d be very interesting to see if this does work for anybody, or at least help. What do you think? Does Moodtune intrigue you or do you think the app is far to the left of what’s possible with technology? Let us, and BrainTracer, know your thoughts in the comments.


Summary

Moodtune is a really interesting app that I hope gets better with time, but the $90 price is a tough pill to swallow when it's not completely perfect.

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