Overcoming MS is an iOS application that makes following the Overcoming MS non-profit’s lifestyle plan simple and easy. The app is currently in beta and will be available on the App Store in Fall or Winter 2019.

A demo video we made for our final presentation.

How did this start?
Multiple sclerosis is a rare disease that can be difficult to live with without constant treatment and management. At this time, there is still no cure for the disease, which makes it a lifelong challenge.
However, there have been some amazing organizations working to make living with MS easier. In the past decade, a non-profit called Overcoming MS has developed a holistic lifestyle program that has been scientifically proven to reduce the severity of symptoms in those with MS. But like with any long-term lifestyle program, changing your habits is difficult.
Overcoming MS reached out to Drexel University to see if a team of seniors would be willing to help with this problem, and my classmates and I happily obliged.

A short and informative video explaining the OMS Plan and overall philosophy.

The OMS plan is a 7-step program that includes: diet, sunlight, exercise, meditation, medication, prevention, and connecting with others. The diet is the most important part of the program, which is a plant and fish based diet. If you'd like to learn more about the research behind the program, the concise video above is a great place to start.

How is anyone supposed to manage all of this?

According to Overcoming MS, new members struggle to adapt to all of the lifestyle changes that program requires, like the restrictive diet and meditation practice. Especially if you have been recently diagnosed with MS, adjusting to both the disease and these changes can be overwhelming.
Create a digital solution that reduces the friction of following the program for its thousands of members.
My role on the project was both as a Design Manager and UX Designer. Our cross-collaborative team from both the Design and Computer Science schools at Drexel included 11 people, which broke down into:
2 Design Managers / UX Designers
1 Lead UX Researcher
2 UX Researchers (also helped with Content Strategy, QA, etc.)
1 UX Engineer
2 Development Managers
3 Software Engineers
As a Design Manager, my role was to organize both our own internal goals as well as deliverables needed for the class itself, such as timesheets and weekly summaries. Coordinating with the Development Managers and communicating expectations was also a large part of the process.
As a UX Designer, my job was to take findings from our researchers and develop solutions in the form of user flows, sketches, or low-to-high level mockups, and sit it on testing sessions to understand what did and didn’t work.

Meeting early on to discuss our priorities in research.

As early as possible, we defined our research process and started interviewing as many people as we could. This was the part of the research I was mostly heavily involved in, since these deliverables were needed before I could begin my main responsibilities of designing a solution. I had some important questions like: What parts of the program did they find most difficult? What systems did they have to self-manage it currently? As a designer, these findings would help me settle on what was the most important pain points that users of the program had, and that we as a team could most effectively target in our application.

Interviewing someone early in the morning from the UK!

Finding research participants was tough, because the number of people on the program isn’t incredibly high at this time. We also attempted sending out online forms and questionnaires to communities involved with OMS, but feedback on these was low and we ceased those efforts.

Organizing our main findings from interviews.

Most of our information in this phase came from remote qualitative interviews. We would talk to people from the US, UK, and Australia over Skype and asked them a series of questions that allowed us to gradually develop a persona of who we were designing for. Based on these interviews, we found that people who have been on the program for a long time generally developed successful habits, but new members consistently lost track of what needed to be accomplished each day to follow the program.

A panorama of our meeting at the end of the preliminary research process.

Based on all of the brilliant work the researchers on our team had spearheaded, we were now ready to start defining our solution.
A digital app targeted towards new OMS members that allows them to track each step of the program, access special tools to make it easier to perform these steps, record symptoms, and learn more about both multiple sclerosis and the program, all designed to streamline the process of adjusting to this lifestyle. 

Meeting with our stakeholder Alex to discuss our initial ideas for the app.

We ran a lot of whiteboarding and sketching sessions, with both designers and researchers present, to generate as many ideas as possible. We knew that one of the most requested features was the ability to quickly see what needed to be done on the program on a daily basis, so we seemed to settle early on a to-do list style home page that presented all of this immediately and clearly.

Our long list of rules, tips, and things to watch out for before we started sketching/wireframing.

We also had generated a list of design concerns specific to accessibility for people with MS that drove our process; an example of this being that people with MS who have muscular issues can sometimes struggle to touch where they meant to. Because of this, we wanted to focus on a consistent design style and large input areas wherever possible. So across our app, much of the major navigation is located in the bottom half of the screen, where it is easily accessible.

Our first whiteboarding session, coming up with both possible features and a general layout of the app. Just throwing everything at the board and seeing what sticks!

After establishing these driving principles, the next step was fleshing out the features of the app. My co-designer and I knew this app needed to grow with the user; a new member is going to be dependent on different parts of the app compared to someone who has been on it for a couple of months, and if we alienate someone along this process it might jeopardize their success. This insight lead to our Overlay system, which allows experienced users to Quick Complete a step from the Home page if they are experienced and doesn’t need help (think someone who has a pillbox and doesn’t need to check medications off individually). Opposite of that, new users can access specific tools in the Overlay by pressing on the progress bar itself, examples of which includes timers and guided meditations.

The result of our initial design sprint on the right, and our first major update on the left.

One example of the benefits of the Overlay system can be seen with the Food section, which was one of the most requested features. Like MyFitnessPal, users will be able to scan the barcodes of foods, but instead of seeing calories they’ll see important parts of the OMS diet like saturated fat and Omega-3.

Our color scheme came together quickly, but it changed the way we thought about the app and how users would treat it.

As we pushed from low-fidelity to mid-fidelity mockups, we had to be careful about our use of color since many people with MS can develop color-blindness. We had to make sure none of our designs communicated anything with color that couldn’t be understood in grayscale. This eventually led us to our multicolor palette, where each step was assigned a specific color giving a unique feel to that part of the application. We would only then communicate actions by specific text and iconography on top of changing the brightness of the color (ex. Confirm being darker than Back).

An example of a presentation our researchers would give us after a round of testing, making it incredibly easy to know what to focus on in design improvements the next couple of weeks.

Something we learned early on in testing was that we had framed our sources of motivation incorrectly. We falsely believed that the motivation came from the act of inputting your data into the app, when in actuality, this was more of a signal that the user was already motivated (which is backed up by studies about other self-tracking apps such as this). And unlike other self-tracking apps, our users were already self-motivated to reduce their symptoms, and needed more of a management system than a life coach.

How we changed our Food section as we received feedback from testing that users didn't understand what it all meant.

This gave us an opportunity to simplify parts of the app. For example, we originally asked the user to track how much saturated fat they were intaking, because that is a major diet restriction people following the OMS plan must pay attention to. However, we found through testing that this just added an extra layer of complexity that didn’t exist before and confused the users. In the Winter quarter, the Food section was updated to be a more holistic educational tool, where users could search or scan the barcodes of food they may be eating to see if it fits the OMS diet, rather than keeping an extensive food log.

Keeping a tally of how many days they completed all goals will remove the anxiety about failing on any given day, but the new streak of entering any data on a given day still encourages them to do their best.

In this same theme, we also learned more about how proven design patterns don’t necessarily cross over to those with special cases such as ours. For example, we initially kept a streak of how many days in a row someone has completed their goals to keep them coming back each day, a common design choice in this area; however, some and our users expressed frustration with this part of the app. They mentioned to us that sometimes they might have a symptom relapse and can’t complete many parts of the app, which means our app would be punishing them for something they can’t control. We reframed this part of the app from “complete everything each day” to “do your best each day” by splitting this streak into a streak for entering any data that day and a general tally for days where all goals are completed.

Symptoms is a feature we didn't initially know we needed but was requested by a lot of our users during our testing phase.

One part of our app that would probably be considered a late addition was called Symptoms. Simply, based on a part of our app where users could take notes, many expressed in testing that they wished this feature was expanded into a more cumulative list so that they could keep track themselves and show their doctors. We added a Severity rating so that they could more easily track what they needed to pay attention to.
All of this helped us finalize the app in the middle of Spring quarter as our developers needed us to lock-in the app’s design and features.
At this point, most of my work as a designer was done, and my focus turned to working with our UX Engineer and other developers on clarifying and prioritizing work we had done up to that point.

My team and I after presenting.

Last but not least, we presented our work in front of an audience of 200 to 300 people at our Design Senior Showcase!
While I learned a lot as a designer on this project, I also learned a lot as an inexperienced manager, which gave me a better perspective on how larger projects work in the real world.
Dream big but scope realistically. Two large parts of our app went unfinished because we had unrealistic expectations on what was achievable. If we had focused on what we knew was achievable and absolutely necessary and then expanded on that, it would have saved us a lot of stress at the end of the project when we came to these realizations.
Best ideas come from the users. I've never done more usability testing on a project than on this one, and the power of crowdsourcing your design process made a large impression on me. I always believed in the benefit of usability testing, but in this case the context was more personal, which lead to some amazing insights.
Focus more on accessibility than you think you have to. I would have separated accessibility testing from the rest of our usability testing so that I could be sure we didn’t miss anything.
“Overcoming MS is a global nonprofit that educates and empowers people with MS around the world about diet and lifestyle changes they can make to improve their health outcomes. We had been contemplating the urgent need to develop a comprehensive smartphone app that would make it easier for people to adopt and stick to our evidence-based program, and fortunately for us, we were selected by an amazing group of Drexel University students as their senior thesis project. From the start, it was hard to imagine we were working with a group of students. The Design and Computer Science teams conducted the development process with unparalleled professionalism, dedication and creativity.
The Design team dove into the complexities of MS, and the intricacies of the lifestyle changes that our program recommends. They conducted dozens of interviews with people around the world, from those on our program to medical professionals, in order to form a solid foundation on which to develop numerous iterations of UX and UI design that would most effectively accomplish the app’s goals of helping people with MS adhere to a wide range of lifestyle modifications. They collaborated seamlessly with the excellent team of programmers that comprised the Computer Science team, and who translated the front-end requirements into highly functional code. The entire effort was kept on track by super project management on both sides of the development coin. Throughout the process, the two groups worked together in close coordination in order to anticipate issues before they become problematic, come up with creative user-friendly workarounds, and ultimately produce an app that will undoubtedly make a positive impact on thousands of lives.
We at Overcoming MS were thoroughly impressed with the entire team’s performance and commitment to the project they had embraced, and we are ever grateful. We were not working with students; we were working with young professionals whose contributions went well beyond a student project. We would happily offer the highest reference for each and every member of the team, and we know an employer who hires any of these 11 amazing students will quickly see the extent of their talent and know how.”
- Alex Twersky, Global Marketing & Communications Manager for OMS

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