An online platform to create long-term behaviour change
This story is about MindMatters, a world-leading online behaviour change project for mental health.
It's one of the largest, most challenging, and most successful projects we’ve ever completed.
It's an example of what you can achieve when you combine strategy, design, education, entertainment, and technology to create sustained behavioural change. (And we’re not talking about simple behaviours like flossing your teeth or turning off the air conditioner, rather complex social and emotional behaviours.)
This is a story about what you can achieve when you bring everything you've got to create a powerful online platform for social change.
How do you improve the mental health of an entire nation?
Really improve it? Not cause a temporary spike in awareness, but create a genuine, measurable, long-term increase in resilience and wellbeing, and a reduction in anxiety and depression, in 20 million people?
Beyondblue, one of Australia’s leading mental health nonprofits, wanted to use what’s called a population inoculation approach, where you administer a kind of “mental health vaccine” to every member of the population early in their lives, which would prevent mental health disorders emerging later in life.
One of the best places to catch all these young people is in secondary school, where many signs of mental illness first begin to emerge.
But what was this vaccine?
On one level, MindMatters is an online professional development program for high school staff.
It gives staff a framework they can use to create a mental health plan that's right for their school, and helps them identify simple daily steps they can take to improve school culture and well being.
Beyondblue hired us to create the entire online solution—everything from the website to the content. And they wanted something great.
We want something great!
Something that works!
The team at Beyondblue hired us to design and deliver the entire online experience for MindMatters, including the front and back end website, and 20 hours of online professional development content for secondary school staff.
For a cross-disciplinary project hoping to make a real impact, we have a pretty compelling value proposition: experience in public health and education, key staff who are ex-teachers, in-house expertise in elearning design, marketing, animation, video, game design, interactive design… and a willingness to dive deep into the content to find the right solution.
We found out months later that the MindMatters project team at Beyondblue had been told internally, "If you want people as crazy as you are, talk to Liquid Interactive."
But from our first workshop it became clear that this was more than a normal professional development program. We were asking people to buy into a vision and take daily action towards changing themselves and their communities.
That’s not creating a course, that’s building a movement.
Which was fine with us, really. We felt pretty confident. And to a certain extent it seemed straightforward. If MindMatters was going to become a social movement, it’d need:
- Strong story, so it was emotionally engaging
- Flexible structure, so you could use it as you wished
- Seamless user experience, so it felt natural and coherent
- Useful tools, so that users would keep coming back
The only real issue was this: nobody could explain to us how MindMatters works.
At the start, when we asked people on the MindMatters team at Beyondblue to explain exactly how MindMatters worked, the conversation always went along similar lines.
MindMatters is a framework for whole school positive mental health.
But what does that mean?
It means it’s not a program, that’s for sure.
It’s more a way of thinking.
But can you tell us what it is exactly? Like in concrete, practical terms, what is it?
It’s sort of a vibe.
SOME MORE CONTEXT
We’re trying to keep it simple, but if you want some fuller context: MindMatters has been around as a workshop and a kit of classroom resources for over 10 years, but beyondblue were commissioned to do a complete overhaul, updating everything from research to design, and putting it all online.
We didn’t design the website completely from scratch. We inherited a placeholder website at the start of the project, but the main nav is about all that remains of the original site.
At Liquid Interactive, we are highly content-driven. Good solutions don't come from a vacuum—they come from research, strategy and foundational content. But at the start of this project there was no content—nothing had been written except a brief outline of the structure, and that didn't go nearly as deep as we required.
MindMatters clearly meant something to people familiar with it, but how could we become familiar with it?
Looking for insight? Take a field trip.
There were schools that had been practicing the old version of MindMatters for years. We thought they must have been doing something that we could observe, something that would help us understand and describe MindMatters.
So we visited a number of schools and interviewed counselors and deputies who generously gave us their time and their stories.
We were amazed at how passionate people were about the old framework, how helpful it had been for their schools, and how excited they were about the possibilities of a new online initiative.
After our field trip, we felt much happier. We definitely had a stronger sense of what MindMatters was.
The only issue was now, we couldn’t explain it either.
MindMatters really was a vibe. Seriously—it was a way of thinking, it was a conceptual framework. It influenced what you did, but you couldn’t point to specific actions and say, “That is MindMatters.”
And that was a big problem for us.
MindMatters was a vibe. How were we going to show a vibe?
Evocative boxes and inscrutable labels: Outlining the solution
Although we still couldn’t define MindMatters in a way that satisfied us, our field trips did help us see how the MindMatters website would fit together.
The overall architecture came together very quickly, and in its own way it was beautiful: a simple diagram that fit on one whiteboard.
At the top we’ve got an ad telling you how MindMatters will change your school. Then we’ve got a narrative that runs across the whole framework, showing what a mentally healthy school looks like. Under that we’ve got individual modules with loosely coupled resources, it’s all completely flexible. And finally we have this connective tissue of social and data tools so that schools can measure their progress, to keep them coming back over time.
This case study focuses on the content production for MindMatters, but the web development project was huge in its own right.
The website is a sophisticated learning and development environment, with subtle features designed to enhance retention and engagement, and powerful tools for schools to use when developing and measuring their mental health strategy.
It was so clear. So perfect.
But still—all these evocatively-labeled boxes needed to be filled with actual real-life content, and it was far from clear what that content was going to be.
The shark becomes a goldfish: Making the abstract concrete
It was clear from the start that we needed to explain a range of abstract concepts, and one of the best ways to do that is with animation. So one of the first content streams we started working on was an animation series, voiced by comedian and presenter Adam Spencer, called MindMatters in Minutes.
PDF’S ARE WAY HARDER THAN PEOPLE THINK
Of all things that would turn out to be really difficult, you wouldn’t think it’d be a bunch of PDFs—but there you have it.
As much as we had grand plans for rich media, we also wanted to give users solid reference documentation containing all the substance, the research, and the practical details in the form of some fun, well-designed PDFs.
The challenge was that MindMatters had such a short delivery timeframe that everyone and everything had had to start simultaneously. (We have a whole case study about the perils of this kind of mass starts.)
This meant that our core reference documents were being drafted by a range of mental health service providers—and we weren’t going to see drafts for months.
Once the reference documents finally began to come in, we spent time restructuring and rewriting the content to make them fit the MindMatters tone and voice.
We got there eventually, but jeez—in the digital industry you don’t get much credit for producing a good PDF, and it’s much harder than it looks.
We used a funny, anything-goes, collage style, which helped us pack a wealth amount of information into a tiny space.
We prototyped with a single episode titled What is Mental Health?, and feedback from beyondblue was that this was ‘the best description of mental health ever!’—one of those rare moments where you get it right first time.
That early win was vital because it gave confidence to everyone both at Liquid and beyondblue, and we needed all the confidence we could get for the next part of the process, which was finding a way to show “the MindMatters vibe” in practice.
First, we tried documentary
WE NEED TO THANK SOME SCHOOLS
You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to coordinate video production in an operating school.
Our eternal thanks go to staff and students at Southport and Victoria Point State High Schools for letting us run riot through their schools at extremely short notice.
And we don’t even have space to list all the other schools who gave up time on the phone and filling in surveys to help us find good stories.
Vibe or no vibe, we needed to show MindMatters in practice.
As part of our project plan we had allocated a couple of months to experimenting with different approaches to content, so we started with the most obvious approach: documentary.
But MindMatters is about positive mental health, and we quickly realized that one of the main reasons why nobody could explain how MindMatters worked was because positive mental health doesn’t look like anything—it just looks like normal life.
Despite having an excellent crew and willing subjects, our documentary footage was less than compelling.
We couldn’t see it igniting a social movement, so we changed course.
Second, we tried drama
OUR POOR, OVERLOADED CHARACTERS
One of the problems with this type of drama is you have a small pool of characters but you want to show so many situations and issues, so everyone gets overloaded.
We had a golden-boy prefect who had taken on too many subjects in order to please his parents and was struggling with his sexuality. On the prefect’s rugby team was an aboriginal kid who was being bullied for being gay even though he was straight, and he was emotionally supporting his girlfriend who was wagging school because she was struggling academically because her mother had died, and her father was an abusive alcoholic, and she was caring for her sick grandmother.
And don’t get us started about the teachers!
Figuring we needed more impact and control, we started writing a hard-hitting, gritty, teenage drama—with a non-linear structure.
Multiple points of view, like Go!
Alternative timelines, like Sliding Doors!
And we didn’t stop there. We also designed an interactive heads-up display for the video: it was going to be so cool.
Then we did a preliminary budget, saw how much it was going to cost, and we chucked it all in the bin.
Now we had a problem. We’ve tried the obvious options. Neither worked.
We needed a third way.
In the belly of the whale
We believe in content-led, research-led, iterative design. When the solution becomes clear quickly, this process is fun. But when it doesn’t become clear, then the process can really test your nerves, and it takes a lot of discipline to stick to the plan and keep searching for the answer.
On MindMatters we had started out so well—and we were going great guns on the website, interactive elements, animations, the downloadable resources— but time was running out and we still hadn’t found a way to show the framework in action.
We were in the belly of the beast.
We needed a breakthrough.
One of the principles in MindMatters is that community builds resilience. So we flew down to beyondblue for a "we're not leaving until we have an answer" workshop.
THE BIZARRE THING IS…
Comedy ideas had been there from the beginning!
We’d discussed a bunch of comic approaches in the first two weeks of the project, including a series of sketches based on “dodgy advice”, and comedy is obviously in the DNA of the animations—so why was a return to comedy for the videos such a big a-ha moment?
What’s hard to capture here is how many small challenges, concerns and decisions—over many months—led us to digging our own hole. It all seems obvious now, but at the time there were so many variables across content, budget, timeframes and logistics that we were constantly struggling to find something that worked.
The return to comedy came as a result of trying and failing at every other option.
But here’s the thing—we came back to this point, we had a much better understanding of what the comedy should do and why.
So comedy might have been obvious from the start, but the heightened world of Eagleton High was very hard won.
With us we carried one last plan, a return to documentary, but using the heads-up display idea from the drama—but then somebody said something that changed everything.
"Can't we just do something funny?"
Sometimes you dig yourself so far into a hole that you don’t even realize you’re in a hole at all, you just think it's the nature of the world to be dark and small and dirty. And then you get yanked out and suddenly see the world in a whole new way.
By this stage we were running late, so everything that happened next, happened fast.
We went back to Brisbane, and over the next few weeks we came up with two video concepts, a sort of yin and yang which together made a whole.
The Eagleton Way
HALF A FEATURE FILM
All up we created about 60 minutes of Eagleton content, which is half a feature film.
We had some of the best actors and crew in the Australian industry, and the kids were all volunteers from the school. On the biggest shoot day we had over 90 people on set.
Scriptwriting and preproduction (including casting, location scouting, crew hire, production of props, costumes, everything) took six weeks, the actual shoot was one week, and post production was about eight weeks.
First, if we couldn’t show what MindMatters was, we’d show what it wasn't.
The Eagleton Way became a series of comedy sketches about an enthusiastic deputy principal who keeps creating mental health schemes just at the edge of plausibility.
Our original intent was to highlight common misconceptions or oversights, but as we wrote the scripts it became clear there was a lot more to it than that.
A NOD TO PARKS AND REC
When we started talking about “deputy with a scheme” and a mockumentary approach, we very quickly converged on Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation as a role model.
Parks and Rec use exactly the same formula of, “Here’s this problem situation, so what we came up with is…” And Leslie is a great example of how to have a wide-eyed, good-hearted enthusiast who is also capable of being at times bone-headed and disrespectful.
Calling our school Eagleton High was our tribute to that great show.
The point of MindMatters is to get schools thinking critically and creatively about mental health, and The Eagleton Way became a creative wedge designed to break open new ways of thinking for the audience.
Through this heightened world we create a sense of carnival, ditching all the heavy baggage around mental health and showing that positive mental health can be playful and friendly; it should encourage experimentation and creativity; it should be humane and warm.
By showing the world as it wasn't, we got much closer to showing the world as it should be.
The MindMatters Panel
Eagleton was great, but we still needed to provide real-life, practical, advice to schools.
We realized on the documentary shoot that we could get interesting conversations by pairing unusual people—such as school staff with mental health experts. The problem was the logistics of getting these combinations of people together in different schools around Australia in given timeframes and budgets.
So we flipped the problem on its head.
Instead of going out to all these schools, we’d bring everyone to a central studio. Instead of doing interviews, we’d host a discussion. Instead of filming documentary, we’d stage a chat show.
The MindMatters Panel was our second big production, the yin to Eagleton’s yang, a full-on TV-quality multicam studio shoot, hosted by Julia Zemiro, set design by Peter Disney, shot at the ABC studios in Melbourne.
We had over 20 guests in half a dozen panels, made up of combinations of mental health experts, school staff, students and parents. The panel format let us cover a huge amount of content in a way that was warm, fun and personal.
The panel show grounds the Eagleton Way videos. Staff, students and parents share their stories, while the mental health experts speak with passion and vigour.
We had some of the top people in the mental health sector on the panel, and they walked off set saying, "This is probably the best public discussion on mental health I’ve ever been involved in."
We couldn’t have been more proud.
Changing the world
If you’ve read this far, good for you. Believe it or not, this epic case study has only scratched the surface of the MindMatters project.
What happened in the end? Did MindMatters change the world?
We pushed back the launch of the new MindMatters by three months so that we could get it right, but it still surpassed everyone’s expectations. The official launch was hosted by former Premiere Jeff Kennett and former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who called the project "world class".
Three months after launch we have nearly 500 schools participating, and goal to reach 1500 schools within the next 12 months. Feedback from school staff has been overwhelmingly positive, with some schools writing to beyondblue to say MindMatters is the best professional development they’ve done in years.
WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER
This case study tells the story of one of the biggest struggles we had with MindMatters, and one of the biggest successes. This was only possible because the core MindMatters team at beyondblue—you could count them on one hand—were committed to doing something that really, truly worked.
They didn’t know what that would look like, and neither did we. Collectively we had some loose ideas, we knew the shape of it, but actually making it a reality meant that we all had to go on a long journey, with a lot of uncertainty and experimentation, and we had to go on it together.
Through this entire process we worked incredibly closely. If we’d been in the same state we would have moved in together, but as it was we flew to each other’s offices every few weeks, we were constantly on phone and email, and we worked through every important deliverable as a group.
The great final result is a testament to the commitment, hard work, and courage of everyone involved.
Have we created our social movement? Not yet, but we’ve set everything in motion.
We’ve created an amazing platform with plans to grow. We’ve created a rich world in which people can play and explore. We think there’s more to be done to push it further, get more people engaged, but these things take time. A genuine social movement, one that lasts, doesn’t fire up overnight. It builds slowly, compounding in force.
We hope that’s what we’ve started.
Check back in June 2016 and we’ll let you know.
Update July 2016
As of July 2016 MindMatters has 1380 participating schools, over 23,000 staff have created accounts and completed 40,000 modules (with a lot more incidental consumption of content that is not captured in those figures).
That’s not quite the 1500 target we were aiming for, but the number of schools grows by about 20 per week, so if that stays on track we’ll be over the line by the end of third term.