The Cactus and His Secret: Teaching Children Healthy Self-Talk
Designing a Product Ecosystem that Extends Beyond the Screen
What I love about design is that the end result can be quite surprising given the initial prompt. For this project my teammate and I began with the serious inquiry of how to help healthy relationships and in the end wrote a story about a cactus.
Prompt: create a product ecosystem that extends beyond the screen.
Time: 5 weeks
Teammate: Tessa Samuelson
When choosing a topic to explore for our project, Tessa and I went with what we are both continuously curious about: human relationships. As good design is meant to help bridge the gap between the present and a more ideal future, we began research with the idea that we wanted our ecosystem to aid in the creation of healthier relationships.
We started with our territory map, brainstorming our stakeholders so we could plan who to interview. Our territory map covered a broad scope.
We quickly realized that our umbrella of relationships was too large to maneuver, and that we would need a smaller scope. We chose to focus on helping individuals who struggle with negative self talk and negative thinking patterns. After all, having a healthy relationship with oneself is vital to forming healthy relationships with other people.
We referenced mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy workbooks and worksheets, resources for children’s mental wellness, and online forums such as Reddit, where individuals share anecdotal information. We also conducted interviews: four with therapists and five with peers. 
The most helpful part of the research process were the four interviews with therapists. They shared their own models of positive and negative self talk and self esteem patterns; shared strategies that they use to help clients; and referred us to other resources. 
Most impactful to our project was a framework for self-growth that one of the therapists shared. This model involves first reaching an understanding of oneself; then accepting oneself fully; and lastly, growth that is rooted in self-compassion. We built our system upon this foundation.
Honing In 
There were a few attributes that we knew we wanted to include from the beginning of ideation. First, we wanted to use plants as a metaphor in our system. Plants are a pleasant and accessible topic that offers endless metaphorical potential. Plants are also an aesthetic that we thought would suit our product. Second, we were drawn to narrative therapy as a model and in some way, wished to include storytelling. Third, we were drawn to analog experiences over digital. 
The biggest turn in our ideation process came when we chose to make the system for children rather than adults.  We had learned, after all, from our research that most negative thinking can be traced to a person’s childhood. Why not, then, strive to help people form healthy thinking patterns at an early age so that they might be more resilient as they grow into adulthood?  
Eventually, we settled on creating a storybook with a cactus as the main character. Over the course of the story, the cactus would meet various other characters who would each teach the cactus a lesson. We would also create a deck of activity cards to accompany the book. The cards would each teach a cognitive behavioral method or mindfulness method that would mirror plot points from the story and help the reader practice the lessons learned. 
Final Deliverables
The story that we wrote is called “The Cactus and his Secret.” It is best suited for children ages 6-9. It is about a cactus in a garden who is self-conscious about a weed that is growing next to him. Over the course of the story, he interacts with other plants and animals in the garden and comes to learn how to live with the weed. He also learns that all of the plants in the garden have their own weeds to contend with. The lessons that he learns are based on mindfulness techniques and cognitive behavioral therapy methods that we learned from our research. 
Our activity cards work in conjunction with the book, and they fit into three envelopes in the inside front cover. There are 30 cards total (10 for each category). The three categories are “Understanding,” “Accepting,” and “Growing.” These are based on the model of personal growth that we learned from one of the therapists who we interviewed (first comes self-understanding; then comes self-acceptance; then comes growth). The cards follow a rough progression in this way, yet they are meant to fit together, and with the story, in a fluid way to encourage exploration and play.
Given the opportunity to this project again, we would hope to make the decision to create a system for children sooner in the process, so that we could incorporate our young audience into our research approach from the beginning. It would have been beneficial to ask the therapists who we interviewed about children and negative thinking patterns specifically, and also to interview parents.
Regardless, we took on an incredibly complex topic and were able to narrow it down to something manageable. Within a week and a half’s time we wrote a script, made a storyboard, and created realistic mockups. It was a fun journey, and I believe our main ideas were conveyed clearly, even if through a lonely cactus.
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