Black Dog Institute: Self-help interactive app to help people experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm

Native cross-platform mobile app built with a customer-centered approach.

At a glance 

DiUS helped the Black Dog Institute build BrighterSide — a mobile application that acts as a self-help program to support people who are experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm. By using a customer-centered approach, the app treats the subject matter with empathy and sensitivity. The native app was built using a cross-platform framework and empowers users to receive the help they need, when and where they need it, including offline.

Our services:

Meet the Black Dog Institute

The Black Dog Institute is a not-for-profit medical research institute supporting the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mood disorders such as depression, anxiety and bipolar. It is the only medical research institute in Australia to investigate mental health and suicide prevention across the lifespan.

By integrating its research, education programs, digital tools and apps, clinical services, and public resources, the Black Dog Institute hopes to discover new solutions, foster connections, create real-world change and build a mentally healthier world.

The challenge

Putting the user first to increase accessibility and empathy

The Black Dog Institute wanted to develop an interactive self-help mobile application specifically for adults experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm. Using elements of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), the app aims to help users understand their thoughts, and develop the best skills and strategies to manage them.

Previously, the Black Dog Institute built a web version of the program, which was led by a team of clinicians. But during the product trial, uptake and engagement among users was low due to an overly structured feel and lack of accessibility. This led the Black Dog Institute to seek a partner that could build an accessible and engaging mobile product by working with the lived experience community to help with the overall design. DiUS was chosen because of our human-centered design (HCD) expertise and quality-first approach to product development.

DiUS was tasked with two specific goals: broadening the reach of the app so that it is widely adopted and accessible, and – most importantly – ensuring the app did not increase the risk to a vulnerable group of people.

What we did

Building a product that’s technically feasible and desired by users

DiUS kicked off the engagement with a three-week remote discovery to define the scope, technology and delivery plan for the minimum viable product. In parallel, the Experience Design (XD) team undertook research to collaboratively design and test the product with people from the ‘lived experience’ community.

By developing the app in conjunction with people possesing first-hand experience of suicide and self-harm mental health, we ensured that the design reflected the needs of the future users of the application. Taking a human-centred design approach also allows DiUS to focus on developing experiences rather than features.

Working with the Black Dog Institute team and the lived experience community remotely required a unique approach. This included the adoption of different research, interview and testing techniques to help reach the same results as normal face-to-face interactions while still allowing the team to embrace sensitivity and empathy.

DiUS also introduced cross-functional teams, bringing experience designers and developers together with product owners and clinicians to leverage these different perspectives to deliver a user-focused app. Working with clinicians means that the use of the app by people living with suicidal thoughts will be part of a peer-reviewed clinical trial, providing important inputs to the Black Dog Institute’s ongoing medical research and educational programs in this area.

Unique to the mobile application is its ability to function offline, with all user content and data stored locally. This was made possible with a tech stack comprising Flutter and Google Firebase, which enabled efficient development across both iOS and Android at the same time. As a result, users can access and experience the resources they need at any time, anywhere, and on any platform.

You can find out more about the steps taken in the product development journey in a blog written by our Lead Consultant on the project.

Results for the Black Dog Institute

Empowering the user to take control of their journey

Projects similar to BrighterSide typically take two years to complete. But with an MVP approach to its design and development, DiUS managed to deliver the application within a tight timeframe of just six months.

While not yet publicly available, BrighterSide has been described as ‘easy to use’, ‘flexible’ and ‘empowering’ by those chosen to test the app and provide feedback. Users feel like they own the app and are made to feel respected, as the barrier sometimes felt by those with mental health issues has been addressed with their help in crafting the language and tone.

Delivered during the pandemic, DiUS was able to leverage our remote work experience to successfully bring together a blended team that collaborated and contributed to the product build using online tools and resources.

After a randomised control trial is completed in 2021, the Black Dog Institute plans to publicly release the app and will be working with Lifeline as a supporting partner.

“DiUS is known in the industry for delivering capability uplift within the customer’s organisation. The complexity of working with clinical content and psychological strategies whilst still delivering an engaging app was key to the challenge and the value that DiUS bought to this awesome collaborative partnership..”


– Sarah Holland, Innovation Program Manager, the Black Dog Institute.

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DiUS wishes to acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we work and gather at both our Melbourne and Sydney offices. We pay respect to Elders past, present and emerging and celebrate the diversity of Aboriginal peoples and their ongoing cultures and connections to the lands and waters of Australia.

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