Interactive Product Design & Computing Project
@ ZJU Information Technology & Creative Design Course

In the course project, I led a team of 3 to design and prototype hardware for PillPal, an interactive pillbox for patients with depression, to help them get better. Based on our research, we integrated medication treatment and Behavioral Activation Therapy into a gamification process.

Hardware Development Kits
Product Manager
UX Designer
Prototype Developer
April - June, 2020
Rachel Zhang, Ye Yan


How might we assist depression patients with more effective medication & psychological aid?


When most smart pillbox products on the market today are aimed at the elderly, there is another huge group who need to take medicine regularly — patients with depression.
According to 2020 Chinese Depression Patients Survey Report:


depression patients in China


pofessionals & college students


recurrence rate

Medication Discontinuation

the main cause of recurrence

The treatment of depression includes medication and psychotherapy, both of which face difficulties:
Depression patients are prone to relapse, if they don't take medicine on time and regularly.
Some depression patients lose motivation and action for active treatment.
Psychotherapy largely depends on external assistance. Patient cannot do it alone.


Make a pillbox like a game console
PillPal is a game-like pillbox to help depression patients get better, by transfering medication treatment and Behavioral Activation Therapy (BAT) to a positive cycle through gamification.

A container a day, keep the wrong dose away

Overdose of antidepressants can cause great side effects. A container a day, specifying what medications to take every day.

Set a personal medication reminder flexibly

The frequency of medication will be flexibly changed according to the condition.
Every start of a week, the user put in pills, set the frequency and time of medication. PillPal will remind the user to take medicine by ringing.

Take a small step for heath
every day

PillPal encourages users to do some tasks that benefits their physical and mental health, relating to exercises, diet, emotion and habits.
It pushes 5 small health tasks including taking medicine to users every day.

Get motivated and connected
by receiving kind words and passing them on

We let users send each other good words as rewards for completing tasks, in hope of building a connection that ‘We are working tother to overcome this disease, I am not alone’.


I led the team through the whole process of research, design, and development.


In order to identify existing problems and understand the depression treatment, we did extensive research from various aspects. We:
  • reviewed Chinese depression patients survey reports in recent 2 years
  • read 20 self-reports of patients with depression on the Internet
  • consulted 2 psychological experts
  • interviewed a patient with depression


In our research, we uncovered some key insights into depression treatment that helped us narrow down the problem and inspired our design.

1. What accounts for patients' failure to take their medications on time?
As mentioned in the problem section, a huge problem depression treatment meets is patients don't take medicine on time and regularly, which leads to recurrence. Though our research, we found the factors behind this fact.


Depression patients are mostly professionals and students, who often go on busness or travel.


The depression medication plan often changes according to
the condition.


Depression patients don't want people around them to know about their condition.


Some patients resist taking medicine, for worringing about side effects from overdose.

2. How psychotherapy works?
We wanted to know what are the main methods of psychotherapy and how they affect patients, so as to provide inspiration and theoretical basis for our design. Generally, we found psychotherapy includes the following aspects.
  • Education: The individual recognizes the relationship between cognition, emotion and behavior.
  • Behavioral Activation: Increase the individual’s physical activity and participation in social and other beneficial activities.
  • Cognitive Connection: Develop and practice some cognitive or behavioral strategies to help you conduct behavioral hypothesis tests or cope with previous problem situations.
  • Hypothesis Testing: Individuals consciously test the validity of their negative hypotheses and reject these hypotheses.

3. Among them, Behavioral Activation (BA) less need experts face-to-face guidance and more depend on the patient's own execution.
We found 3 useful insights behind Behavioral Activation (BA):

Doing things we enjoy
gives us feelings of pleasure
Challenging ourselves means that we have a chance to grow, develop, and provide us with a sense of mastery
Having positive relationships
with other people makes us feel
valued and connected


Narrow down the problem
Since BA is more depend on the patient's own execution, we choose it as our main refered method. Based on the problem space and the insights about BA, we broke the problem into 4 How Might We
  • How might we let users take medicine at the correct dose and time?
  • How might we relieve users' anxiety about the disease and improve treatment motivation?
  • How might we activate them to do beneficial activities?
  • How might we help users gain a sense of mastery and connection?


Inspired by research insights, we had the idea to intergrate BA into the pillbox

Based on BA, we came up with the idea of presenting a task list on the pillbox, which helps patients schedule and carries out health tasks to boost their experience of pleature and mastery.

In addition to simple activation, we though of using a game-like reward mechanism to promote circulation.


To consider our concept in an user scenario, we created a storyboard.

1 Mike is suffering from depression and becomes less active. He often feels depressed and loses interest in anything.
2 But he still has the hope of aggressive treatment and getting better, so he tries PillPal.
3 He puts the pills in PillPal and sets weekly medication time.
4 Periodically, PillPal will remind him it's time to take medicine.
5 He takes the pills and presses the bu- tton to finish the medicine task.
6 Some kind words from other people with depression show on PillPal.
7 Also, it provides some little health tasks to do.
8 Mike feels motivated and starts to perform some of these small tasks.
9 Every time he completes a task, kind words will be displayed. And he also can send kind words to other patients.


Structure & UI


Select development kits according to requirements

Considering the functions of our pillbox are lightweight, and we wanted it to be as small and portable as possible, we used 01Studio's pyWiFi-ESP32 MicroPython development board.

After confirming the development hardware, we iterated our design according to its size and shape.

3D Modeling, Printing & Hardware Development


What I learn
PillPal is my first project that follows design thinking approach. Mental health is one of the subjects I've always wanted to research. When reading self-reports of those patients, it was as if I felt the same way. Designing for them means a lot to me.

Also, this is the first time we have used the development board to make a physical product, including hardware selection, 3D modeling and assembly. Unfortunately, our hardware did not support touch screen. It is relatively slow due to its memory display and screen refresh, which leads to the long menu selection process of the pill box.

Future Steps
The next step is to recruit users to test our prototype and get feedback about the interaction design and our concept. Also, we need to further evaluate whether our product helps in depression treatment, such as testing whether it will make users take medicine on time.