Select Page

PTSD Sleep App

A sleep aid app that aims to assist those with PTSD to achieve better sleep, deal with nightmares, and be more mindful through a healthier sleep schedule, a paired sunlight lamp with comforting light displays, and relaxing white noise. 

The Problem: Many people with PTSD and mental health issues struggle with nightmares and poor sleep.


The Approach: Designing a mobile app and paired sunlight lamp that can help promote healthier sleep.



  • Research how people with PTSD struggle with nightmares and sleep.
  • Determine how a mixture of planning, light, and sound can possibly assist with those struggles.
  • Design an app and device that can assist those with PTSD with sleep health.


Tools: Paper prototyping, Balsamiq, Photoshop, Google Docs.


The Process


Among my group, a signifigant amount of research was done before design started. One member did an interview with a friend that struggled with PTSD-induced nightmares. Other sources reseached were the Pew Research Center’s mental health studies, the Journal of Clinical Medicine’s PTSD treatment studies,  the Mayo Clinic’s work on night terrors, and the National Institute of Mental Health.


My group and I did many initial sketches for our ideas about this app and a response to PTSD nightmares. We considered lamp designs, app functionality, app layout, general user experience, lamp pairing with your device, and what lights and sounds the lamp might provide. 


Our group then created high-fiedlity and physical prototypes of the app and the lamp itself. We began by making a Balsamiq interactive prototype of the app and its interface, as well as creating a physical prototype of the lamp and examples of the lights it might display. 


After the prototypes were created, user testing was performed. User testing measured app usability, response to the interface, interest in the light and sound settings, reactions to the sunlight lamp, reactions to the different soundscapes, and general impressions of the device pairings.


When testing was completed, the findings were taken into consideration and the design of both the app and lamp were iterated. 

Phase 1: Problem Definition & Research

With PTSD, I have trouble sleeping. When I do sleep, it’s awful… PTSD doesn’t just happen when someone goes to war.

Primary Research

Research began with an interview conducted by a group member, Jenny, with a woman who suffers from PTSD that impacts her sleep. As far as the impacts of PTSD on her sleep, the interviewee said:

I’m irritable. I don’t want to talk to other people at work. I am constantly dozing off at work. Don’t tell my boss. I’m unhappy with myself and where I am at life. I lash out at people I love. I’ve dealt with lots of suicidal thoughts because I just wanted a break from all of the negative thoughts in my head.

When discussing ideal treatment, the interviewee discussed noise and light:

Something that combines white noise and calming lights. I like white noise a lot, it helps me feel more calm. I don’t like music or crickets or rain noises. I like pulsing lights. I usually think about the orbs of lights when I go to bed to calm myself down, but it would help immensely if I could physically see them as well.

Secondary Research

Secondary research was performed by looking into a variety of medial studies and sites, including the Pew Research Center’s mental health studies, the Journal of Clinical Medicine’s PTSD treatment studies,  the Mayo Clinic’s work on night terrors, and the National Institute of Mental Health.

Research has shown that posttraumatic nightmares are among the most common symptoms in PTSD patients: up to 60-80% of PTSD patients suffer from them.

Sleep disturbance was reported as the most intrustive and disruptive PTSD sympton, and was chosen as the focus of our app. 

Phase 2:  Sketches & Wireframes

10x10 Sketching

The first step of the sketching process was to create 10x10 sketches. This is a process where you create 10 initial sketches, choose two of those designs, and create 10 more sketches of those chosen designs to narrow down on your final product and iterate on early designs. We focused on app interactions and lamp design. 

A 10x10 sketch created by my teammate, Jenny

A 10x10 sketch focused on the lamp by another teammate, Andy.


After a group discussion about design, I created the first initial sketch of the app, including onboarding and user interfaces.

Phase 3: Initial Prototype & Informal Test

After sketching was completed, we began designing an interactive digital prototype in Balsamiq. 

Cognitive Walkthrough Testing

A cognitive walkthrough was completed to test the paper prototype. Four user goals were broken down into individual steps. The steps were then assessed based on the following questions:


  • Will the user understand how to start the task? Will the user try and achieve the right outcome?
  • Will the user notice that the correct action is available to them?
  • Will the user associate the correct action with the outcome they expect to achieve?
  • If the correct action is performed; will the user see that progress is being made towards their intended outcome?


Key findings from the walkthrough are:


  • The progress bar displayed on screen 2b can be carried over to screen 3a so the user has clear feedback that they have completed the registration/new account creation process.
  • Further feedback could be provided to user when the application is connecting to the lamp. Some users may be confused about the next steps and how exactly to customize the lamp when the bluetooth connection process is complete.
  • Text labels underneath the icons can provide more context and information to the user.

Phase 4: Final Prototype & User Testing

The final prototype continued development from the low fidelity prototype, and added more design for icons, color, and button placement. It was based off of some of the competitor research as well as our initial design. It includes:

  1. Splash screen and login page
  2. Full user onboarding
  3. Dashboard with user data
  4. All relevant tabs

This is the splash and login screen. We decided on the yellow moon icon because it was immediately recognizable as a universal sign for sleep. Similarly, the background gradient mimics a night sky, with the upper part with the moon being lighter, and it flowing down into darkness. This felt much better than having a flat dark blue background. The moon then fades and moves to the top right, so as to not be distracting.

The main register button stands out more than the login button, which is common practice. The login button, and most other buttons that follow, is mostly transparent, which I felt fit well with the theme of sleep and light.

This is the first onboarding screen. We chose a friendly tone for the onboarding. We tried to make the users feel as comfortable as possible, because people using this app probably have negative feelings about sleep, and the goal was to have this be a friendly introduction.

Here we continue the personal tone with greeting you by your name. We similarly ask what you need help with as a small way to maybe inspire some hope in the user. You then have a list of common sleep problems to choose from, which are highlighted in blue after being selected.

Here is the bedtime selection screen. Diverging from our initial design, we chose to use the standard Apple time-wheel selector, as it felt more user friendly than having them move around a clock.

This is the final screen of the onboarding process. After connecting your lamp via bluetooth, you are taken to the final screen, where users wait for a few seconds while their page is being configured. This small pause is to let users feel the feedback of their entries, and to not feel like their time was wasted by questions that were not used at all.

This is the final navigation screen where the user is sent after onboarding. It continues many of the UI themes from previous screens, with the dark blue gradient background and light, transparent buttons. The home screen was designed to give the users the ability to change the most common settings with 1 click, rather than having to navigate through every menu to try to change their light presets.

A more detailed view of the light options is shown on the lamp tab, where the user can test different options and see what they like the best. This is also where the soundscape is chosen. This seemed like it would be an options users change infrequently, so it was moved to the other tab.

The third tab is the general night settings. It allows you to choose a bedtime, see feedback on your sleep quality, and set a weekend bedtime preset, if any. This gives you visual feedback about how your sleep has been going, and to see improvements over time. The final page is the account tab, where all of the usual account options are present.

Final Prototype Testing

The final prototype was tested with two expert evaluators and a walkthrough was completed with a potential user. Information about the testers is provided below:


Expert 1: Sam is a designer who graduated from the Herron School of Art and Design. He has experience creating interactive products using the design process both during school and professionally. An in person evaluation was conducted with Sam.


Expert 2: Kristen is a working professional who reviews products for large companies from time-to-time. She does not work as a product designer, but is familiar with the design process and has experience working with UX designers in the workplace. She evaluated our prototype in person as well.


Potential User 1: Ash has experienced sleep paralysis and currently takes melatonin to help her fall asleep. In the past she worked night shifts and had issues with her sleep schedule. She also owns a lamp that has a sunrise and sunset feature to aid in healthy sleep patterns.


Going into testing, our group sought to answer the following questions:


  • Is the onboarding process simple and clear?
  • Is the system providing feedback to the user and in a way that the user will understand?
  • Is the user presented with context and information in a way that is clear and understandable?
  • Are the high level functions of the application addressing the needs and difficulties of the user?
  • Is information organized and presented in a helpful, clear and logical way?


During the testing we received the following feedback:


  • Testers found the new account creation simple and easy to complete.
  • Testers liked the lamp concept felt as though the lamp and application could improve sleep quality for individuals
  • Testers asked if the application pairs with one particular lamp or not. They voiced concerns about some lamp presets not being compatible with certain lamps.
  • An expert evaluator recommended setting the home screen to be the lamp controls screen. He felt like this would be more logical because the home screen is displayed after the lamp is connection screen is displayed.
  • A pattern emerged from all testers concerning the lamp test section. The testers weren’t sure what action would following selecting an option under the lamp test section.
  • Testers were confused by the duplication of the sleep data visualization. One expert evaluator recommended making a separate section just for sleep data.
  • In general, evaluators enjoyed using the prototype, but were wanting more information as to the context and use of some functions. They also noted that duplicated information was bleeding into different sections creating confusion.


Moving forward our group can aim to provide more labels and information to the user to clarify the actions of certain features. Adding labels to icons and giving simple descriptions and directions may solve many of the issues noted by the evaluators. Re-working the information architecture of the main menu could eliminate the duplication of information. This could help to better define each major function of the system for the user.