Valeriya Kim shares the vision behind student project and mental health app, Ami, and provides insight into the humans behind the AI
Freya Wasteneys // Contributor
Valeriya Kim // Staff Illustrator
“I always knew I’d end up in a creative field,” says Valeriya Kim, a floating Zoom head set against a virtual panda background. “I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do—fine art was never something that resonated with me—but I knew I wanted to explore different spheres of design.”
Born and raised in Kazakhstan (and a budding artist since age four), Kim says that she has always wanted to be part of something that would serve people. “I wanted my art to have a purpose,” she explains, “but everything I found was so specialized.” So, when she finally found Capilano University’s IDEA program, it was a natural fit.
Now in her fourth year, this idea of purposeful art has culminated in Ami, a mental wellness app that applies well-known therapy practices like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to provide services outside of the counselling office. Created by Kim and fellow IDEA students Aidan Zecchel, Anna Tsybulnyk, Amy Asin, Sharleen Ramos, Haluka Yagi and Sarah Lilley, the aim was to help patients tackle negative patterns, behaviours and thoughts. The app provides the user with suggestions through an AI Chatbot, connecting the patient with a licensed professional if the issue remains unresolved. The student project was a finalist in the 2020 VanUXAwards and received an honourable mention from Graphic Design Canada.
But when the team was initially tasked to solve a modern problem for their Design Thinking and Research class, they were immediately overwhelmed. “Today, there are so many modern issues that require deep understanding and problem-solving,” says Kim. “We re-evaluated our research topic many times over, but after weighing our options, we settled on mental health, and then narrowed it down to therapy access.”
Their research found that mental health services in Canada had many barriers that were prohibitive to prospective patients, showing that wait times were too long and the cost was too high for effective care, especially among those who need it most. Overall, they found an urgent need for cost-efficient delivery and increased access. The team talked to a number of industry professionals and therapy patients, gaining crucial feedback which informed both Ami’s features and design concept every step of the way.
The issue held a personal significance for many in the group, and Kim credits the close-knit nature of the IDEA program for their ability to have frank conversations about their own experiences. She shares that part of her motivation to pursue this topic was spurred by her growing awareness of mental health issues.
“In a lot of countries, especially in Kazakhstan, mental health is quite stigmatized, and there isn’t an open dialogue,” she says. “Back home, our youth suicides are among the highest when compared to other countries. There is a real lack of awareness despite a lot of warning signs. It was only after coming to Canada and meeting people who openly talked about mental health and their experiences that I realized how widespread these issues are.”
With such a complex problem, the project presented many challenges for the team too. “We realized that there are a lot of different issues and ways to deal with mental health struggles,” Kim says. “We couldn’t do it all. Some of the features made it to the app, but we wanted to avoid making it too feature bloated. We really struggled to narrow it down and decide what was important.”
While AI can solve a number of problems, it can’t solve our need for human connection. “I guess it’s not really something new, but a big thing that I was reminded of from this project is that your immediate network is incredibly important to your mental health and wellness journey,” says Kim. “If you don’t have people to hold you accountable, you can easily just stay in your head or your house forever. Talking to someone is a big part that helps in protecting us from our negative train of thoughts. Relying on institutions and on access to therapy that is very undersupplied is not enough.”
This may have been Kim’s first foray into app product design, but she doesn’t think it will be her last. “I think one of the most important things that I learned is that I want all my projects to be oriented around the idea of solving some sort of problem,” she says. “I think finally finding this structure of research and project process gives me confidence that I can problem solve and apply these technologies in a way that can create real change.”
Capilano University offers free mental health services and counselling for students. Learn more about these services by visiting the CapU website.