Skip to content

User experience of cognitive behavioral therapy apps for depression: An analysis of app functionality and user reviews

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere10120
Number of pages15
Issue number6
Early online date6 Jun 2018
DateAccepted/In press - 23 Mar 2018
DateE-pub ahead of print - 6 Jun 2018
DatePublished (current) - Jun 2018


Background: Hundreds of mental health apps are available to the general public. With increasing pressures on health care systems, they offer a potential way for people to support their mental health and well-being. However, although many are highly rated by users, few are evidence-based. Equally, our understanding of what makes apps engaging and valuable to users is limited.

Objective: The aim of this paper was to analyze functionality and user opinions of mobile apps purporting to support cognitive behavioral therapy for depression and to explore key factors that have an impact on user experience and support engagement.

Methods: We systematically identified apps described as being based on cognitive behavioral therapy for depression. We then conducted 2 studies. In the first, we analyzed the therapeutic functionality of apps. This corroborated existing work on apps’ fidelity to cognitive behavioral therapy theory, but we also extended prior work by examining features designed to support user engagement. Engagement features found in cognitive behavioral therapy apps for depression were compared with those found in a larger group of apps that support mental well-being in a more general sense. Our second study involved a more detailed examination of user experience, through a thematic analysis of publicly available user reviews of cognitive behavioral therapy apps for depression.

Results: We identified 31 apps that purport to be based on cognitive behavioral therapy for depression. Functionality analysis (study 1) showed that they offered an eclectic mix of features, including many not based on cognitive behavioral therapy practice. Cognitive behavioral therapy apps used less varied engagement features compared with 253 other mental well-being apps. The analysis of 1287 user reviews of cognitive behavioral therapy apps for depression (study 2) showed that apps are used in a wide range of contexts, both replacing and augmenting therapy, and allowing users to play an active role in supporting their mental health and well-being. Users, including health professionals, valued and used apps that incorporated both core cognitive behavioral therapy and non-cognitive behavioral therapy elements, but concerns were also expressed regarding the unsupervised use of apps. Positivity was seen as important to engagement, for example, in the context of automatic thoughts, users expressed a preference to capture not just negative but also positive ones. Privacy, security, and trust were crucial to the user experience.

Conclusions: Cognitive behavioral therapy apps for depression need to improve with respect to incorporating evidence-based cognitive behavioral therapy elements. Equally, a positive user experience is dependent on other design factors, including consideration of varying contexts of use. App designers should be able to clearly identify the therapeutic basis of their apps, but they should also draw on evidence-based strategies to support a positive and engaging user experience. The most effective apps are likely to strike a balance between evidence-based cognitive behavioral therapy strategies and evidence-based design strategies, including the possibility of eclectic therapeutic techniques.

    Structured keywords

  • Digital Health

    Research areas

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy, Depression, Mental health, MHealth, Mobile apps, User experience

Download statistics

No data available



  • Full-text PDF (final published version)

    Rights statement: This is the final published version of the article (version of record). It first appeared online via JMIR at . Please refer to any applicable terms of use of the publisher.

    Final published version, 601 KB, PDF document

    Licence: CC BY


View research connections

Related faculties, schools or groups