UX Researcher

Mystery Run

A philanthropic peer to peer platform to connect those in need with those who can give. 


Mystery Run

A mobile mystery game that helps students at CMU manage stress. 


Project Duration: 7 weeks
Teammates: Brooke Sachs, Hannah Mernyk, Kanika Khosla
Responsibilities: Exploratory, Generative, and Evaluative Research, Interaction Design
Course: Persuasive Design
Paper: Environment-Interactive Narrative Gameplay as a Means of Covert Stress Reduction  



The culture of stress among students at Carnegie Mellon University has become a widespread issue with serious repercussions, such as anxiety and depression. In a recent study conducted by the university, 60-70% of undergraduates report moderate to high stress that they do not manage well.

Existing mental health resources are often underutilized by students, for a variety of reasons such as stigma, lack of time, and ‘boring’ solutions. Furthermore, even if students are able to use these resources, the change may not be sustainable, and they may eventually lose interest. 

How can we create an engaging and accessible solution to help students manage stress for the long-term?


To address these problems, we utilized persuasive design tactics to create Mystery Run

Mystery Run is a smartphone based game that guides users through a series of stress-reducing activities disguised as steps to solve a mystery.

Interactive Prototype


how it works

Our Process

Literature review

To inform our next steps, we began by analyzing relevant existing research. Insights included:

  • Student stress is a persistent problem at CMU often caused by academic performance.
  • Engagement in leisure activities coupled with anxiety reduction techniques could be an effective strategy to combat academic stress.


We then examined a number of existing solutions in the stress reduction space. 

What Current Solutions Do Well: 

precedent strengths.png

What Current Solutions Could Improve On:

precedents weaknesses.png



To research students’ stress without biasing them, we then utilized the 'Fly on the Wall' technique in various settings, such as campus coffee shops and online forums.

Insights we gained: 

  • Triggers for stress include coursework, personal relationships, and social worries. 
  • People feel like they lack control of their everyday lives.
  • Stress may manifest itself physically (fidgeting, face-touching, tapping, etc.)


To further assess student stress levels and its causes, as well as identify solutions that are currently used, we distributed a survey to CMU undergrads. 

Quantitative insights we gained:

  • On a scale of 1 to 5, 64% of students rated themselves as a 4 (stressed) or 5 (very stressed).
  • Academic stress was the most prevalent, with 90% of undergrads reporting coursework as being a stressor. 
  • The most common symptoms of stress were tiredness (80%) and anxiety (75%).
  • 62% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that resources to manage their stress were accessible.

One interesting contradiction was that although students had access to mental health resources, they still suffered high levels of stress. This suggested that either these resources were not working, or they were not being utilized at all. 

Expert interviews

To gain expert insights into student stress and campus-based mental health resources, we conducted interviews with CMU student advisors. These interviews validated our previous research and provided us with some new insights, which included:

  • One university goal is to provide students with tools that help them manage their stress.
  • The Mindfulness Room is a space on campus that allows students to meditate, nap, etc., but it doesn’t get a large volume of visitors.
  • There is a stigma associated with getting help: students sometimes pride themselves on high levels of stress.


Equipped with a good grasp of our domain, we began a generative process, where we brainstormed around 40 diverse solutions to our problem.

Ultimately, we decided to pursue the ‘gamify’ approach and create an interactive game that has users engage in subtle stress-reducing tasks. We felt that this was the best approach for our  goal, which was to create a stigma-free, accessible solution that reduces stress and encourages healthy-habit formation.

Paper Prototype

We began by creating paper prototypes, in which we started to flesh out the game’s narrative and tasks. We embedded three stress-reducing activities into the story: deep breathing, coloring, and physical activity


User Testing #1

From testing our paper prototype, we ultimately wanted to answer the following questions:

  • Is the mystery narrative compelling?  
  • Does the player like engaging in these real-world activities?
  • Is the game enjoyable to play? 

(6 students)

Image uploaded from iOS (6).jpg
  • 100% of participants were somewhat or very interested in playing the game. 
  • Participants enjoyed the real-world interactions, challenging nature, and novelty of the game. 
  • Participants expressed dissatisfaction with the game's navigation: there was a lack of hints, feedback, instructions, and visual affordances.  

Low-Fidelity Prototype

Incorporating the feedback from our user tests, we created a low-fidelity prototype. To test users' boundaries, we added more challenging tasks and created a longer gameplay. We also added a hint button and made the narrative more cohesive. 

lo-fi prototypes.png

User Testing #2

From testing our low-fidelity prototype, we ultimately wanted to answer the following questions:

  • Are users willing to complete challenging tasks?
  • Are users willing to play an entire chapter of the game at a time? 
  • Which stress-reducing tasks do users enjoy the most?

(9 undergraduate students)

  • Users enjoyed the challenging tasks and thought they could be made even more difficult. 
  • When asked to rank the tasks, users tended to enjoy the puzzle-based screens the most.
  • Though our game was designed for individuals, participants began playing it in pairs, creating potential for social collaboration.   

Medium-fidelity prototype

Incorporating the feedback from our user tests, we created a medium-fidelity prototype. Based on participants' desire for challenges, we added a new visualization task, made one of the existing puzzles more difficult, and made walking distances longer. To match the historical setting, we utilized a visual style that evoked an old-time feel. 


user testing #3

During our project demonstrations, we informally conducted user testing with large number of peers and faculty.  


  • Users had fun playing and did not recognize the ultimate motive of the game, suggesting that the stress-reducing activities were well embedded into the narrative. 
  • Due to the on-screen/off-screen nature of the game, users sometimes became confused about where they should do the task. 
  • Many users missed the hint button completely. 
Image uploaded from iOS (7).jpg
Image uploaded from iOS (8).jpg

Final Design

Incorporating the feedback from our user testing, we created our final prototype. This involved making some small tweaks, such as making the hint button larger and adding a visual cue to indicate whether the task is done on screen/off screen.

In the future, we could envision the development of additional chapters and a partnership with CMU to create a schoolwide stress-reduction effort. 

Interactive Prototype