Overview - Open Labs 

Envisioning inclusive environments for people with mental illness

Moderating panel discussion on mental health in tech with Jerry Colonna and Brad Feld (Boulder, Colorado)

Moderating panel discussion on mental health in tech with Jerry Colonna and Brad Feld (Boulder, Colorado)



I co-founded the Open Labs nonprofit after three close friends were diagnosed with mental illnesses. Navigating their return to work unveiled problems with their employers' unpreparedness and deficiencies in support services. Alongside my co-founder, we set out to rethink the experience for people who are high-functioning with mental illnesses.


“How might we rethink the work experience for tech employees with mental illnesses?”



As of 2018, the Open Labs co-creation process resulted in three core solutions:

  1. Mental Health Friendly Workplace Certification in Partnership with Health Links (funded by the Center for Disease Control) to certify 200+ businesses in Colorado

  2. Communication Training in partnership with story2 to teach people with a mental illness how to talk about their conditions without fear or shame

  3. Parents Circle to share experiences on how to be an advocate and caretaker for someone with a mental illness

Openness doubled in the first 6 months of the launch. The measurement of overall success for Open Labs is openness, which we define as the opposite of stigma, or a willingness share about one's mental health condition. Led by our Masters Student Fellow from the University Colorado School of Public Health, we created a custom measurement tool to quantify openness. 


Employee training using EEG to better understand brain functionality and create empathy for people with mental illness

Employee training using EEG to better understand brain functionality and create empathy for people with mental illness



Although the list below represents the high-level design flow for creating Open Labs, the steps are not entirely linear. We revisit previous stages as we learn new information, when additional stakeholders enter the design process, and each time a solution is prototyped or tested.   

  • Research & Analysis

  • Synthesis

  • Strategy

  • Solutions

  • Prioritization

  • Prototype

  • Business Plan/Proposal

  • Build

  • Test


The stigma surrounding mental illness makes it an inherently challenging issue to research and understand. Guided by that knowledge, I outlined a thorough research plan including both primary and secondary research. The richest research insights were collected during interviews with people who have a mental illness. That insight helped us select an analysis method, Innovation Dynamics.

We partnered with its creator, Andrew Benedict Nelson, Innovator in Residence at University of Southern California, and with his guidance I independently facilitated a focus group to draw insights from the research and inform the strategic direction. The goal of the next stage was to begin generating solutions. I assembled a team to host a participatory design workshop with users (people with mental illnesses) and customers (organizations that serve them with behavioral health products and services).

After the two day workshop, we prioritized the outcomes based on financial and resource viability, value and openness creation for the end user, and long term sustainability for our nonprofit. Depending on the outcome and proposed solution, the next step was to write a business plan/proposal, create a higher fidelity prototype, or re-evaluate the previous steps. These solutions will continue to develop through time, constantly being refined to adapt to changes in people with mental illnesses and their environment.




Communication on mental health conditions event (Denver, Colorado)

Communication on mental health conditions event (Denver, Colorado)

I attribute the success Open Labs to deep preparation and research. Stigmatized issues like mental illness require a thorough understanding of the system and people. 'Slowing down to speed up' was a key mantra when the team was tempted to deviate from the research plan or shortcut steps. Slowing down also allowed us to include key stakeholders in the design process, ultimately making more accurate and efficient solutions. 

The biggest challenge was synthesizing findings for a diverse audience with different familiarity with design and research methodology. How much information does the group need to move forward? How can I efficiently and effectively debrief such a detailed process? Although we established deliverables for each stage, we did not always specify the best medium. Next time, I would create a detailed plan in advance of what information needed to be shared and via what medium - video, written, or oral presentation.

If I were to repeat the process, I would also develop a periodic check-in to share the energy of the stakeholders, asking what excites them, where their intuition is guiding them, and what creates meaning in their organizations. At the recommendation of our workshop facilitation team, the in-person workshops included specific check-in points to gauge energy. During these reflection periods, users revealed their biggest insights and organizational leaders formed their strongest partnerships.  I would pose the questions regularly, outside of the in-person sessions. 




Click below to see details of the Open Labs Design