HKU’s Innovation Studio is working with UMCU and UvT on IRIS, an app to prevent depression in young people by measuring mood swings.

IRIS is an acronym for Identifying Risk Increasing Strength. The project is a collaboration between HKU’s Innovation Studio, University Medical Centre Utrecht (UMCU) and Tilburg University (UvT). The goal is to develop a mobile game for young people who are vulnerable to mood disorders.

Risk assessment

How do you know whether a young person is displaying normal behaviour or whether it’s abnormal behaviour due to a mood disorder? This seems a difficult distinction to make, both for parents and for mental healthcare professionals. Developing a game prototype aims to make risk assessment easier.


In the game, young people create a mood profile, by indicating a few times a day how they feel, over the period of a week. It uses insights from recent research by Loes Keijsers (UvT) and Manon Hillegers (UMCU). The research enables them to identify three types of mood profile: either happy, at risk or really depressed.

In addition, Hillegers studied the same group of young people over a long period. The research showed that young people with parents suffering from a bipolar disorder were at greatest risk of developing this disorder themselves. Coping (i.e. the way someone deals with problems and stress) appears to be the decisive factor here. If a young person shows signs of passive coping, then he or she will not look for help or distraction. This is a strong indicator of the development of psychological disorders. Learning a certain (positive) way of coping may reduce vulnerability to disorders.

Light-hearted solution

Based on these findings, the HKU Innovation Studio helped devise a light-hearted, but effective solution for young people. ‘How can you guide kids towards adopting a more active coping style?’ IRIS turned out to be the answer. In the app, the participating youngsters do game-based assignments that activate the various positive styles of coping.

The game element rewards players for reaching their goals. And group efforts are rewarded for reaching the next level of a challenge. The design focuses particularly on preventing negative group pressure on vulnerable young people. IRIS is firmly anchored in academic research and is much more than ‘just an app’.

How did IRIS come about?

In June 2016, IRIS was tested for eight weeks on 21 healthy young people. The experiment was carried out to find proof for three hypotheses:

1) Coping can be influenced by game-based challenges (from passive to active)
2) Active processing reduces individual stress levels
3) IRIS improves mood profiles through changing coping strategies (from passive to active)

The test results form scientific proof for all three hypotheses. The test was carried out at the end of the academic year, which is usually a time of increased stress. Yet the stress level of the test group dropped. The test also showed a shift from a passive to an active style of coping.
Usually speaking, an app is only tested later on. But this innovative development process combines the stages of design, academic research and validation, thus saving a lot of time.

Following the promising results, IRIS is now moving on to the next phase. The search for funding and partners aims to ensure that IRIS can actually be put into practice.

Grow it!

In July 2020, the Grow it! app was introduced as a follow-up to IRIS. This app is also part of research into how young people feel. You can find the app on: