Behavioral Activation Technology

Behavioral activation is a 3rd generation behavior therapy for treating depression. We have build two different smartphone-based technologies supporting behavioral activation; MORIBUS and MUBS. MORIBUS is an app for patients to plan and track healthy activities designed to be part of BA therapy with a trained therapist, while MUBS utilize machine learning techniques for recommending healthy activities to patients and is designed to be used stand-alone outside therapy.

As part of the RADMIS project, we have been investigating how smartphone technology can be used for providing support for cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in mental health. More specifically, we have been investigating the behavioral side of CBT, trying to help patients plan and do more activities, which might help depressive patient handle and improve on their symptoms. For this purpose, we have been building technologies that supports the Behavioral Activation (BA) approach.

Intervention-focused research has most commonly employed Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) as the choice of treatment methodology [1]. However, the behavioral activation component of CBT has repeatedly been found to have the same positive effect as full CBT for the treatment of depressive symptoms. Compared to CBT, BA is simpler to administer and use, and has shown a significant effect on the reduction of depressive symptoms. The main approach in BA is to reduce depressive symptoms by engaging in – or ‘activating’ – pleasant activities.

BA is particularly suited for smartphone technology. Partly since behavior such as physical and social activity can be tracked using smartphones, and partly because the phone can be used as a platform for providing just-in-time and context-aware internventions to the patients. Despite this, only very few technologies supporting BA have been researched.

In this blog post, we present two types of technologies we have designed for BA named MORIBUS [2, 3] and MUBS [4], respectively:

  • MORIBUS – is a smartphone-based system designed to support activity planning and tracking for patients with depression as part of a blended treatment setup. MORIBUS is designed to help the patient and the therapist to maintain a diary of daily activities and rate their mood, accomplishment perception, and pleasure during these activities as well as provide personal insights and sense-making through a visual tool. As such, MORIBUS aims to enable less-trained clinical personnel, including nurses and psychology trainees, to assist in BA therapy.
  • MUBS – is a smartphone-based recommender system for the treatment of depressive symptoms. Adhering to the principles of BA therapy, MUBS aims to reinstate (i.e., recommend) pleasant activities back into the lives of patients with depressive symptoms. MUBS utilizes a content-based probabilistic technique with a catalog of 384 pleasant activities in order to recommend activities personalized to the individual user. MUBS is designed as a stand-alone tool to be used both as part of BA therapy as well as outside therapy.


MORIBUS was designed by an interdisciplinary team of psychiatrists, clinical psychologist, computer scientists, biomedical engineers, mobile app designers and developers, as well as two patients diagnosed with depression. The design was based on the paper-based BA therapy method, which is currently used at the Psychiatric Center Copenhagen. MORIBUS was designed to be part ofthe clinical treatment of depressed patients and to replace the paper-based schemas. As such, the overall design goals of the app was to:

  • be able to plan and register activities, and their corresponding mastery and pleasure on an hourly basis;
  • collect data on planned and executed activities together with context information such as time, location, and mood;
  • provide visual analytic tools that give the patient and the therapist insights into the relationship between mood, activities, pleasure, and mastery.
Figure 1 – MORIBUS user interfaces showing data from a patient. A) The home screen shows planned activities for a day. At the top is a pie chart summarizing activities according to activity categories and at the bottom a temporal list of scheduled activities. B) The calendar used for activity planning and to get an overview of the week. C) The visual analytic page, summarizing all historical data. The bar chart displays the average score of mastery (red) and pleasure (blue) for each activity category. The bubble chart shows the average pleasure score for each activity category across time. The line graph displays the reported mood scores over time. D) The activity details page, is used both for planning an activity as well as for rating. E) The insight page showing the relationship between the activity category and the pleasure rating. In this example, drinking coffee was the most pleasurable spare time activity, while resting and hobby activities were below the average. From [3].

Figure 1 shows the final design of MORIBUS, which supports the following main BA elements:

  • Activity planning and registration – The main page (Figure 1A) shows the daily plan of activities, including a visualization of the activities into seven categories. Planning of activities was designed similar to the paper-based BA schema using a calendar week view (Figure 1B). Details on an activity’s timing, category, and textual description are provided on the activity details page (Figure 1D). A specify activity can be entered textually or selected from a list of positive activities. Timely registration is supported via notifications; when an activity is planned to end, the user is notified to enter mastery and pleasure scores. If no activity is planned, the notification would ask the user to enter what s/he has been doing for the last hour via the activity details page (Figure 1D).
  • Mood and well-being tracking – Daily mood tracking is done using a 5-point scale from ‘Extremely bad’ (-3) to ‘Good’ (1). Biweekly assessment of depression and well-being is done by PHQ-9 and WHO-5, respectively.
  • Statistics and insights – A core design goal of MORIBUS is to support personalized insight from the self-reported data, in particular, the relationship between activities and mastery, pleasure, and mood ratings. The pie chart in Figure 1A shows the distribution of across different types of activities, and the data charts in Figure 1C visualize relationships between e.g. mastery, pleasure, mood, and different types of activities.

Feasibility Study

MORIBUS was subject to a clinical feasibility study [5] with a small number (N=7) of patients diagnosed with an affective (unipolar or bipolar) disorder [3]. This study investigated the usability and usefulness of MORIBUS and looked into the details of how users used it for behavioral activation over a 4-week period. Despite the low number of participants, MORIBUS was used quite intensively by each patient. In total, 1,684 activities across 140 days were collected. Overall study compliance was 71% as calculated by the number of days that activities were registered or rated within the entire study duration.

Patients reported that they found MORIBUS useful for BA and stated that they prefer MORIBUS over the existing paper-based schemes. As one of the participants noted:

“I don’t want to bring pen and paper with me to register activities… and in front of people. But on the phone it is much more anonymous – people can’t see what you use the phone for.”

When looking at the usability scores, MORIBUS scores slightly over neutral. However, one should remember that MORIBUS is designed for a rather cumbersome data entry task – detailed activity registration on an hourly basis, which puts a high work load on the user. In the interviews, patients reported that they found MORIBUS useful for BA, especially the insight gained from the chart visualizations (Figure 1C).

Figure 2 – The distribution (%) of activities for each patient across the different activity categories. From [3].

One of the main findings of our study of MORIBUS is the high degree of individual differences in how patients do BA. The textbook version of BA assumes (or instructs) that patients do activity planning and registration in one way and provides only one schema to do so. However, our study – despite its limited number of participants – showed that activity patterns and their effect on pleasure and mastery are highly individual. As shown in Figure 2 there is quite a difference in what type (i.e., category) of activities patients were doing. And as shown in Figure 3 we found individual difference as to when patients reflected on activities and where they did the planning and registration of activities.

Figure 3 – A shape-preserving pchip-interpolation of the average rating hour (24-hour) for the patients, with a blue distribution (right) showing the amount of times an activity was rated across all patients as a function of time (24-hour). The dotted line represents current time, with points below representing the next day of rating. From [3].

The core design implication from this study is, therefore, that it is crucial to the design of activity tracking technology like MORIBUS to enable for highly individual and personalized activity planning and registration.

Machine Learning for Recommending Healthy Behavior

Based on the insight – and data – from the MORIBUS study, we asked ourself:

Is it possible to automatically identify and thereby recommend activities that are healthy for a person?

To answer this, we did an offline analysis of the data collected from the MORIBUS study [6]. The short answer is “yes” – this is possible.

We used a probabilistic multinomial Naive Bayes (NB) classifier and a Support Vector Machine (SVM) to model the activities as a bag-of-words to predict mood outcome. We separated the analysis into a generalized model where we pooled all participants, comparing it with a personalized model. As shown in Figure 4a, the NB and SVM models seem to converge and stabilize after a training size of 40%. This is verified by inspecting the test and training error (Figure 4b). Here we see low bias and variance and convergence after a training size of 100 activities (40% holdout). Hence, both NB and SVM favored the personalized model when used on a pool of 40% (45.65, SD = 16.03) of the activities.

Figure 4 – (a) The error rate as a function of training size for the different models for the clinical sample. SE is shown as a shaded interval. (b) training and test error is visualized for one patient on the NB model.

Our main results show that the model is able to incrementally learn from past activity data to more accurately predict whether a given activity would be rated as positive by the user. The model quickly converges to high accuracy and was able to classify activities as positive, while filtering out activities resulting in negative consequences. We have therefore proposed a recommender system with the potential to improve mental health and well-being.

This recommender algorithm and approach subsequently became the “engine” of the MUBS activity recommender system.


MUBS [4] was designed following a user-centered design process involving an interdisciplinary set of clinical (psychiatrists, psychologists, and nurses) and technical (computer scientists, UX designers, and biomedical engineers) professionals who worked closely with four patients diagnosed with a depressive or bipolar disorder. The design activities included interviews of patients and clinicians, two design workshops, iterative prototyping, and a lab-based evaluation of the UX design.

As a result of this design process, MUBS is designed according to support the following design principles:

  • MUBS should support activity tracking and registration since this is core to the BA methodology. The textbook version of BA, however, recommends detailed hourly activity registration with ‘mastery’ and ‘pleasure’ scores, but the design process – and the evaluation of MORIBUS – revealed that this was too cumbersome and demanding, and would not succeed in real-world usage. Instead, a novel approach was co-designed in which activity registration was reduced to only morning, afternoon, and evening, ‘pleasure’ was replaced by a simple ‘thumbs-up/down’ approach, and ‘mastery’ was predefined for each activity as a difficulty level between 1-3. In this way, activity registration was considerably simplified while still complying complying with the core BA methodology.
  • MUBS should support activity planning – another core component of BA. Again, during the design process, it became apparent that activity planning should be straightforward. Hence, the initial design from MORIBUS using a calendar with detailed information on e.g., timing was replaced with a more simple approach where activities can be added ‘somewhere during the day’.
  • MUBS should inspire the patient to identify, plan, and perform healthy activities, which is a BA component normally supported by a therapist. The approach is to have MUBS assist in recommending activities, thereby inspiring healthy behavior. Two features were designed to accommodate this; (i) a catalog of inspirational activities, and (ii) the recommender algorithm presented above, which can be trained to learn the patient’s activity preferences and then propose personalized activities.
  • In contrast to MORIBUS, MUBS should work independently of the clinic and the therapist, and be designed as a self-management tool for engaging the patient in BA. The system should inspire the patient to plan and track activities in-between therapy sessions or even when no longer in therapy. Hence, even though MUBS can be used as part of clinical treatment, the main focus is to support self-efficacy.
Figure 5 – The MUBS mobile user interface. A) The homepage showing daily steps, points, and a list of planned and done activities. B) The planning page where activities are created, either by searching the activity catalog or by adding a personal activity. C) The activity page showing the details of an activity. D) The routine page that shows the recurring daily or weekly activities. E) The progress page with the pyramid showing points within each activity category and a bar chart with the number of completed activities within each category
scheduled. From [4].

The main user interface (UI) of MUBS is shown in Figure 5 and consists of five pages (A–E):

  • The homepage (A) shows a daily weather forecast, step count, achieved ‘difficulty level points’, and a list of planned and completed activities. Planned activities are separated into three time slots; morning, afternoon, and evening. Daily mood ratings are automatically scheduled as an evening activity (not shown). When a planned activity is selected, it can be marked as ‘done’ and given a ‘thumbs-up / down’ rating (not shown). A new activity can be created via the red plus button, which gives two options; (i) a list containing the catalog of 384 enjoyable activities and previously completed activities (screen B), or (ii) fetch a list of 10 personalized recommended activities to chose from (not shown).
  • Screen B shows the activity catalog. Each activity is labeled with a difficulty level (1–3 dumbbells) and is organized into activity categories. Each category has a unique icon and color used throughout the app. The list can be filtered by activity attributes (category, source, difficulty).
  • Activities can be searched using the search icon. If the activity searched for does not exist, the user can create a new activity, as shown in screen C. Custom-made activities are saved in the catalog and available for later planning.
  • The routine page (D) shows a schedule of reoccurring activities and provides a button for creating routine activities daily or weekly.
  • The progress page (E) visualizes patient progress in two ways; (i) the pyramid illustrates progress according to the three difficulty levels divided into the activity categories – each step indicates the achievement of one difficulty level, and (ii) the bar chart show- ing the number of activities the patient has completed within each activity category.

MUBS is available for both iOS and Android. It is implemented in Flutter and uses the CARP Mobile Sensing Framework [7] for the collection of the context data, including steps and weather information, and Google Firebase as a secure backend server.

If you are interested in trying out MUBS, a good introduction on how to use the app is available in this Medium post and the app is available both on Google Play and Apple App Store.

Feasibility Study

MUBS was also subject to a single-arm clinical feasibility study [5]. We recruited 21 patients and N=17 patients completed the 8-week study, which resulted in 2,895 planned activities in MUBS. Overall, patients used MUBS 76% (SD= 15%) of the days during the 8-week study. The patients showed consistent adherence to reporting and the creation of activities in MUBS [4].

Based on qualitative questionnaires and interviews, patients found MUBS easy to use and very useful for managing depressive symptoms. For example, 75% of patients agreed to the statement that “using MUBS would help me reach my health goals of reducing depressive symptoms”.

Figure 6 – The difficulty of the activities that were selected from the three different sources; custom made, chosen from the catalog, or from the recommendations. From [4].

When analysing how patients found inspiration for new activities, most activities (60%) were picked from the activity catalogue, and the recommendation were used less. Figure 6 shows the distribution of activities divided by difficulty level depending on how an activity was created; recommended by the app, chosen from the catalog, or custom-made. The figure illustrates that patients used the recommender algorithm for less challenging activities that could easily be incorporated into the current context. As an example, a patient scheduled ‘turning off electronic devices for an hour’ on a Monday afternoon.

Overall, the patients reported that they learned to appreciate the smaller everyday activities. They became aware of positive daily inputs that were otherwise overlooked during depressive days. They managed to plan more enjoyable activities and felt rewarded when they followed their plan. As such, MUBS seems like a feasible approach for supporting BA for patients to handle their depressive symptoms. Further clinical studies are needed to establish clinical evidence for the use of such recommender technology in mental health.

Wrapping Up

As part of the RADMIS project, we have investigated how to build mobile health (mHealth) technology for supporting behavioral activation (BA) for handling depressive symptoms. Our research had three main iterations, starting with a “hard-core” BA app MORIBUS which followed the principles of BA closely, over an analysis of the collected data for predicting which activities are most beneficial to patients, to the design of MUBS as a more “flexible” mHealth app for stand-alone support for BA, which utilize machine learning to recommend healthy activities.

Single-arm – i.e., not including a control arm – studies showed promising results in terms of using mHealth technology for BA and for managing depressive symptoms – and the approach seems feasible. However, further clinical studies are needed to establish clinical evidence for any clinical efficacy in terms of e.g. reducing depressive symptoms. Such studies are currently in the planning and we hope to be able to provide more details on this later.


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title = {{A Decade of Ubiquitous Computing Research in Mental Health}},
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isbn = {978-1-4503-6363-1},
keywords = {activity sampling,behavioral activation,depression,mental health},
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series = {PervasiveHealth '17},
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