THE BLOG

Serious Health Conditions Are No Laughing Matter, But The Apps Managing Them Should Be Fun

04/01/2017 16:18 GMT | Updated 04/01/2017 16:18 GMT

I expect a surge in health apps downloads this month, driven by our desires to detox and shed the extra pounds we gained as a result of one mince pie too many - ok, maybe two!

Thanks to devices like FitBit and Apple Watch and an explosion in Health & Fitness apps, it has never been easier to keep track of our physical and other health related data. By 2020, 551 million people are expected to make use of a digital health app at least once a month (Research2Guidance.com).

But this doesn't reflect the vital role digital health apps play in managing chronic and serious health conditions such as diabetes, asthma or back pain, for which daily check-ins or activities are essential.

Too often digital health apps are seen as a utility tool: a useful gadget for pitting the number of steps taken against calories burnt, or tracking glucose readings in diabetes patients.

Although practical, they lack the entertainment factor - a vital ingredient for success. This is not about devaluing the important role apps play in managing these serious health challenges or reducing them to just entertainment. It's about striking the right balance to make the app both useful and entertaining to use.

We use health apps to gain a better understanding about our physical and mental health and to reach the goals we set ourselves. So once we have decided to embark on this journey to stabilise our chronic conditions, reduce our back pain or become generally healthier, the apps we use must guide and support us. Ideally in a way that is engaging and, dare I say it, fun!

And this is where digital health apps have much to learn from the gaming industry. They should go much further than leader boards and simple rewards like stars or medals, core elements of so called gamification. It's not that health apps shouldn't use these mechanics, but the emphasis should be on behavioural change and habit forming, not competition.

After all, we all begin our journey from different starting points based on metrics such as weight, height, but also pain location and intensity. And everyone's journey will pan out differently too: some will find it easier, others much harder to achieve the end goal.

Bearing those individual journeys in mind, digital health apps must make sure they don't push content that is irrelevant and can easily overwhelm. Apps must act as content curators to make sure that people receive information relevant to them and at the right time. This keeps the content short, easy to digest and bespoke.

An expecting mum ultimately will not be interested in Week 32 stories when she is only 14 weeks into a pregnancy.

Timely challenges and rewards along the way should be enough to prompt users to check in daily at a time that suits them. When we wait in line at the post office we might take a moment to log a quick update, or check progress, and use our evening downtime to explore an issue in more detail.

The last thing that people want are barriers preventing them from doing what they came for. Or a dead end they cannot come out of. Get this wrong and people will quickly become frustrated, lose interest and abandon the app altogether. And once they're gone, they are likely to be gone forever.

Ill health is no laughing matter. But if apps are serious about helping people to form positive, long-term habits then now is the time to bring some fun and games into health tracking and monitoring.