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How mobile technology can help encourage healthier lifestyles that stick



Greig Johnston from the company behind the ‘Couch to 5k’ app, discusses how the mobile technology industry can improve the nation’s health.

Millions of adults are looking to introduce changes that will help them work towards a healthier weight while reducing their risk of serious illness, including COVID-19.

It’s these changes that have led to an enormous increase in mobile technology that can help them on their journey. Just recently, Public Health England launched a major campaign called ‘Better Health’ and is encouraging people to use its range of apps including Couch to 5k, which saw a surge of 858,000 downloads between March and the end of June 2020.

Public Health England is an excellent example of how organisations can use mobile technology to improve the health and wellbeing of the country. After all, with 82% of the population online, engaging mobile apps can incite positive behavioural change – whether that be to tackle obesity, reduce smoking or ensure every child has the best start in life.

The key to delivering a habit-forming app is the design. In fact, there is special science behind how to incentivise and encourage individuals towards positive behavioural change.

Nir Eyal, the lecturer and author behind Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, has already been harnessed by many businesses to perfect their experience and ensure regular engagement from users. And many of us are instinctively aware of the results of these techniques – the desire to keep returning to Instagram, or Twitter, or YouTube, or a news website – to keep scrolling, keep clicking.

Nir developed what he calls the HOOK canvas to explain how habit-forming products work. It consists of a four-stage feedback loop, whereby an initial trigger encourages an action from the user, which results in a reward that is both fulfilling and leaves the user wanting more because they are invested – making their return to the product more likely.

As such, organisations wishing to create a habit-forming health and wellness product must first understand the external and internal triggers for the end-user.

External triggers are relatively straightforward – they are the design features like notifications, buttons and arrows which encourage the user to undertake core actions within the app. Most digital designers and developers are well-versed in these.

Internal triggers are invaluable but, sadly, often neglected – these are the reasons for engagement sitting underneath those top-level actions. Internal triggers relate to the app users’ fundamental desires and goals – things like wanting to get fitter, healthier, lose weight or stop smoking. Internal triggers are emotional and deep-seated and, as such, apps that speak to those are far more habit-forming.

When those internal triggers relate to positive lifestyle objectives and wishes of the end-user, they can be enormously impactful. If organisations can work with designers and developers to build their apps with the content, functionality and overall user experience driving towards that internal trigger, then the app will be well-used, and the user will achieve their goals.

In practice, this might involve asking users to set a goal and timeline within the app from the beginning, and then sending them regular motivational messages and alerts. It might involve fun metaphors or comparisons to enable the user to better visualise the impact of a particular action, like exercise-tracking apps which present users with an entertaining calorific equivalent of those they have just burned off. It might even involve users working up to tangible rewards such as discounts on other products.

Ultimately, it’s about making habit-forming tools that are simple to access, personalised to the individual’s own health story, available to everyone and, most importantly, fun to use. Get that right, and organisations will really help to provide the support needed for anyone that wants to sustain healthy habits and reduce their risk of serious illness.

Greig Johnston is CEO of Vidatec, a software company that have worked with Public Health England to create the apps: Couch to 5k, Smart Recipes, Drink Free Days, Easy Meals, NHS Smoke Free and Stoptober apps.

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