x-kaiser-david-sobelLots of health apps are designed purely for functional purposes: for instance, tracking calories, tracking moods, or tracking blood sugars. But even well-designed apps and wearable fitness devices — such as the Fitbit, Nike Fuelband, and the Samsung Galaxy Gear — are abandoned at a high rate by their users.

How can healthcare providers creating their own apps avoid this abandonment rate?

David Sobel MD MPH spoke at Health 2.0’s and Mad*Pow’s recent hxrefactored health tech design conference declared that happiness and pleasure needs to be first and foremost for successful user engagement. Health apps can engage their users with more positive emotions. We recently covered Sobel’s thoughts on what motivates patients in our previous article, and when to implement behavior change.

Sobel even incorporates happiness and pleasure principles in outpatient work.

“We prescribe things for [patients]: take this medication, lose weight, etcetera,” Sobel lamented in his talk, “and most of medicine is focused on all the failures, their symptoms, etcetera.

“Now I’m working with physicians and inviting them to ask them one simple question: ‘What do you really enjoy?’ so minimally they understand positive emotions.”

The power of priming can make people more sensitive to and aware of opportunities, events, and triggers. Priming is where people do something that sensitizes them to their environment. For instance, if a person practices gratitude and thinks of things for which they are grateful, it primes them to be cognizant of positive things in their surroundings.

Health apps can also provide unexpected surprises.

“A friend of mine would give unexpected gifts not on their birthdays and Christmas,” said Sobel. “If something unexpected happens, it changes your cognitive filters.”

Sobel provided further recommendations for health apps and websites:

  • Emphasize more proximal, immediate satisfaction, mood, and feelings. “I read all the cardiovascular literature,” Sobel stated in his talk, “and most people don’t focus on distant [long-term] goals. Focus on feeling good, and feeling alive.”
  • Focus on the present experience.
  • Don’t be senseless. Invite sensual pleasure.
  • Celebrate even small successes.
  • Include unexpected surprises, delights or surprises.
  • Change the focus, perspective, filters, and frames. Again, priming helps increase people’s awareness of opportunities, and provides a filter for their cognition.

With these key principles in mind, the next generation of healthcare apps certainly have an opportunity to avoid drop-off and ensure that users not only keep using that app, but enjoy using the app.

Sobel’s complete slides on Designing for Health and Happiness is available on SlideShare, with references to articles and resources. Interact with Sobel at @KPHealthyFun.