Much like medications, health apps are only effective if patients are actually able to use them. A recent study evaluating the usability of popular health apps shows, however, that they have ways to go.

Researchers from the University of California – San Francisco tested diabetes apps, depression apps, and caregiver apps. They recruited a diverse group of patients who may actually use these apps and then asked them to complete a variety of typical self-management tasks. As they worked through those tasks, researchers observed and measured how difficult it was to do these tasks. Tasks included data entry and data retrieval:

Data entry tasks:

  • Diabetes app: Enter a blood glucose
  • Depression app: Enter a mood rating
  • Caregiver app: Enter a medication or appointment

Data retrieval tasks:

  • Diabetes app: Retrieve blood glucose readings
  • Depression app: Retrieve mood ratings
  • Caregiver app: Review medications or appointments

About ten patients tested each of the included apps, with widely variable results. When it came to recording blood sugar in diabetes apps, only 2 patients were successful with Diabetes Connect while 8 were successful with InCheck. And even among patients who were successful, many found it challenging. Across all apps tested, patients were only successful about half of the time.

When it came to data retrieval, results were similar with patients successful 43% of the time across apps. There was again a lot of variability in the individual apps. For example, when reviewing mood history, success rates ranged from 30% to 60%. While caregiver apps were included in the analysis, the patient numbers were much more variable and so results for these apps are probably less useful (some apps were only tested by one patient).

During the testing, many patients commented on difficult to use interfaces, lack of explanation or guidance on what they were seeing, and difficulty just figuring how to do what they needed to do.

Overall, this study sends a clear message that the people for whom these health apps are being designed need to be involved in the design of the app. Usability testing is frequently cited as critical to the success of a health app, precisely because it can identify some of these barriers that would prevent users from actually using the app. By avoiding those pitfalls, pre-market testing with diverse users could have a tremendous impact on the success of a health app for chronic disease self-management.