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5 ways that Apps can help us eat healthier

Building on top of many of the contributions so far involving mobile apps, I wanted to share 5 lessons on how it might be possible to design apps that help us live healthier (hint: a strong shot of creativity and a dose of good design), inspired form a recent post on Fastcodesign.com

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People’s habits are notoriously difficult to change. But people tend to make good decisions where action and result are closely tied together, when doing the right thing isn’t too difficult, and when a decision is made repeatedly (i.e., the individual is able to practice). People also tend to be highly motivated by making progress toward achieving goals, and by group social dynamics—fitting in with and impressing (or not disappointing) their friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors.

These are five ingredients that can help change unhealthy behaviors.

1. Good information

The starting point for behavior change is good information, which means personally-tracked information about things like diet, exercise, etc.

There are many solutions for measuring and tracking behavior and personal health information (cf. fitbit, DirectLife or even Google Health). The major problem is most of these solutions lack sensors / trackers: One would have to regularly enter a massive amount of data by hand to get any value out of it.

>> QR codes / barcodes and similar systems could help people track this data easily, via their phones. One would only have to snap a picture of the food product for it to be stored and processed, which can prove pretty timesaving.

2. Assessments from this data

While there’s strong evidence that just tracking personal data can have a significant impact on health-related behavior, what is done with and in response to the data is critically important. Interfaces into this personal health information must help people understand what their diet is about, what are the nutriments they are getting and the ones they are lacking, based upon their personal situation. And of course, the information must be presented in a way that people understand, easily, what we are talking about (e.g. say “sugar” instead of “crystalline carbohydrates”).

>> The main implication to be drawn out of this is that apps should allow people to use visualizations and mashup tools to give a meaning to the data (cf. Daytum or Open.Sen.se).

3. Goal-setting & Progress tracking

One of the most important components of behavior change is proper goal setting. Small, achievable steps towards healthy behavior provide more opportunities for rewards and positive feedback than large, difficult-seeming challenges. Switching from high fat (tasty!) foods to a well-balanced diet are enormous changes, and even a couple setbacks can make it all feel like failure. On the other hand, with a more modest goal like eating fruit or veggies three times a day, it’s easier to feel a sense of accomplishment, while still having a big impact on diet.

>> “Progress tracking” can be as simple as checkboxes and numeric scores, but designing the app could be more emotionally engaging, with qualitative feedback.

4. Gentle nudges

Goal setting and behavior tracking, while critical, are sometimes not enough. People may also benefit from reminders along the way to keep them oriented towards their goals. But repetitious reminders are easily tuned out, and the trick is doing this in a way where it actually has impact.

>> Imagine a mobile app that knows when you’re travelling (thanks to GPS) and reminds you to eat a healthy breakfast precisely at a moment when you’re away from your routine and most likely to skip the gym or succumb to the savory side of the hotel breakfast buffet.

5. The Social Component

When we talk about nudges, of course one of the strongest motivations for most people is to impress (or not disappoint) their friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues. This is used to good effect in quite a number of weight-loss communities (for example LoseIt). Healthmonth is an interesting web-based social game that allows people to choose their own rules to try follow for a month, “choose-your-own-adventure-style.”

>> Why not offer the ability to show-off for friends on mainstream networks like Facebook and Twitter?

4. & 5. combined

Not only should we let people show their facts to others to get nudges and motivation: let the users "challenge" each others. Let them join a category or group for their school and "compete" against other schools, city vs. city, family vs family, country vs country... (Thanks to Johan for this great build!).

An example of this could be RunKeeper (Thanks Amanda for this).

Fore more information: http://www.fastcodesign.com/1663565/five-ways-that-apps-can-keep-america-from-getting-fatter

Thanks everyone for your comments, insights and builds. I have tried to include all of them in the concept, but there is something about  Johan's comment that didn't fit in my structure (hint: awesomeness):

Data gathering / Data inputs issue
" Why not start with initial assumptions that a person and family lives close to the national averages? That are general data already available from local government and food org's. And then let the users voluntarily input the total costs from all the grocery bills, restaurant costs and utility bills for the household, divided by how many persons live in the house.
I mean if you shop for 100 dollars per month, and you state that you are vegetarian or vegan or meat-eater or fish-eater, that says a lot about your food habits. And you could even have gradual scales in some statements, where the users just estimate : I eat little bit more chicken than beef, I never eat fish, I eat much more salad than candy, I drink only water and never CocaCola.
(And of course utility bill complements this info by showing pattern on cooking and heating/cooling over the seasons. and electric companies have stats on how large percentage is from storing and cooking food)
And after just a couple of months the user's personal figures have been gradually adjusted from the original standardized data into showing how this individual and the family are living. Without going too much into massive details or the huge fuss of punching in each item, each day.
"
Sensor data from mobile phones could be used, too. GPS data (were you on a farm), or movement tracking, etc. (Thanks  Arjan for adding this).
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I've updated the concept to include all of your great builds. Thanks everyone!

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