What Does Pizza Have that Health Doesn’t

America’s hot new question and answer site, Quora, just compelled me to answer a question that I’ve been chewing on for some time now: Which mobile apps really improve health behavior? I love this question because it’s about health outcomes, a hot topic during last November’s mHealth Summit… but one that you’d be hard pressed to find any definitive answers around, at the moment.

For the record, Domino’s Pizza knows what an outcome is from a mobile device, to the tune of  $1.56M in sales in the United Kingdom. Papa Johns figured it out in 2008 when they uncovered $1M in outcomes from their mobile application in six months time… So what does pizza have that health doesn’t?

Seriously…

One of the answers is pretty obvious. People order pizza already. In fact, people have been ordering pizza for years. And if people can now order a pizza from their Smartphone without having to: A. get up, B. find the pizza place’s phone number, C. talk to somebody or D. have cash on hand, then of course they’re going to do it in droves. After a single personal experience ordering a pizza through an application, it’s safe to say I’m a convert for life.

Pizza ordering apps make life easier… which is a great segue way for the gist of the answer I provided on Quora.

The question that mobile health application developers need to answer is: If one new standard for an outcomes based mobile application is to make what people are already doing faster, easier, and more convenient, then how does a mobile health application get people to do things that they may not be all that excited about doing in the first place?

I think the answer to that question has three parts, Data Collection, Data Visualization and Data Connection:

Data Collection: The focus here has to be on simplicity, because let’s face it no data = no health application. Questions to ask are: How easy is it for the user to provide their health data to the application? Is gathering data already part of their daily routine, or are we trying to interrupt the user’s daily routine with a new task? Can a user opt in to providing data from a third party service they’re already using to collect data? How do we make the experience easy and enjoyable?

Data Visualization: This is where the user attains value from the application and I don’t believe that one can overdo it in this department. Again the focus needs to be on simplicity, because most of us aren’t interested in putting in a lot of effort when it comes to understanding ourselves. Questions to ask here are: How can I wow the user with the data they’ve collected? What can the user learn from the data they’ve collected? How can we compel positive behavior change with our visualizations? How do we make the experience easy and enjoyable?

Data Connection: It’s the user’s data, and they should be able to push it out to anyplace where they can derive more value from it. In the case of health applications, the obvious connection point is into a Personal Health Record, and ultimately their Electronic Medical Record. But other connection points may possibly be social networks, or even directly to trusted members of the user’s inner circle from within the application itself. Questions to ask here are: Does the value of our application lie in the data we collect, or in the service we provide the user? How can connection increase the value the user gains from using our service? How do we keep our users coming back to our service, while allowing them to take their data elsewhere? How do we make the experience easy and enjoyable?

As the Quora question asker observed, I think that the joke is on us until we start building mHealth applications that focus on answering these questions.

Chris Hall is the Director, Clinical Platforms at HealthCentral. He leads the development of Mood 24/7, an SMS based mood variation visualizer, in partnership with Dr. Adam Kaplin of Johns Hopkins Medicine. This post was initially featured on HealthCentral’s SoHealth Blog.

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