Creating evidence-based health and wellness programmes for your customers and employees

How a health behaviour change specialist can make your app better

According to a recent review, over 40% of the most popular apps use scientific jargon to promote their product, but only one of these apps is linked to published scientific literature. 

These companies clearly see the benefits of scientific knowledge when it comes to marketing , but the fact that they are not actively using it when creating their product suggests two things: 

1.That they don’t believe scientific findings about behaviour actually make a difference. 

2. They misunderstand what behavioural science actually is. In their head, it's something nice to do in a lab that perhaps doesn’t apply to real life. 

Let me challenge that. 

Behaviour change specialists help you to channel the power of habit 

There is a popular belief that willpower is the secret for lasting change. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is, in fact, the small things that make all the difference:  Research has shown that 43% of our daily routine is made up of habits. That also means that if we change our routines, we can make a lasting impact on our mental and physical health. It's not the big decisions that influence our lives the most; it's the daily choices we make. Behaviour is in the moment. 

Here is an example we can all identify with: Simon decides it's time to move more. He is determined, he is motivated. Yet, a few days later, he finds himself on the couch again, eating ice cream and binging on the latest series. Now the battle of impulses and inhibitions begins: will we put the ice cream out of reach, turn the TV off and go to the gym? Or will he continue with the behaviour that knowingly torpedoes his goal? And how can he make it easier to choose a healthy behaviour that he wants to do over an unhealthy one? 

What he will choose will depend on many factors. First, he has to know his Why. I am not talking about a generic answer like “I want to lose weight”, I mean the reason that motivated him to change in the first place. If he is overly focused on an external thing like a number on the scales, chances are he won’t stick to his plans. But if he has already gone through this process with a digital app or programme that helped him to define his inner motivation from the beginning and reminds him regularly of it, he stands a much bigger chance to get up from the sofa, or even maybe he won't even go there in the first place.  

Finding someones true why, beyond just wanting to get fitter or lose weight can really help them connect with what's needed to engage with the supportive habits that will help them on their journey to achieving their goals. But we need the support of the programme to help us get there, and timely (and relevant) nudges to remind us how much our goal truly means to us. Further those nudges need to be thoughtfully executed, nudge the users too much and they will get annoyed; nudge them too little and the goal and the daily habits needed to get there becomes less salient and they can lose heart and give up. 

Second, both users and app developers need to know that willpower is a limited resource. Like a muscle, you can’t just overload it all at once, it needs adequate rest and recovery. Otherwise it weakens eventually, leading to poor decision making. Hence why it can often be harder to establish healthy habits when we are under stress, we are carrying too much cognitive load at that time, there is too much going on for our limited willpower resources. The key here is again to focus on starting small, making manageable changes first, building users confidence through small wins. Left to our own devices, many of us will choose goals that are too big, too overwhelming to keep (we overly rely on the strength of our future willpower). Further app designers need to resist the temptation to overload users with content from the start. Rather than making them feel informed it can undermine their efforts and make them feel like there is far too much to do (again cognitive overload can lead to the depletion of willpower). Equally education alone does not translate to action. So giving users lots of content without small yet specific actions attached to it can often derail their efforts and doesn't help them build the key skills they need to establish lasting changes to their lives. 

Third, Simon needs a clear structure to follow. He could make up one for himself- but it wouldn’t be rooted in behavioural science. He might choose to follow a plan he read about online, but it wouldn’t track his progress or consider his individual lifestyle. For digital products to be most effective they need to consider behavioural theories of change, and use these structures to create a framework to help them make design decisions that are informed by the evidence of human behaviour. They also need to create a mental structure or model that is both simple yet supportive at providing the user with the key next steps on their journey. These aspects a behaviour change specialist will tell you are crucial. 

The reason apps can be a mixed bag when it comes to results is also because developers don’t automatically add a behaviour change specialist to their team. When they do, not only does the app deliver better results, a better experience and better long term outcomes for the users, it also raises the profit of the company. Users who have experienced a noticeable improvement in their health are more likely to continue using the app and recommending it to their friends- both results that benefit the company. But more than profit, it ultimately serves the companies big why their intrinsic/internal motivation, why they created the app in the first place. To help support people to make changes that will transform their lives and make it sustainable both for the person and the business, to make a difference. Isn't that what the user, the company and the behaviour scientist is driving for, isn't that ultimately what we all want?

If you feel your app could benefit from behavioural science, contact me here.

Published on 13th Feb 2019 at 09:00 by Dr Heather McKee

"Heather has so generously contributed to so many areas of our work this year, her thoughtful feedback and insights have allowed us to evolve our work and product in profound and impactful ways. I speak on behalf of all of us when I say we can’t imagine having done it without her unique, informed perspective and diverse voice. She has made an incredible amount of impact on our work in a small amount of time and we are so grateful for her."

Sara Rice, lululemon HQ

"When you work with Dr Heather McKee you know you are in the presence of a true professional. You cannot ignore the passion she has for her field of behaviour change, especially around healthy living. She is committed to making sure that you -- client, patient or project partner -- understand the key facts, appreciate the context and embrace the decisions you made together."

Edna Kissman, CEO The Wonder of Me

"Heather’s academic and applied understanding of behavioural psychology has been invaluable in helping us mould our proposition to the corporate wellbeing market over the last 12 months. Heather was a perfect fit with our culture; enthusiastic, diligent and highly skilled in everything that she does. We look forward to working with Heather on future projects"

Richard Westman, CEO KAIDO

"Heather's practical knowledge and expertise around behaviour change have been an enormous value-add for the Welltodo audience. By incorporating her tools and insights into our course curriculum, we were able to add a whole new layer of credibility. Heather is professional, reliable and an absolute pleasure to work with!"

Lauren Armes, CEO Welltodo

"Heather is a ninja when it comes to behaviour change, and a delight to work with. She has been invaluable to BetterSpace in working out how to nudge people into more mentally health lifestyles."



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Dr. Heather McKee is registered in Ireland Reg. No. 687397 with the registered address at 314 Mother Teresa House, Loreto Abby, Rathfarnham, D14 NR20, Co. Dublin, Ireland

This work is in no way meant to replace any medical advice. Dr. McKee is Non-HCPC-registered. Photography by Dylan Madden.

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