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Can an app help you change your behaviour?

Kirsty Marrs |29, April, 2022

by Jon May

When asked to suggest things that eHealth could help with, people often suggest problems that have a clear link to changing behaviour.

Maybe an App or a website could be designed to help people to cut down on cigarettes, or to reduce their drinking, or to lose weight and take more exercise. All of these are examples of behaviours that we know are unhealthy, and that we would like to change. We might even have tried – but found it too hard. Surely an app on your phone would help? It couldn’t make things worse, could it!

In fact, if you look at Apple’s App Store or the Android Marketplace you’ll be swamped by health related apps. A report in 2013 [1] claimed that even then there were 31,000 health related apps on the Apple’s store, and that was only six years after the iPhone had been launched. In the last six years that number has ballooned to the hundreds of thousands [2].

It goes without saying that there are not thousands different ways to change behaviour, so many of these apps will be trying to do similar things, in similar ways. Most of them will be copies of things the developers have seen in another app and thought that they could do in a nicer or prettier way, or maybe mixed with another approach.

Sadly, very few of them will have been developed by people who are experts in behaviour change, even fewer will have been tested or evaluated, and perhaps the majority of them will not work. It is probably right that they don’t actively do much harm, but by not helping they might discourage people and make them think that changing their behaviour is just too hard.

Designing an effective behaviour change app is difficult, and takes time, but it is not impossible. If the app is built to include techniques that have been shown to work in other ways – and there is now a lot of evidence about what does work – then there is a chance that it will work too, but it still needs to be tested, and perhaps refined, several times before you can be confident in using it. If you want to choose an app to help you change something, look for the evidence that supports it.