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Summary:

Public health has long focused on awareness and attitude in promoting behavior change. But health behavior experts and others say that’s not enough — you need to trigger emotion.

Basis, health monitor
photo: Basis

Plenty of entrepreneurs are trying to capitalize on the growing consumer and investor interest in digital health, but if you want to snare some money from at least one venture capitalist you might want to keep human vices — like lust, gluttony and greed — in mind.

At a SXSW Interactive panel Friday on how health tech companies can design products that encourage users to change their behavior, Mayfield Fund managing director Tim Chang said:

“The way I evaluate a lot of companies now is I look at the design framework. I look at the design framework of the seven deadly sins,” he said. “If an app or service does not tap into one or more of the seven deadly sins, either directly or indirectly, it will not be addicting…I always look along those dimensions.. and see what do those trigger.”

(If you’re particularly virtuous, or just haven’t though about those sins in a while, they’re lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride.)

The conversation, which also included Stanford behavioral health expert Stephanie Habif, Basis Science CEO Jeff Holove, and Wired writer Michael Copeland, is clearly relevant these days. Health tracking devices — whether worn on the wrist, clipped to your belt or attached to the body in another way — are flooding the market. But many of these devices, while purchased with the best intentions, end up getting left behind on the dresser (or lost in the wash) after just a couple of weeks because while they generate a lot of data about how far you walked or how well you slept, they don’t necessarily lead to healthier actions.

Public health has historically followed the logic that if you increase someone’s knowledge and persuade their attitude, you’ll get the behavior change you’re looking for, Habif said, but added “but that very rarely works.”

“Knowledge is not enough. Health does not happen in a silo. In terms of what I’ve learned over the years, in terms of health behavior theories we’re trying to operationalize for health behavior change, social is very important. Emotion is very important,” she said. “It’s not just enough to infect the brain and implant the knowledge, you have to stir up the desire engine. You have to tap into emotion.”

Devices and device-compatible health programs hold a lot of promise but, at this point, we don’t know if data tracking actually changes behavior, just that it leads to adherence to the devices, Habif said. But several companies are reporting positive results with programs that use both technology and human interaction (either from expert coaches or peers).

Chang mentioned Chicago-based Retrofit, which provides a subscription-based weight-loss plan that relies on tracking devices and remote communication with behavior coaches and nutritionists. Diabetes-busting Omada Health is also beginning to find success with a model that pairs digital tools with a social support program in which users communicate with a cohort of people who share health indicators and other factors.

  1. Michael Sinsheimer Saturday, March 9, 2013

    These devices need to appeal to both the left and right brain of people – can’t just be functional, but appeal to sense of hipness while addressing health benefits in my opinion.

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