Digital pedometers, calorie counters, wearable heart monitors. There certainly are a lot to choose from! Estimates put the number of consumer health apps between 50 and 100 thousand, most of which are related to eating and exercise, some of which are tied to wearable sensors or biometric devices.
So as consumers, how do we choose? And what should technology developers be aiming for? On what basis should doctors, employers or health plans make recommendations to their patients, employees, or members? I recently presented to the Institute of Medicine (IOM) on this topic. Here the gist of what I said. In my opinion, the best health-related apps and device are:
Obvious, worth unpacking a little. In an activity tracker, for example, I care not only what information is collected (like how much I moved, whether I ran or biked, or where I went), but also how I get that information. Some trackers give you vague guidance like a green light if you are active. Not for me: I want the exact number of steps, real time, in a way I can access easily.
#2 User Friendly
If it’s a device, make it easy to set up, use, and charge. I still have a wearable heart monitor that I bought several months ago in its package. Every time I pull it out I get overwhelmed by instruction booklets, diagrams and lots of little pieces I need to connect –so instead I put it back in my dresser drawer.
#3 Good Looking (or Invisible!)
Apps have the edge here since they fit seamlessly on your phone, but even they must have an appealing design. There are some wearable products on the market that track data I’d love to have, but I can’t imagine walking around with what looks like a clunky calculator taped to my wrist. Companies like Misfit www.misfit.com and Netatmo https://www.netatmo.com/en-US/product/june#view1 get props for good looking devices that work especially well aesthetically for women.
Again, kind of obvious. I won’t wear something that chafes, hurts, or turns my arm strange colors. Phone based apps and sensors imbedded in clothing or shoes have a leg up here. But I won’t use an app that is a chore to use because I have to navigate thorough multiple screen or read tons of small text.
I lost one wearable activity tracker to the vortex of the washing machine. Yet another popped off my clothing and drowned in a public toilet, of all places. For phone-only apps, no one stays with a program that keeps crashing.
Affordability is relative, and most apps are a great bargain, assuming you have a smart phone. While it makes sense for some apps and tools to come with higher prices, those at the lower end of the spectrum are more likely to have significant impact from a population perspective.
#7 Transparent Privacy Practices
This one is big. I am less sensitive about privacy than many people, but I was upset when a fitness app I purchased recently contacted my friends via Facebook to tell them I’d downloaded it. Health information can be highly sensitive—once it’s out you can’t get it back.
#8 Integrates with other Products
Nowadays you should have the option of linking data from your app or device to other programs you are using – whether it’s Apple’s HealthKit, Microsoft’s HealthVault, or your doctor’s patient portal. Any forward thinking device should provide APIs to let other products or services use and mash up your data with other information (with your permission, of course!)
#9 Trusted Brand/Reviews
A known brand such as Nike or Under Armor has the capacity to be a huge differentiator, and to make associate health products with wellness and sports rather than infirmity. Especially in the absence of a known brand, customer reviews can provide useful guidance to consumers and invaluable feedback to developers.
In addition to the factors above, apps and tools that are fun will be most likely to succeed—for many of us, that means they incorporate a social or community aspect. But data sharing isn’t for everyone (I’ve never been tempted to Tweet my weight from my wireless scale). What about you? What do you think is most important in choosing health-related app or tool?