Warning: “An obesity expert’s view of weight loss mobile apps”

“Why Weight Loss Mobile Apps Aren’t Really Changing the Game” is an interesting Psychology Today article by Sherry Pagoto PhD, Clinical Psychologist and Associate Professor of Medicine, University of Massachusetts Medical School @DrSherryPagoto.

At this point, everybody (and their cousin Vinny) has developed a weight loss mobile app. Please stop people, unless you have a real game-changing idea. The market has become so quickly saturated that the average user has a hard time knowing which application is worth trying and which was developed in Vinny’s basement. A single bad experience with a crappy app discourages users from trying another. Nobody wants to go through the trouble of entering an entire day’s worth of food intake only to discover that they can’t figure out the next step or that desired functions are missing. Word of mouth will eventually thin the herd, but in the meantime, market saturation is hindering progress as usability (not features) is the only significant difference between apps

Stay away developers, there’s nothing to see here

It’s a surprise to see that Sherry’s started a “grassroots mission” of her own because this idea of only doing something if you have a “real game-changing idea” obviously presupposes that everyone is in a position to know the difference. Perhaps Sherry thinks all these developers actually think they’re just part of some me-too herd, or perhaps Sherry’s never met a entrepreneur who gave it a shot and failed despite having a solid gut feeling that they were doing something “really really game changing”?

In my book the only thing that’s certain is that we don’t know who’s got the best new idea and where they are right now. Be careful what you dismiss out of hand and whatever you do don’t discourage your mobile app developer cousin Vinny to steer clear of the mHealth market as his ignorance of how the sickcare system works might be exactly what’s needed to think up a gamechanger…

Misunderstandings about how App Stores work

The article perpetuates some myths about app stores that give me a sense that the author has very little first hand experience or understanding of how app stores actually work:

The market has become so quickly saturated that the average user has a hard time knowing which application is worth trying and which was developed in Vinny’s basement

The first thing a customer sees is an apps community rating and feedback, as soon as you click on an app it tells you who it’s developer is. One more click and you can see other apps by this developer.

A single bad experience with a crappy app discourages users from trying another

I can imagine it might look like that from a 20,000 ft aerial view but this isn’t what’s happening in the real world where we can see it encourages customers to write a comment that this is a “crappy app” and that discourages other users from trying it and will lead to it being pushed to the bottom of the natural search so fewer potential customers even get to see it. A “crappy app” experience does the opposite of discouraging the trial of another and can actually drive customers to stay with recognised brands and act to actually encourage them to pay for and be quicker to appreciate and recommend quality alternatives.

Word of mouth will eventually thin the herd, but in the meantime, market saturation is hindering progress as usability (not features) is the only significant difference between apps

Eventually? This is Digital Darwinism powered by bucket loads of rocket fuel. It’s hard to find other services that sort the wheat from the chaff at anything like the speed of an App Store. Any app developer will tell you that market saturation makes it ALL about features and “one upping” one another eg. most developers are spending their time reading the comments (& complaints) on their own and their competitors apps as sources for ideas for FEATURES that they can add to make their app better.

Market research isn’t what helped Alexander Graham Bell invent the telephone

Research so far shows that mobile apps are no more effective than traditional methods of performing the same functions on reducing dietary intake or weight. Two studies showed that dietary tracking via a smartphone was no more effective at helping people eat less than dietary tracking via paper-and-pencil diaries (Acharya et al 2011; Burke et al 2012). I am in the midst of a similar study right now and so far our findings mirror these studies. Interestingly, one of the studies found that a mobile app that provided tailored advice to the user based on the data they entered was more effective than an app that did not. The meat and potatoes of behavioral modification counseling is building motivation and helping patients solve the problems that hinder their progress. I would love to see more of this in apps

It’s 2012 you don’t have to spend any more research time or money working out whether people want to carry pieces of dead trees that they’ll scratch graphite across to make lists of what they’ve eaten (back in 2006 I showed an audience at the Royal Society of Medicine how this was already being done with nothing more than a basic camera phone).

New approach to innovation: Build on weakness

Here I elucidate the weaknesses in the industry in the hopes of stimulating discussion about ways to improve the impact of this technology

Here’s how I’d start that discussion: Instead of criticising the weaknesses of current approaches and discouraging app developers from looking at the challenges surrounding diet and exercise I feel it’s time we took advantage of the massive opportunity to find, copy and partner to build better.

Obviously some VC’s will consider this a disadvantage from their ROI perspective but can you imagine the potential if every obesity expert spent the weekend finding their favorite app (we’re all on America’s Got mHealth Talent remember?) emailed the developer and asked if they could work with them to add what they think it needs to make the difference they want to see in the world?

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6 Responses to Warning: “An obesity expert’s view of weight loss mobile apps”

  1. Thanks for your thoughts on my post. You’re right, I don’t have the app developers view. I’m a health care provider and obesity expert (developers by the way, are not beating down my door, instead they sing to me the hymns of BJ Fogg who is not an obesity expert by any stretch of the definition!).

    I work with patients. I represent their views. The bottom line is that very few of my patients (in a university medical center seeking weight loss treatment) do not use these apps, are easily frustrated by them, or easily overwhelmed by all the choices (they don’t understand all the ratings, etc). What I mean when I say Vinnie should stop if he doesn’t have a game changer is to not just replicate what the top apps already do–there are a billion My Fitness Pal rip offs. Come up with something NEW, that reflects more sophisticated evidence-based strategies, and that is useful to more than highly motivated non-patient populations. The research I cited was not market research, it was randomized trial data in patient populations.

    One of my dearest friends is a very successful entrepreneur. I’m very acquainted with that world and believe very much in the concept of giving a good idea a shot. I also learned from him that EVERYONE thinks they have a creative, game changing idea, but few do. The ones who succeed are persistent… AND they do their homework—a ton of it.

    Thanks for the discussion. I disagree on your comments about criticism being unhelpful though. Criticism is an essential component of productive dialogue for change.

    Sherry

  2. Mike says:

    I’m not in the technology field, so some of this is a bit over my head. I do think the SPIRIT of Dr. Pagoto’s post was taken out of context, or at the very least misunderstood in this critique. When I read it, I took it as a call out to App developers to not get complacent and raise the bar. Asking them to go into the next frontier and incorporate a deeper level of behavioral modification. All the twitter chatter from the post would suggest that most people took it in this positive way. If no one with the expertise like Dr. Pagoto stands up and voices what needs to been done than complacency will win and we will be having this same conversation a year from now. I for one, thank Sherry for her no holds bar, honest professional option and as a user of mobile diet apps I couldn’t agree more with her incite.

  3. @Mike,

    Not sure what twitter chat you’re referring to.

    “I took it as a call out to App developers to not get complacent and raise the bar”

    As I mention I can’t find any evidence that App Developers are getting complacent, conversely as I mention in the post we’re getting to watch Digital Darwinism powered by bucket loads of rocket fuel with features and selling points being tweaked and added by the hour.

    The newbie App Developers aren’t trying to copy the crappy ones. If they are making crappy ones it’s because they aren’t talented enough to copy the better ones so these are probably being made by students or people just learning the craft who we’ve no need to worry about (the App Store rating systems will ensure patients don’t start using these).

    “I for one, thank Sherry for her no holds bar, honest professional option and as a user of mobile diet apps I couldn’t agree more with her incite”

    Let me assure you Mike if didn’t have great respect for Sherry and the discussion that her post has started I wouldn’t be sharing it on my blog.

  4. Pingback: ICMCC News Page » Warning: “An obesity expert’s view of weight loss mobile apps”

  5. Pingback: Warning: “An obesity expert’s view of weight loss mobile apps” « mHealth Insight: the blog of 3G Doctor : walkertecharts.com

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