To improve mHealth app design, developers must engage diverse patient pool

Man using a smartphone

While mobile healthcare apps boast potential to provide patients an opportunity for better care management, developers must involve a diverse user pool in designing and testing such tools, according to a small study published recently in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

For the study, which was highlighted by The Commonwealth Fund, the researchers focused on 11 known and highly-rated apps for managing depression and diabetes. They monitored 26 patients using the tools, tracking health conditions via data entry and data retrieval. They also evaluated app usability for elderly patient caregivers.

The findings revealed users had trouble with multiple screens and steps for basic data tasks, and were able to complete only half of the tasks without help. Users also reported trouble understanding what data needed to be logged and how to retrieve information.

“Participants completed only 79 out of 185 tasks ...  across 11 apps, without assistance,” said the researchers, who added that no apps offered a simple interface and easy to follow instructions or navigation. “In general, the apps lacked explanations of the relevance of various functions--for instance, why a diabetic patient might wish to look back at a prior meal."

The findings are similar to those of a study published earlier this year regarding free digital apps for diabetes management. Researchers for that study reported a variety of barriers facing users, from poor usability to time investment needed to learn how to use the tools. It also cited a need for easy navigation, intuitive graphics and smooth data integration.

In the future, the authors of the JGIM study recommend more research on the impact of such apps on uptake, health outcomes and self-management behaviors.

"If we cannot harness the potential of mobile technology to improve self-management and, ultimately, health, it will be a missed opportunity in efforts to ameliorate health disparities," the researchers said.

For more information:
- here's the study
- check out the Commonwealth Fund post