Diabetes apps pose difficulties for older users

Proliferating health apps are everywhere, it seems--even on a trek to Mount Everest. But diabetes-management apps pose particular problems for older users--a group most likely to need them, according to the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.

In a paper to be presented next month at the society's annual meeting, North Carolina State University researchers Laura A. Whitlock and Anne Collins McLaughlin urge app designers to take older users' needs into account.

They studied three apps for tracking blood glucose from the Apple iOS App Store with user ratings of at least four out of five stars. These iPhone apps log multiple variables, such as food consumption and medication, that can affect blood glucose levels. They include functions such as reminder alarms, educational tools, interactive forums and reports, according to a society announcement. But for people with declines in cognition, vision, and motor skills, they can be difficult to use--which might lead to a stop in their use entirely.

A line graph showing change in blood glucose over time, for example, might be difficult for older users to interpret if the color key to the lines isn't on the same screen as the graph, the authors say, according to a copy of the report obtained by FierceMobileHealthcare. Other problems can be small text, thin lines linking data points, lack of contrast between the lines or text and the background color and a scrolling mechanism that is overly sensitive.

Another issue they found was that in trying to leave a note associated with a blood glucose reading, the text size shrunk and scrolled off the screen if the note exceeded a single line.

Some of these issues could be easy fixes, they say, such as changing text or line color from dark gray on a light gray background to black on a white background. Ideally, users could choose their text size--they acknowledge that would require designers to test the readability of each size individually--or use the iOS "pinch and zoom" feature on hard-to-read text.

Some of the issues are reproduced in various apps due to developers' use of standard iOS interface objects, the authors say, but if addressed there would proliferate accordingly.

Norwegian researchers have found that self-monitoring apps help diabetes patients 13 to 19 adhere to their treatment plans and a separate poll found smartphone-owning baby boomers also keen on the new health technology. But for an app to be used over time, it must be simple.

To learn more:
- read the announcement