Most successful health apps keep consumer preferences in mind

The secret to developing a successful health care app--one that works, and will actually be used by your patients and physicians--can be found in consumer apps, according to a new report released by the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

Researchers broke down development styles, methods and design criteria used by consumer app vendors, applying them to healthcare app development, and identifying which could successfully crosswalk into the healthcare space. The big finding: Users are key. It may sound simplistic, but when developers bring users into their design, they seem to identify flaws and uncover needed workflow and interface functions, the report indicates.

A few other criteria to consider as you're building your next app, either for clinicians or patients:

Use "human factors experts" in designing the app: Human factors experts are specially trained analysts who investigate the way users interact with equipment, or in this case, a smartphone app, and determine what limitations or obstacles users might face. The idea: Remove obstacles, reduce limitations and improve ease of use, system performance and reliability, and user satisfaction.

Keep it painfully simple: Smartphone users want single-tap functionality, only two to three items on any drop-down menus, and to accomplish one task per screen. That can be a tough task for healthcare software, but a key element in developing a health app that physicians or patients actually will use. You may spend an inordinate amount of time parsing each function down to a one- or two-click solution, but the study shows it will reward you in terms of your app's stickiness.

Consider user characteristics: User characteristics like age, physical ability, cognitive ability and literacy level can dramatically affect their ability (and desire) to use your app. Another key factor is user preference, such as whether a patient/clinician wants information pushed to them or pulled (requested) from them, in a way that is aligned with natural ways of thinking.

Allow user customization: You may not want users digging around in your base code, but successful consumer apps follow a modular structure that allows some user customization, the report says. In most cases, successful consumer apps provide a basic level of functionality for starters, then allow users to activate more sophisticated features if they need or want them.

To learn more:
- download the AHRQ report