Center for Injury Research and Prevention

Designing mHealth Apps

December 10, 2015

It is exciting to create and design mHealth apps to address a broad range of important issues to prevent, diagnose, and treat health-related problems. With today’s technology, which is often in the palm of our hands, the opportunities seem endless; but it’s important to return to the problem you are trying to solve before developing an intervention. It’s crucial to use the knowledge gleaned from formative research to ask: Is an mHealth approach the best approach? And then use a minimal viable product (MVP) to test the content and approach.

As colleagues and I described in a recent article in Internet Interventions, four domains should be considered in the development process:

  • health communications and multi-media best practices
  • integration of conceptual and theoretical frameworks
  • stakeholder engagement
  • use of a multidisciplinary team

What mHealth Approach Is Best?

If you determine a mHealth approach is best, what type will be most salient to your target audience and the issue being addressed? Is it texting, an app, a wearable device, a website, or something else?  How will the mHealth intervention be introduced to users (e.g., through a healthcare provider)? Does it need to be coupled with other approaches (e.g., face-to-face, print)? What is the budget? What expertise is needed? Answering these questions and using formative research findings is the foundation for the design of your mHealth intervention.

Test Basic Intervention with a Minimal Viable Product

It is both the evidence-based content and the approach that are critical -- technology alone is not the active ingredient. We have learned from our industry partners to start with a MVP, which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about users. An MVP allows for the building of the basic intervention first, to get feedback, and then to continue to revise and add new features.

These principles of iterative design based on the feedback of end users can be applied in many settings. For example, CIRP@CHOP’s Digital Health Initiative (DHI) team recently used this process to learn from parents about what they would like to see in a mobile app for guidance in car seat installation and safety. We learned that an mHealth app would be acceptable to our target audience since they use apps frequently and almost all have smartphones. But we also learned that a mobile website might be more ideal since parents would only need the knowledge periodically, not daily. We also learned that many parents were unaware of local car seat installation checks and were confused about current guidelines.

We used what we learned from parents to guide the development of a prototype. Now we’re going back to those parents to conduct user testing for additional feedback before taking the next step to produce the final mHealth tool. 

If you’re a researcher, program manager or app developer, we encourage you to take the time to refer back to your formative research findings, use a multidisciplinary team with expertise in behavior change, technology and user experience design, and gather user input all along the development process.

Here are some great resources to help you design an effective mHealth intervention:

Look for the last installment in this six-part series on mHealth app development, Building a Minimal Viable Product, later this month.

**Like what you’ve read? Subscribe to Research in Action to have the latest in child injury prevention delivered to your inbox.**