Center for Injury Research and Prevention

Laying the Foundation for MHealth App Development

August 25, 2015

I recently blogged about best practices for mHealth app development and the five steps involved. Here I focus on Step 1: Understand the Problem and Your Audience. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry so accurately summed it up: “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” I couldn’t agree more. Here's what to consider.

You may be interested in a specific health problem or a specific population, group, or community and think that a mHealth app will be the best way to reach the specific audience to address the problem. It might seem obvious at first glance – find an app and ask a group of people to download it.

But, it’s not always that easy: Some may not understand the information in the app; others may perceive the app as unhelpful and not use it; still others may use the app once and then forget about it.

So where’s the best place to start to ensure that your app intervention helps others?  

In planning an intervention, it’s important to explore the health problem within the context of the audience you are trying to reach. The health problem may be more severe or different in specific groups of people, either by age, culture, gender, income, or a broad range of other personal characteristics. In addition, the people you are trying to reach may not see it as a problem or have other issues that are more relevant and pressing. 

Equally important, is a specific mHealth approach the right way to reach them? 

Regardless, it’s important to start with a deeper understanding of both the problem and the audience as you begin the planning process. This knowledge, based on evidence, becomes the foundation that guides the development of an intervention that will have value and impact.     

Explore the Problem

Often, certain health issues lie in our own area of expertise or personal experiences, and there’s value in this type of anecdotal evidence. But it’s also important to understand the entire scope of the problem by exploring national or global trends through epidemiologic data or the scientific literature.

Depending on the problem, there’s a wealth of resources to explore. Reviewing government websites is a good start.  For instance, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for teen driving statistics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) for teen health behaviors are excellent resources for epidemiological information and research on adolescent health behaviors and teen driving.

Scholarly literature will also provide additional insights about the current understanding of the problem and interventions that have been shown to be effective. As you explore, you will begin to find the audiences that are most at risk or where interventions have not been successful. 

In addition to this broad view, it’s also crucial to understand how mHealth approaches have been used (if at all). Together, these various sources of information become the foundation of your development plan.

Understand Your Audience

With a deeper understanding of the problem and the literature, you will have a clearer vision of the audience or audiences to focus your intervention. This might confirm what you had already been considering or take you in an entirely new direction.

Is a mHealth approach still best? If so, what type of mHealth approach should you consider? Should it be text messages, an app, a mobile website or a combination?

It’s also important to understand if there will be language, cultural or literacy issues to consider. Get to know the audience for which you are designing the intervention through direct communication. Gain their insights via focus groups, interviews, or panels.

Talk with leaders in the community or organizations who serve your target audience too. This communication is invaluable because you will be able to understand the problem from their vantage point and gather their thoughts very early in the development process to maximize your intervention’s value.

Best of all, there are many great resources available to help you with this process. Here are a few of my favorites, in addition to those already mentioned above:

For Health Literacy

For Health Communications Best Practices

For mHealth Resources

Look for the next installment in this six-part series on mHealth app development, Assessing Content Validity, next week from my colleague, Nancy Kassam-Adams, PhD. Future posts will explore Step 3 (gathering target audience/stakeholder insights in the planning process), Step 4 (designing a viable product), and Step 5 (building a minimal viable product).


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