Center for Injury Research and Prevention

Listen to Your Target Audience to Design a Viable mHealth Product

October 8, 2015

Moderator’s Note: This post was authored by Katie Halkyard MPH, CHES, who served as Research Manager for CIRP’s Digital Health Initiative. A trained public health professional and health educator, her work at CIRP focused on identifying evidence-based strategies to effectively develop, evaluate, and disseminate health information in the digital age. As of July 2016, Ms. Halkyard has left CIRP to pursue her career elsewhere.


My colleagues recently blogged about best practices for mHealth app development and two out of the five steps involved. Today I focus on Step 3: Listen to Your Target Audience. Large companies invest in market research to ensure that consumers will use (and like) a new product. They determine a target market and then spend time and money learning what their potential end users want and need. The initial processes involved in designing a health intervention on an app are much the same, but there is a key difference: We anticipate that by using the app, positive change in health and wellness will follow. 

In business, the process of learning from your target audience falls within the “research” phase of the product development cycle. In public health, it falls within the category of “formative research,” with the key concepts and approaches much the same. Similar to the research phase of product development, public health formative research helps investigators identify and understand the interests, behaviors and needs of target populations that influence their decisions, intentions, and behaviors.

There are four key steps in the formative research process that researchers generally follow to determine what their target audience wants and needs. The Digital Health Initiative team, along with other CIRP@CHOP colleagues, are currently using this process to develop a mobile app to help parents learn how to correctly and safely install their child’s car seat. The app is currently under development and will be evaluated in a future study. Here’s what to know:

Step 1. Gather information from the literature and analyze knowledge gaps.
After following
step 1 of our blog series and reviewing the literature, it’s sometimes helpful to create a simple K-W-L chart (“Know –Want to Know – Learned”) to organize a list of facts and statistics that are already known about the issue and to identify knowledge gaps that could be filled later in the formative research process.

Step 2. Choose data collection methods and design data collection instruments
Think about what methods you would like to use for target audience data collection and what resources and time you have to spend. Consider quantitative methods, such as surveys, or qualitative methods, such as focus groups, key stakeholder interviews, or central intercept interviews. To get valid and reliable results, begin with other research. For example, borrow or adapt instruments from the scholarly literature about the outcome you want to measure or go to experts for help. It’s also important to think about how to get the best answers to your questions. For our car seat app project, we conducted focus groups with 25 parents from the Philadelphia area to collect initial information and then launched an online survey to over 1,000 parents nationwide to fill in the gaps.

Step 3. Find the target audience and collect the data
If you’ve worked with your target audience before, that’s the best place to start. If not, contact local organizations or community groups with which your target audience is affiliated. Then determine the best methods to reach them considering your data collection method. For recruitment, will a newspaper advertisement work best with a small incentive as a thank you for completing a survey? For data collection, the best place to reach them is where they are most comfortable. For our car seat app project, we held the focus groups at the parents’ local primary care offices to make participation easy.

Step 4. Analyze and report the findings
The last step in the formative research process is to analyze and report on what you found from your data. What is the data telling you about your target audience? Can it help you understand what you didn’t know before? Can it help you make a decision or take action about how to design, implement, and/or disseminate your mHealth intervention? After analyzing the findings from our parent focus groups, we created an app design approach based on their main issues with car seat installation, what they wanted more information about and what they needed help with.

If you are a researcher or an app developer, we encourage you to follow this approach when making decisions about how to move forward with your intervention design. You would be surprised about how much you can learn from your target audience by simply asking them.

Here are some great resources to help you gather insights from your target audience:

Look for the next installment in this six-part series on mHealth app development, Designing a Viable mHealth Product, next month from my colleague, Linda Fleisher, PhD. A future post will explore Step 5 (Building a Minimal Viable Product).

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