Building a better you: How can personal technology support better health and well-being?
About the salon
The new year is a time for resolutions. So as 2023 begins, many of us are making renewed commitments to improving our physical and mental health. Today, more and more sophisticated sensors and computing power are available on personal devices and platforms to help us accomplish this goal—and drive long-lasting behavioral change. What is the state of the art in the field? And the limitations of technology as a tool for better health? How can designers drive innovation that helps both individuals reach their goals and brands thrive?
Jenn Bai is the senior director of product management at AbleTo, a mental health care company providing virtual therapy and services that address some of the biggest problems in behavioral health. Before this role, Bai worked at Johnson & Johnson’s global design office and at NYU Langone Health.
Angela Herblet is an information and data management specialist at NASA. In this role, she is responsible for the Deep Space Food Challenge within the space agency’s Centennial Challenges program, developing novel food technologies for space and on Earth.
Holly Listmann is the head of product research and innovation at WeightWatchers, a global wellness technology company focused on helping participants lose weight and gain healthy habits. Listmann, who has a master’s degree in design, leads the innovation team developing new food programs.
The discussion was led by Richard Whitehall and Danielle Frucci, and informed by Smart Design’s expertise in human-centered design solutions, including for the healthcare sector. They asked our panel of innovation experts about the best ways to keep users motivated on their health journey, why it’s important to balance technology and real-life experiences, and how NASA uses an open innovation process to address technological challenges in space flight.
Here are the highlights of the evening’s conversation:
Understand “where users are” and their motivations
Committing to improving one’s physical or mental health is one thing, but managing obstacles along the way and achieving these goals pose challenges for many people. Companies that provide such services must continually innovate tools to inspire participants to join up and stay motivated.
For its part, virtual mental health care provider AbleTo takes a gradual approach “gently easing the transition” to services, Jenn Bai, senior director of product management, said. For example, it encourages potential clients to learn about the benefits of therapy—sometimes over months—before deciding whether to begin. Another strategy to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health: first discuss any physical health problems they are experiencing and only then address mental health needs. “People will be most successful when they are ready for change, so we try to meet them where they’re at,” Bai said. While participants are likely to have a set of common goals—“to feel better, happier, and less anxious and stressed”—there are unique differences to keep in mind. Those struggling with depression may want to feel more social, while those with anxiety issues might seek to manage the unknown and be in control. Longer-term goals are set at the start of therapy, say, better sleep, and broken down into smaller steps, such as taking a walk before bedtime. “This process helps them grow more confident and encourages them to continue, and ultimately rolls into positive clinical outcomes,” Bai said.
Weight loss alone isn’t always the main motivation for those who join WeightWatchers: participants also want to feel better, have more energy, take fewer medications—and enjoy food. Identifying early on the root cause of why they want to lose weight is therefore critical to long-term success, and helps members stay on track during what can be a lengthy process, according to Holly Listmann, the innovation lead for food programs. As such, the patient journey is broken into smaller wins—acknowledging, for example, when a member has lost their first five pounds. It also recognizes what the company calls “non-scale victories” such as walking up two flights of stairs again without feeling winded, or seeing that a favorite piece of clothing fits again. Taken together, “these wins and achievements add up and start to make it easier for the user to stay on the journey,” Listmann explained.
Provide the comforts of home—in space
If improving health on Earth appears difficult, consider the extreme situation astronauts face on long-duration flights. There’s no easing into a health and wellness regime on a long space mission, when the day is regimented down to as little as five-minute intervals for eating, physical exercise, performing tasks, and taking breaks. One strategy is to provide the crew with a measure of control and the comforts of home in space, where so much is “unknown or out of control,” said Angela Herblet of NASA. To fight “food fatigue,” there is a communal table on the International Space Station where they share food and celebrate special events and holidays. Astronauts also make food choices after sampling dishes in a NASA test kitchen and plan their ideal menu (in-flight food favorites include Texas BBQ and freeze-dried strawberries). “They may be high-performing astronauts, Herblet noted, but “you are still dealing with a crew of human beings, and even the most disciplined need support.”
Measure digital and real-world successes
While digital platforms have become essential components for delivering healthcare services—a trend driven by the pandemic, especially for mental health —companies also recognize the need to balance technology and actual experiences. Members of WeightWatchers primarily engage with the app to learn skills and receive support, but it is their daily decisions about food and fitness that drive their behavior. “In our environment, it’s real life that matters most,” Listmann pointed out. The app is designed around understanding individual user needs, be it to drop some baby weight and then move on, or to address a more complicated history and relationship with food.
In the mental health space, AbleTo measures success not by how much patients are interacting digitally but by how they are managing their lives and making improvements in their mental health. Because therapy sessions are time-limited, providers encourage participants to practice their skills— whether online, using our digital experience, or offline, for example, by keeping a journal using a pen and paper to reinforce a concept learned in a session. “Our program gives people a digital tool kit to gain insight and awareness, but also to go beyond that and apply these strategies in their daily lives,” Bai pointed out. Technology can be a great tool to achieve those goals by nudging users toward behavioral change, but it can also contribute negatively to mental health, she acknowledges.
Actively engage people in innovation
In an increasingly competitive marketplace, companies and organizations are using a range of innovation strategies. NASA’s Centennial Challenges program crowdsources innovation by offering incentive prizes to anyone pitching ideas to help solve big problems and close technological gaps related to space travel. This allows NASA to “reach outside its own walls” and tap into a wider source of knowledge and expertise, according to Herblet. It also sparks the public’s imagination and fascination with space exploration, making people “feel like they are part of the mission and contributing” to the country’s space initiatives, she added. These challenges include novel food production technologies in space, and how to apply those insights on Earth, as growing plants in space could have applications in remote, inhospitable regions.
The collaborative innovation model WeightWatchers uses reflects the company’s early 1960s origins when founder Jean Nidetch invited women to her Queens, New York, home to trade “tips and tricks” about weight loss. Today, it draws heavily on user feedback from in-depth interviews and surveys of its nearly 5 million members to determine participants’ “aspirations, motivations, and intentions,” Listmann said. It also tracks trends in food science, nutrition, and shifting consumer behavior patterns. Especially important are members’ emotional experiences and connections with food and eating. What happens, for instance, when they’ve had a stressful day or their child is sick or something unexpected happens? How does this affect what they want to eat? Collaborative innovation can help identify which aspects of the program are most effective during such tough moments “so we can better understand their lives and eventually help others.”
When AbleTo develops a new type of therapy program, it starts by creating a single user persona with specific attributes—in this case, someone who is in their 30s and digitally savvy—and builds an MVP based on that. Then tests this with a group of recruited participants, makes adjustments, and then widens the pool to non-recruited participants. The goal of this innovation process is to “replicate the actual lived experience,” as Bai put it, before launching the program to a larger set of clients and therapists. This continuous cycle of learning and testing in a controlled, critical innovation environment is important to de-risk the experience; making sure that the new program’s outcomes are as good as, if not better, than our existing programs, an all-important consideration when dealing with patient safety and mental health.
The healthcare sector is growing and evolving at a rapid pace as technology allows providers to bring services to more people to help them lead healthier lives—both on our planet and in space. Companies and brands, working with designers, will continue to expand these offerings using artificial intelligence and advances in wearable medical health devices that offer more data and insights into how our bodies work, allowing users to attain their health goals. And with renewed interest in long-duration human spaceflight, research will focus on how to sustain crews physically and mentally through bioculture and growing plants in space that can also benefit life on Earth.
Design for long-term engagement
Be aware that the consumer journey can be a difficult process, with obstacles and setbacks along the way, requiring tools that allow users to start slowly, set and achieve goals, and build confidence and resilience.
Investigate a range of innovation models
Be flexible when determining innovation processes, from crowdsourcing to collaborative strategies, choosing the best approach to uncover ideas and understand user aspirations, motivations, and intentions.
Remember the “real world”
Understand the limits of technology and the importance of lived user experiences, integrating both digital and analog elements to create a holistic ecosystem to both teach skills and support personal growth.
Aim for equality
Recognize disparities in healthcare delivery to underserved populations, and address affordability and access issues to ensure greater opportunities for everyone to improve their physical and mental well-being.
About Richard Whitehall
Richard Whitehall is a Partner at Smart Design who uses design to unpack strategic problems and drive progress. He brings expertise in design research and strategy, service design, and product development and has worked across the healthcare, TMT, mobility, and consumer packed goods industries. Some notable clients include HP, Microsoft, Ford, Upstream and Google. He has keynoted the SDN Global Conference, DMI Design Leadership Conference, and Quirks Conference.
About Danielle Frucci
Danielle Frucci is an Executive Design Director who thrives on being involved in purposeful work that challenges and inspires her. She brings expertise in UX research, digital strategy, application design, and integrated digital experiences, with notable clients across sectors such as Johnson & Johnson, and Verizon. She holds a B.A. in Graphic Design and Visual Media from American University.