Developers over the years have released thousands upon thousands of health and mental health apps in the Apple App Store and on Google Play. Most of them you’ve never heard of, and fewer still last much longer than a year on the market.
When so many people want to change their behaviors and habits, why do most people quit a health app after the first week? Why do the vast majority of health apps and mental health apps fail?
The numbers are enormous. Right now, the App Store by Apple shows over 270 “popular” health apps, most of which are trackers. Trackers work by a person constantly entering information into the app to track some behavior they want to work on. For a lot of people, it’s their weight, so there are thousands of diet and fitness apps. This captures the vast majority of popular apps among that 270.
Trackers are great. Psychologists have known and shown through research that in order to have effective behavior change, you first need to understand your behavior. And that means you have to track it (e.g. its frequency, triggers associated with it, your mood, etc.).
The Two Problems With Tracking Apps
The first problem with tracking a thing is that it’s tedious work. Anything that’s “work” is something few people derive intrinsic benefit from (hence the reason most people are paid for it). If something is work, people tend to do less of it. They tend to do even more less of it when that work involves tracking some behavior they want to change.
I don’t know of a person alive today who’s said, “Wow, I really enjoy entering in how many calories I ate at lunch, that’s so much fun!”
Nope, not fun.
And whether it’s a health issue or a mental health issue, the fact that you have to constantly input data into a computer (which is all you’re doing when you’re entering data into an app) puts you on the same exciting level as a data entry worker. Which is a fine job (if you get paid for it).
“But your reward isn’t money, it’s the long-term goal of behavior change for whatever you’ve set for yourself.”
Sure, that sounds good, but smartly brings us to the second problem. Most people aren’t raised to value a long-term goal of some potentially good thing happening at some future date, assuming X, Y and Z all happen in the meantime. The long-term goals are simply too far out and too nebulous and hazy to be of value as an incentive in the here-and-now.
Apps fail because tracking is boring work which most people tire of quickly (usually within the first week), and because most people don’t get much short-term motivation from long-term goals.
What Psychologists Do to Help
Most technology and app companies, sadly, don’t hire psychologists. Instead, they rely on a bunch of pop psychology books or something they learned while in undergraduate studies to guide how they design a health or mental health app for behavior change. And that’s simply not sufficient, since the first rule that psychologists learn about behavior change is this: change is hard.
I don’t mean “hard” as a simple engineering question that needs to be worked out and a technical solution devised. I mean “hard” as in humans are infinitely messy, complex beings as a result of years of experience, learning and upbringing. This infinite complexity is why there’s no single theory of personality development. Or behavior change. Humans are more complex — and more diverse in their complexity — that most people realize.
Psychologists can help with this issue. They’ve actually been trained in this sort of stuff on an individual level for decades, so they know exactly how to tackle the challenge of moving people toward a far-away goal in small steps. It’s not just about “gamification” of something — it’s more complicated than that. Because what works for one set of people is unlikely to work for another, so you have to come at the problem from different perspectives for different types of learners.