Life-spanning the app

Most consumer-facing apps are not built with longevity in mind. Instead, they are built to engage enough people for the few months or years it takes to either lose the audience and flame out as a startup, or to succeed by selling it and its community to a larger company.

However, there is another form of app emerging—a life-spanning, or long-form app if you will—that is less focused on short-term high growth and inherently more demanding of the user’s engagement over longer periods of time.

These apps aim to change behavior over longer periods of time, and/or to capitalize upon habitual behaviors. Some, but not all, employ social pressure through a combination of social features like sharing status and progress on Facebook and Twitter; and overt or subtle forms of gamification such as passive stats, challenges, points, incentives, and user ranking.

The primary area in which these apps are beginning to emerge is in health. The reasons are obvious. Our health and wellness are things we are concerned about and therefore engaged with long-term.

The growing interest in personal tracking and self quantification has produced a whole list of ‘lifespan’ apps, some of which focus on niche audiences like runners (MapMyRun), dieters (LiveStrong) or recovering addicts (AAAStepsAway for iPhone and Android).

Another significant area in long-form apps is undoubtedly in response to the ongoing recession and people’s sense of ignorance and powerlessness in the face of the financial meltdown. Mint, Learnvest, and a few others combine financial management advice with pragmatic tools that enable you to track your financials, set goals, and prompt better decisions about your money.

Essentially, the surge in apps for health, quantified self, and financial management tells us that there is a need for longer-term thinking in product design. Apps that capitalize upon what is already habitual behavior on the part of the user are more likely to succeed, even if the app itself seems fairly unsophisticated.

The tricky part of creating apps like these has got to be the process of altering behavior and keeping people engaged long term. I mean, we’re all pretty entrenched in our habits. I know I am. :)

For example, I am by no means an athlete but it’s fairly easy for me to whip myself into shape if I’m feeling slovenly enough. My tendency is go every day and work my ass off (literally) for a month, modify my diet in some extreme way, and slim down a couple sizes fast. Once I stop feeling like a bloated waste of space, I stop going again. It’s sad how many gym memberships I’ve gone through in this way.

I have tried LiveStrong, various diet tracking tools like About.com’s Calorie Counter (surprisingly good), and in RL, trainers.

In my own self-analysis, I find that pairing up with someone who triggers my competitive streak and my guilt simultaneously is the single best motivator for me to change my lazy ways. My use of self-tracking tools tends to be supplementary to that actual relationship.

This is not unusual, and that’s why some dieting and exercise apps incorporate gamification and your personal networks to tap into those social motivators.

For me, self-efficacy effects the goals I set for myself. I attribute my low goal-setting behavior (in diet and fitness) to my upbringing which did not encourage engagement in sports or physical activity (but rather focused on intellectual and artistic development). The goals I set are in turn impacted by social environment. If I pair myself with someone with more self-efficacy and bigger goals, my goal-threshold is raised. This combination determines my success in behavioral change.

Self-efficacy influences the effort one puts forth to change risk behavior and the persistence to continue striving despite barriers and setbacks that may undermine motivation. Self-efficacy is directly related to health behavior, but it also affects health behaviors indirectly through its impact on goals. Self-efficacy influences the challenges that people take on as well as how high they set their goals (e.g., “I intend to reduce my smoking,” or “I intend to quit smoking altogether”). A number of studies on the adoption of health practices have measured self-efficacy to assess its potential influences in initiating behavior change (Luszczynska, & Schwarzer, 2005).

I would hazard a guess that self-efficacy and social factors are the primary motivators of people under 30, while people 30 and above may require additional motivators (such as a severe illness and/or decline in health) as a result of habitual behaviors.

This is problematic when you consider that mobile apps—which are arguably more effective in monitoring behavior (because they potentially require less input)— are consumed more widely by young people. Young people’s motivators are different and their behaviors are less established. Older people, by contrast, are more likely to require behavioral change, but less likely to download and in turn use mobile apps. In fact:

while 43% of adult cell phone users have apps on their phone, significantly fewer (29%) have actually downloaded an app.  The remaining 14% only have preloaded apps on their phone.

It’s worth looking at this breakdown from the Pew Internet report:

To me this suggests that an initiative towards pre-loading health apps on mobile phones might be worth pursuing. Perhaps corporations that pay for their employees’ cell phones might consider it a worthwhile addition to their agreements with cell phone service providers to offer pre-loaded health apps or incentives to their employees to download them.

The other challenge to long-term tracking and behavioral change apps is the data on repeat usage. According to Localytics 26% of mobile apps downloaded in 2010 were used just once: 

This in turn suggests that long-term behavioral change apps targeted towards adults should be tied to RL motivators. Doctors prescribe medicine. Why don’t they prescribe or at least suggest apps? By the same token, financial advisers should recommend apps like Mint—and perhaps app companies like Mint should create ‘financial coach’ accounts and/or family accounts to increase social motivators.

Adult behavioral change is harder. Incorporating financial, professional, and health-related incentives may differentiate a successful app from an unsuccessful one. Coming up with ways of partnering with corporations, cell-phone providers, health providers, and insurance companies to provide pre-loaded apps, prescribe them, or offer incentives for their use might be the way to alter adult app usage behavior and in turn, their lifestyle.