Beginner’s Guide to Behavioral Design in HealthTech: Key Strategies and Tips 

Behavior change is the new frontier in healthtech 

Globally, seven out of the 10 leading causes of death are a result of – or exacerbated by – unhealthy behaviors. This is not lost in healthtech where the market value of mHealth apps currently sits close to $50 billion and is expected to more than double by the end of the decade.  

In traditional healthcare and public health, interventions to improve health behavior can vary in degree – from hands-on, in-person programs, overseen by medical professionals to more subtle, structural interventions such as the addition of a walking track in a local park. To attest to the effectiveness of these types of interventions, we can rely on decades of evidence. 

In the digital realm, the relationship between evidence and implementation is less fortified. While some health behavior apps can proport to be science-backed, the reality is, not every organization has the benefit of a Chief Science Officer or a behavioral design team to help drive product design decision making.  

What is Behavioral Design  

In healthcare and digital health, behavioral design focuses on creating technologies and interventions that encourage healthier behaviors. It leverages insights into how people make health-related decisions and form habits. The goal is to design apps, devices, and systems that are more engaging and effective at promoting positive health behaviors, such as regular exercise, healthy eating, medication adherence, or chronic disease management. By understanding the factors that influence behavior, these designs can effectively encourage patients towards better health outcomes, making it easier for them to adopt and maintain healthy habits.  

So how does a product team decide what to build if they lack behavioral design expertise? In this regard, the Behavioral Design (BxD) team at Emids has created solutions – built on years of research and practice – to enable teams to make better decisions when designing digital solutions aimed at helping people lead healthier lives. 

What is the Emids Behavioral Design Framework 

The Behavioral Design Framework (BxD) is a set of guiding principles aimed at facilitating the design and evaluation of optimal user experiences to elicit positive health behavior change. BxD is built upon a multidisciplinary approach, integrating insights from cognitive sciences, behavior change techniques, gameful design, and gamification. It’s applicable across various digital products or services that engage individuals and promote sustained behavior change. The framework includes defining product direction with behavior change strategies, creating or reimagining products with a behavioral design lens, and evaluating existing products against 12 best practice behavior change principles. 

The 12 principles capture the most effective aspects of digitally inspired behavior change and these are layered against 4 user-product stages that allow us to present the right interaction in the right moment of the journey.  

For a deeper dive on Behavioral Design consider these 8 Behavior-Change Design Tips

Considerations for Getting Started 

Consider best-practice principles – and then go beyond 

Download any well-reviewed health app, and the same behavioral hooks exist. They’ll ask you to set goals, show you feedback on your progress, send you motivational reminders, and reward you when you reach your targets. In today’s competitive health app market, these principles are the bare minimum expectations. When designing for behavior change there are additional principles, linked to evidence-backed theory, that can make your solution more effective in the long-run.  

One often overlooked mechanism is that of human connection. Research shows that support from a shared-experience community increases an individual’s capacity to change their behavior.  Product teams might be cautious to implement any social component, especially one they need to moderate. But human connection doesn’t have to be an ad-hoc social network. Knowledge of others on the same journey can be just as powerful. 

Health behavior also doesn’t take place in a vacuum. The environment around us can impact our actions. If there’s a thunderstorm outside, no level of motivational messaging from our phones will make us brave the harsh conditions and go for a run. Health apps need to account for the environment and adjust their service accordingly. 

Human connection and accounting for the environment are just two additional principles to consider. The important thing to keep in mind is to truly impact behavior, a digital product needs to include techniques outside the standard pale of ideation. 

Be conscious of how and when you implement behavioral principles 

Whether considering goal-setting or human connection, how and when behavioral principles are implemented can decisively impact the effectiveness of the app.  

The Emids BxD team asks guiding questions specific to each principle they recommend to ensure it is executed correctly. However, it is always important to integrate user research analytics for measuring the success of a feature as a starting point. 

For most product teams, the simplest place to start when implementing a behavioral principle is to consider the journey an end-user goes through when using a health app as described in this article. The most common error most health apps make is showcasing their behavioral principles at the wrong time.  

Consider an app, in which during onboarding it asks you to set goals and link your smart devices for enhanced feedback. Here’s the thing, health apps require a more rigorous explanation of their features, how they impact the health outcome, and especially health data transparency. Jumping straight to goal setting without educating users on its benefit to the end outcome or asking to link devices without showcasing your commitment to data privacy is – simply put – bad user experience, and will work against you when trying to get individuals to trust and engage with an app. In short, you can work with the best science, but timing is essential.  

Deciding which principles are most relevant for an app, how to implement them, and when they are best executed are vital to ensure the optimum user experience and to facilitate positive health behavior change. For expert guidance on behavioral design with your product, contact our BxD team.  

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