It’s hard not to be seduced by the constant thrum of technology, the persistent parade of all things digitally desirable. The allure of the forthcoming Apple Watch, the functionality of Google Fit—no one can blame us for getting more and more hopeful every time a new gadget rolls into town.
But I ask that we approach with a dash of caution. In the past we used to think of communication as our panacea for changing health behavior. My worry is that we will quickly fall into the same trap with technology, by wrongly believing that it’s today’s mystical cure-all. But sadly there’s no single elixir for fixing public health. There is no magic bullet to mend the ailments of our time.
And ailing we are. Obesity has nearly doubled since 1980. In 2008, 1 in 4 adults were classified as overweight and a further 1 in 10 as obese. Is this another unwanted present that we’re going to pass on to the next generation? In 2013, 42 million children under the age of five were recorded as obese.
So how do we press forward? I’m certainly not advocating that we dismiss technology. As an enabler for public health change, there is perhaps no better tool than technology at our disposal. But the devil is in the detail. When it comes to health behavior we need to remind ourselves that we’re not cyborgs; in fact we’re idiosyncratic social creatures.
Recently, Ogilvy CommonHealth conducted a study into some of the most popular wearable devices of today. While we applaud many for the way they are using behavioral change techniques (rather than just blindly feeding back data), we found no direct correlation between the number of techniques employed and the impact on health behavior. As we are told time and again: It’s not the quantity that counts, but the quality. Or rather, the individualized quality.
Developing effective wearable technology for health is not a one-size-fits-all game. Both our research and the literature reached the same conclusion—as individuals we respond differently to different behavior change techniques at different times. So as developers, we need to take this as our starting point—taming the technology to our needs—rather than letting it act as rule and reign.
What I find most exciting is how we might make use of intelligent technology. Technology that doesn’t just deliver behavior change techniques, but learns from and adapts to our individual daily behaviors, however typical or quirky they may be. Great initial steps are being made, but now it’s time to truly underpin the power of technology with behavioral science. The expertise on both sides already exists, but like so often in our industry, the best brains don’t always get a chance to put their heads together as often as they should. Given that the stakes are so high, what’s holding us back?