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The Next Generation Of Health Care Apps

posted by Darcy Lewis

on January 23, 2017

When the mobile game Pokémon GO took the world by storm last summer, children—and their parents—weren’t the only ones intrigued by the global phenomenon. Health insurance plans have been watching, too. They’re on the lookout for lessons they can apply to their mobile apps that allow consumers  to measure, monitor, and improve their health like never before.

At AHIP’s Consumer Experience and Digital Health Forum in Chicago, Trapper Markelz, president and COO of MeYou Health, walked an audience of about 75 health plan executives through what has made Pokémon GO an unprecedented success and how health plan apps can incorporate similar features.

Go where?

Pokémon GO has been downloaded more than 500 million times since its July release, according to research published in the British Medical Journal. Its real-world interface is a key component. If you want to “catch ‘em all,” as the game’s slogan urges, you have to get off your couch and venture out to where the Pokémon are.

Recent research shows players take an average of 1,000 – 1,400 extra steps per day. This activity boost may taper as the game’s novelty wears off; it’s too soon to know for sure.

What does seem like a sure thing is even relatively mundane health apps like activity trackers, food calculators, and the like are to be spiced up as developers figure out fun ways to “gamify” them. Gamification, the application of game-design elements and game principles in non-game contexts, is here to stay for health plans. “We absolutely can leverage gamification as a framework to apply mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics to the non-game problems of health care,” Markelz said.

What makes a successful game?

Markelz identified three main components: mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics.

Mechanics are the game’s systems and rules: How are you rewarded when you follow the rules? How are you penalized if you don’t?

Dynamics are the behaviors that come from interacting with the game’s systems and rules. Aesthetics refers to how the player feels when they play the game. What do you emotionally connect with as a player?

A game aesthetics pyramid can help explain Pokémon GO’s success. The pyramid’s base is information. Above that comes theme, then character. Story occupies the pyramid’s top, most elite, layer.

Four levels of gamification

To put it all in context for health plans, Markelz described four health apps on the market and their place on the pyramid. First, consider the venerable activity tracker Fitbit. “It’s just gamified information—there’s nothing beyond that to keep you engaged,” he said.

On the next level of the pyramid sits Mindbloom (Tagline: “Grow the life you want”). Markelz called it a gamified theme because it offers both information and an appealing theme – a tree that represents personal growth.

Bodimojo (“Emotional intelligence on the GO”) seeks to build wellness among tween and teen users. The app is gamified character and reaches level three of the pyramid  because it provides information wrapped up in a theme and an avatar character.

Zombies, Run! is an app to motivate and entertain runners. It occupies all four levels of the game aesthetics pyramid. It is a gamified story that offers information, theme, and character. “No matter how well done it is, if you don’t like zombies, it will not motivate you to go out for a run,” he noted.

Similarly, Pokémon GO incorporates all four of the pyramid elements. It also offers many ways for users to receive positive feedback: earned levels, rewards for playing on consecutive days, enticing elements of chance, goodies unlocked through repeated play, and timers that encourage players to complete tasks. These types of elements should be found in the next generation of successful health apps.

“I fundamentally believe we can achieve greater health impact than games like Pokémon GO by leveraging the strength of game mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics in the context of purpose-driven products,” Markelz said. “People come to health apps with a powerful motivation: They want to improve their health. They also want to have fun in the process.”