Assessment of the usability of electronic food intake and physical activity monitoring applications.

Introduction

Healthier lifestyles are associated with the reduced risk of diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Advances in technology have enabled individuals to readily monitor disease-risk related lifestyle attributes such as diet and physical activity (e.g. via smart phone applications or wearable technology). Motivating individuals to react to collected data via lifestyle modifications in order to reduce their risk of disease remains a significant challenge to application development however.

The main objective of PRECIOUS is to provide a preventive health care system that will improve the health of the user and deliver public health cost savings. Application usability is known to be a controlling parameter in ensuring engagement and compliance with such applications, and therefore must be validated in the PRECIOUS application.

Aim

This summary describes an intervention study undertaken by Campden BRI designed to compare the usability of a novel mobile health tool. Comparisons were made between the PRECIOUS tool and two commercially available food intake and physical activity monitoring mobile device applications. The study examined factors that affect the usability of each mobile health tool for different demographic user groups.

The study examined several key factors that affect the usability;

  • the ease with which a user is able to use the application to achieve a specified goal
  • the time taken and effort expended in relation to using the application
  • the overall liking of the application and the ease with which a user can learn the system in order to start using it.

The findings of the study will be used to improve the design of the PRECIOUS.

Study method

The study examined the usability of three different mobile food intake and physical activity applications (MyFitnessPal®, My Diet Diary® and an application developed by PRECIOUS) for different user groups, with the view to improving the design of the PRECIOUS mobile application.

Each participant was assigned a single application to use for a period of seven days. At the end of the period, participants were asked to complete an on-line survey. In total the study involved 250 participants (82-85 per mobile health tool). The participants were in four user groups; age 18 to 35 years, with no children living at home, age 18 to 60 years, with at least one child under 18 years living at home, age 36 to 60 years, with no children living at home, age 61 to 75 years, with no children living at home.

Results

The PRECIOUS application was found to be significantly harder to use than the other applications. This was reflected by the higher percentage of users not using the app every day (49% compared to 29% for My Diet Diary Calorie Counter® and 17% MyFitnessPal®).  It was also found that 81% of the participants who used the PRECIOUS application disagreed with the statement that there was clear guidance on how to use the application, whereas 58% of the MyFitnessPal® agreed with the statement. For the statement “the app allowed me to input the correct food I had eaten”, 71% of the PRECIOUS users disagreed with this statement compared to 54% for My Diet Diary Calorie Counter® and 28% for MyFitnessPal®. However, all respondents reported some difficulties with all applications, due to databases often containing American products.

Overall there was consensus within and across the four user groups, with the exception of the group containing 61-75 year olds with no children at home, which showed some variation in their perception of some usability functions.

The study highlighted several key aspects that affect the perceived usability of the application, including:

  • clear guidance on how to use the application when initially opened
  • clarity of design and intuitive navigation
  • relevance of the food intake database to the individuals location
  • the food intake aspect should account for meals being consumed in different locations,
  • ease and clarity of progress monitoring

Conclusions

Campden BRI have been able to show that the current PRECIOUS application being developed, did not perform as well as MyFitnessPal® and My Diet Diary Calorie Counter® in terms of usability.

The next phase of the project will use these findings to further develop and improve the PRECIOUS food intake and physical activity application. The study has highlighted that there are several key aspects that affect the perceived usability of these types of applications; and that there are several opportunities for the PRECIOUS application to improve its usability. Based on these findings, further developments of the application is planned and work with a usability designer to ensure the final integrated system is usable and motivates individuals to improve their health.

Significance

Novel technologies are showing increasing promise in enabling individuals to manage their own health. PRECIOUS will provide an alternative technological application-based approach to reducing consumers’ risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease by helping them to manage their own risk. This study compared the usability of the PRECIOUS food intake and physical activity application to other similar commercially available applications. The results showed the importance of keeping consumers’ needs central to product design. These findings will guide the future design of the PRECIOUS system in terms of usability, with the end objective of ensuring longer usage and longer term behaviour changes.

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