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CBC Digi-Hub Blog



If You Build It, Will They Come?

By Carmen E Lefevre, on 28 September 2016

By Dustin DiTommaso, Behaviour Change Design department head at Mad*Pow

We are in the (messy) midst of a digital health renaissance where health systems, insurers, big pharma, governments, tech giants, startups, behavioural scientists and health researchers are exploring digital technologies to transform the ways in which healthcare is delivered and patients and consumers engage in beneficial health conducive activities. A noble cause to be sure, as many of our infrastructures for providing quality care are in need of radical innovation. Arguably, at the center of our efforts to improve outcomes, lies human behaviour and our attempts to influence and direct it through the provisioning of mobile apps, web platforms, wearables and the like. Well-designed, evidence-based digital behaviour change interventions carry tremendous potential to positively impact clinical, economic and distributional outcomes but these objectives can only be met if and when people engage with them. This leaves us thinking about how to address the perennial question of “If you build it, will they come?” and how to best go about developing digital interventions with impact.

When we survey the digital landscape we find no shortage of tools and services available for public consumption, some highly rated and quite popular (e.g., 4/5 star ratings, millions of downloads) and others much more modest in their reach (e.g., less than 500 downloads). While many of us know, and more continue to discover – “Popular does not equal effective” and yet being effective requires a certain amount of popularity. Our process for designing and implementing digital interventions must not only be thoughtful and precise in terms of change objectives and outcomes but also in promotion, rollout, uptake and usage. To this end, it can be most productive to take a multi-disciplinary approach to the design and implementation of digital interventions where those expert in the underlying mechanics of change and intervention design (e.g., health researchers & behavioural scientists) collaborate with those expert in creating products and services that provide value and resonate deeply with their target audience/customer base (e.g., experience/service/interaction designers & marketing/content strategists). Hybrids welcome, of course.

In this configuration, research and science lead the framing and diagnosis of the problem space and the intervention design strategy (i.e., intervention functions, behaviour change techniques, etc.) while designers and strategists work to codify the unmet needs, wants and preferences of the target audience to guide the voice and tone of the intervention copy, value proposition and persuasive communication strategy and supporting artifacts. Creative translation of the intervention design strategy into a solution that is appealing, engaging and valued while retaining the fidelity and intent of the intervention functions and behaviour change techniques is where art and craft meets science (and trial & error). Close collaboration and iteration is critical here to ensure that the active ingredients of a digital intervention are being delivered in ways that are maximally consumed by the intended audience.

As digital interventions often require active opt-in via download, sign-up or sign-in, recipients must be both aware that it exists and interested in engaging with it. Creating a persuasive messaging strategy that details the audience relevant benefits as well as where and when to reach them along with a staged roll-out plan for how to scale up to critical mass while learning and adapting along the way is where content and marketing strategists can really shine. This iterative approach also applies to the development of the digital intervention itself, of course.

Though there are certainly several different configurations that teams can take, collaborative approaches like the ones outlined above help to align resources on all sides of the impact equation – uptake, engagement and outcomes – allowing each team to focus on what they do best and maximizing the chances that the digital interventions developed together will have the greatest intended effects possible.

What collaborative configurations have you tried in the past? What has worked well and where have you gotten stuck? Where do you think the greatest opportunities for collaboration lie? I would love to learn about and discuss your experiences in the comments below!


BIO: Dustin DiTommaso heads the Behaviour Change Design department at Mad*Pow and teaches Behaviour Change Design at Rhode Island School of Design. A designer and researcher, Dustin’s work involves the study and application of behavioural science, motivational psychology and human-computer interaction to the design of technology-assisted behaviour change interventions, products and services. His client portfolio includes partnerships with a range of innovative start-ups, non-profits, government agencies and Fortune 500 companies across domains, including healthcare, financial services, education and social impact.  

One Response to “If You Build It, Will They Come?”

  • 1
    Sander Hermsen wrote on 19 October 2016:

    Thank you for this insightful blog, Dustin! There is indeed a lot to gain by good collaborations between behavioural scientists and designers. We found in our work that it is not always easy to work together, mainly because of clashing world views: the atomistic view of the scientist, who looks for underlying working principles and considers all the rest noise or error, versus the holistic, context-oriented designer who considers every single case absolutely unique. But when you do manage to achieve synergy, great things can happen and both roles can help the other side rise above their shortcomings. We wrote about our work here: http://www.drs2016.org/017/
    Let us know what you think!

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