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The role of technology in healthy habit change

By ucjubil, on 30 May 2017

By: Colin Bullen, the head of Habits at Work

Technology has emerged strongly into the world of wellbeing and is regarded by many, this author included, as a powerful force for positive change in a challenging market. Wellbeing has been in existence for many years but evidence of its success is difficult to see, certainly at a population level. Can technology really deliver for wellbeing where we’ve failed so badly in the past?

Many people have latched onto technology as the solution, rather than seeing it as a tool to be used in the context of the complex human process of change. This belief is driven by many apparently successful interventions where behaviour change is identified and enjoyed by participants using technology only. Such behaviour change is, however, often short-lived as the habits that shaped our lives in the past re-emerge to dominate once again.

Despite the lack of success at a population level, behaviour change is relatively easy to achieve. With the right motivators and bit of novelty, instigators can encourage people to try new behaviours and even report back positively on them.

However, once the novelty of the new device, or app, has worn off, the population will lose interest. New glittering objects will attract us away from the current technology and, if the new technology does not support change, then behaviour will revert to previous norms.

In my business, we’ve stopped talking about behaviour change and rather look to help people adopt new healthy habits.  To have a meaningful impact, we have to build change that lasts.

Giving people the power to resist the temptation to revert to historical bad habits is perhaps the hardest part of creating effective wellbeing programmes. It’s certainly the least considered. Successful wellbeing programmes not only motivate the change and show people they can achieve a new healthier state, but they will help them remove the barriers to that change and anticipate the temptations that inevitably emerge and new habits evolve. Some of this can be delivered by technology, but change protagonists must also consider other contexts in which a user moves to be truly effective. Over the long term, amongst other things this means that the spaces that surround the user need to be adjusted to support the new direction – either by the individual or perhaps more commonly by employers and governments.

So, technology is a powerful force for change. But to modify mankind’s drift towards unhealthy behaviour and non-communicable disease, more than just the technology is required. Consider your population’s context and ask whether it supports the desired direction of travel, or not. If it doesn’t, you can be fairly sure that any change you achieve will be temporary, to be replaced in time by the behaviours you were trying hard to eradicate.


  • To what extent have you considered the contexts that people live, work and study when designing products for habits change? How often have you taken a shortcut, thinking that short-term behaviour change is enough?
  • What changes can we make to the technology to help users create the spaces for themselves that support the change we all want to see, enabling its longevity?


BIO: Colin Bullen is an actuary by profession, and is the head of Habits at Work, the consulting division of the behavioural research company BRATLAB. He is the deputy chair of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries Working Party on Wearables and the Internet of Things, and is passionate about making the world a healthier and happier place to be.

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