Lessons from gaming – can we get patients hooked on health apps?

Gaming and healthcare are not usually put together in the same sentence but Kumar Jacob, founder and CEO of Mindwave Ventures, argues there is a lot to learn from the gaming industry. 

‘Addictive’ has become a dirty word in digital lately, with social media platforms such as Facebook and TikTok, as well as online games like Fortnite getting a bad press for their sometimes questionable methods in capturing and exploiting our attention.

Tech companies are getting ever more advanced at using digital products to influence our behaviour. The numbers tell the story. Recent research shows that the average person spends three hours and 15-minutes per day on their phone, checking their handsets around 58 times a day for that all-important, dopamine-inducing notification.

But what if we took lessons from the world of social media and video gaming and put them to good use? Rather than exploiting attention for attention’s sake, what if we used our expertise to help people achieve their goals for better health and wellbeing?

I began my digital career in the gaming industry in the 90s, and have worked with numerous game development teams on how to increase audience engagement and reduce attrition rates.

Of course, healthcare is much more complex than Candy Crush Saga, but many of the same tricks of the trade can be used to reduce barriers to engagement and increase user acquisition that work no matter your sector.

The gamification of health

There are too many digital health products out there that never get real traction. According to the 2018 Research2Guidance study, less than 4 percent of mobile health app publishers hit more than 1 million downloads annually, while over half report less than 5,000 downloads for their complete app portfolio a year.

A big part of the challenge is user acquisition – the process of gaining new users for an app, platform, or other service. In the games industry, we go all-out to build a high user base from the start, and focus relentlessly on making those numbers go up. Crucially, we aren’t afraid to pay money to promote and raise awareness of our product.

In contrast, NHS organisations usually tend to start with a pilot where they trial a digital product on a small scale with the intention of incrementally increasing the user base. In reality, most pilots never get far off the starting block before they wither away with low user numbers and half-hearted clinical support.

Healthcare organisations typically believe that putting resources into user acquisition is a waste of money. But failing to prioritise user acquisition at the start results in low usage, and means that the product or service is more likely to get ditched. This hurts in the long term, and the initial investment is wasted.

In gaming, once we’ve acquired a user we do everything we can to make the onboarding process as simple and engaging as possible. In other words, we want to help the player to understand the platform’s mechanics before presenting them with the full range of possibilities in the game itself. This means creating a first experience that makes people want to come back again and again. The first 30 seconds must be visually and emotionally rewarding, and the subsequent 60 seconds must enable the player to do something worthwhile.

Simplicity and elegance are key. No user manuals, no clunky profile set-up or configuring your settings – your user wants to get to the meat of your app right away.

The final important aspect in retaining users once we have onboarded them in a game is engagement. Keep them coming back by creating and publicising new features, feeding news and updates, and creating forums where communities can talk to each other and share their experiences of the platform.

In contrast, healthcare organisations too often think the job is done once they’ve developed or licensed a digital product. Little do they realise that this is actually where the hard work really begins. More emphasis on ongoing user engagement can make a massive difference to the long-term success of an app.

Ready player one

My experience in the gaming industry tells me that we are focusing on all the wrong things in healthcare app design and launch. As a result, health apps end up with small numbers of users, limited product engagement, and high user attrition. Digital health becomes a sea of pilots that never go anywhere and everyone loses – patients, clinicians, the NHS and digital health companies.

If we dare to learn lessons from gaming and focus our efforts and resources on truly engaging our users, then we will get very different – and much better – results. Health and NHS apps must up their game.

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