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10 User-Centered Design Principles for mHealth Program Success

By Wayan Vota on October 1, 2018

user centered design mhealth

Mobile health services delivered over voice (IVR, helplines), text channels (SMS and USSD) and, increasingly, rich media (online content and apps), provide much-needed information on balanced diets, early disease detection, immunization tracking, and everyday healthy living for pregnant women and young mothers.

That is why The GSMA mHealth Program partnered with frog to develop the mHealth Design Toolkit with ten principles to launch, develop and scale mobile health services in emerging markets.

This toolkit is the outcome of user research projects in eight countries (Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia) where we identified common challenges that mHealth service providers are facing.

The mHealth Design Toolkit offers a practical guide for services to apply user research and the user-centered design approach in an on-going basis to address these challenges and it is intended as an instrument to provide operational guidance to the development and implementation of mHealth services.

User-Centered Design

user-centered design

The user-centered design approach helps digital health service providers to get a much better understanding of this customer segment and their ecosystem, and then design appropriate products and services that meet the real needs and challenges of the customer.

The user-centered design approach puts users and their experience at the center of the product and service design, and is grounded on a continuous and structured interaction with end users.

This method helps to translate the solid understanding of users into a product and value proposition, and ensures that all aspects of the service — from the overall experience to each detailed feature and content — are verified with target users.

By integrating a deep understanding of the user when designing or adapting a healthcare product, service providers can drive successful innovation in the mHealth sector and generate services that can be commercialized faster and become more widely adopted.

10 Mobile Health Services Principles

mhealth digital health

1. Segmenting Customers By Gender And Age Only Does Not Reveal Who Your Users Are

Most countries have significant diversity within their own borders. There are traditional demographic divides between urban and rural populations, young and old, women and men. Beyond demographics, there are often significant cultural differences between different groups and geographies.

2. A Service Should Be Created With The Whole Community In Mind, Not Just One Single User

When launching an mHealth service, it is only natural to want to focus on communicating to an individual user. But often, the user is only one in a community of people who will be affected by the service – and the community is often the best vehicle for spreading ideas and having more impact.

3. The Aspirations Of mHealth Services Often Do Not Resonate With User Aspirations

A value proposition is a statement that describes why a service is better for the customer than all other alternatives. Another way to think about it is: What is the user need? How is a service uniquely solving this need?

4. Nutrition Is Not Scientific, It Is Subjective And Highly Cultural

Modern concepts of medicine and health are solidly rooted in a western understanding of the world. As a result, when introducing these concepts in other parts of the world, especially in rural areas, there will often be a disconnect with local concepts of health.

5. Do Not Replace Human Networks With Virtual Networks

Services such as Facebook and WhatsApp groups can connect mothers in remote villages with doctors in faraway cities. Yet technology is not always a replacement for genuine face-to-face contact between users and real people representing an mHealth service. From building initial trust with new users to providing technical support, face-to-face can play a crucial role in mHealth services, especially when establishing the service.

6. Localising The Service Does Not Just Mean Translating Words Into Local Languages

Ministries of Health and public health experts, in particular, are keen to recommend best practices. Behavior change messages often encourage users to take the perfect action to address a given health issue. However, in reality, best practices are often not accessible to many people in the lower part of the pyramid.

7. Wording Matters, Even If It Is Only 20 Characters Long

While many terms and concepts may seem basic to public health experts, they will be completely foreign to the average user of an mHealth service. Users must be able to easily and clearly understand the content of the messages. This might seem like a rather obvious statement, but creating good content can be very challenging.

8. It Is Not Only What You Say, But How You Say It

The way a message is presented fundamentally determines if the message has the desired impact and induces behaviour change, or is being dismissed as irrelevant. Seemingly small stylistic details, such as the message hook, can make the difference between a mother paying attention or becoming agitated. How people perceive different stylistic elements is highly cultural, and changes from place to place.

9. Continuous Iteration: You Will Not Get Your Service Right The First Time

Small things can make or break a service. It is essential to test in the field to understand what these variables are, to engage the user and learn from the user in the process of design. This allows changes to be made to the service based on how people are using it, in real life.

10. Sustainable Revenue Will Not Come Only From One Source

Relying on a single source of revenue can be challenging for mHealth services. In our experience, any given revenue source will not be able to cover all operating expenses. In addition, the mHealth ecosystem is constantly evolving at different levels (technology, partners, business models), which implies that revenue sources can also change.

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks and is the Digital Health Director at IntraHealth International. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of IntraHealth International or other ICTWorks sponsors.
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