Engaging adolescents in a computer-based weight management program: avatars and virtual coaches could help

J Am Med Inform Assoc. 2016 Jan;23(1):19-28. doi: 10.1093/jamia/ocv078. Epub 2015 Jul 9.


Objective: This research focuses on the potential ability of animated avatars (a digital representation of the user) and virtual agents (a digital representation of a coach, buddy, or teacher) to deliver computer-based interventions for adolescents' chronic weight management. An exploration of the acceptance and desire of teens to interact with avatars and virtual agents for self-management and behavioral modification was undertaken.

Materials and methods: The utilized approach was inspired by community-based participatory research. Data was collected from 2 phases: Phase 1) focus groups with teens, provider interviews, parent interviews; and Phase 2) mid-range prototype assessment by teens and providers.

Results: Data from all stakeholder groups expressed great interest in avatars and virtual agents assisting self-management efforts. Adolescents felt the avatars and virtual agents could: 1) reinforce guidance and support, 2) fit within their lifestyle, and 3) help set future goals, particularly after witnessing the effect of their current behavior(s) on the projected physical appearance (external and internal organs) of avatars. Teens wanted 2 virtual characters: a virtual agent to act as a coach or teacher and an avatar (extension of themselves) to serve as a "buddy" for empathic support and guidance and as a surrogate for rewards. Preferred modalities for use include both mobile devices to accommodate access and desktop to accommodate preferences for maximum screen real estate to support virtualization of functions that are more contemplative and complex (e.g., goal setting). Adolescents expressed a desire for limited co-user access, which they could regulate. Data revealed certain barriers and facilitators that could affect adoption and use.

Discussion: The current study extends the support of teens, parents, and providers for adding avatars or virtual agents to traditional computer-based interactions. Data supports the desire for a personal relationship with a virtual character in support of previous studies. The study provides a foundation for further work in the area of avatar-driven motivational interviewing.

Conclusions: This study provides evidence supporting the use of avatars and virtual agents, designed using participatory approaches, to be included in the continuum of care. Increased probability of engagement and long-term retention of overweight, obese adolescent users and suggests expanding current chronic care models toward more comprehensive, socio-technical representations.

Keywords: adolescent overweight and obesity; avatars; chronic disease self-management; computer-based health interventions; consumer health informatics; human centered design and evaluation methods; human-centered computing; participatory design; virtual coaches; weight management.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adolescent Behavior
  • Focus Groups
  • Health Behavior
  • Humans
  • Pediatric Obesity / therapy*
  • Self Care / methods*
  • User-Computer Interface*
  • Video Games*