Background: Smartphones have allowed for the development and use of apps. There is now a proliferation of mobile health interventions for physical activity, healthy eating, smoking and alcohol cessation or reduction, and improved mental well-being. However, the strength or potential of these apps to lead to behavior change remains uncertain.
Objective: The aim of this study was to review a large sample of healthy lifestyle apps at a single point in time (June to July 2018) to determine their potential for promoting health-related behavior change with a view to sharing this information with the public. In addition, the study sought to test a wide range of apps using a new scale, the App Behavior Change Scale (ABACUS).
Methods: Apps focusing on 5 major modifiable lifestyle behaviors were identified using a priori key search terms across the Australian Apple iTunes and Google Play stores. Lifestyle behavior categories were selected for their impact on health and included smoking, alcohol use, physical activity, nutrition, and mental well-being. Apps were included if they had an average user rating between 3 and 5, if they were updated in the last 18 months, if the description of the app included 2 of 4 behavior change features, and if they were in English. The selected behavior change apps were rated in 2 ways using previously developed rating scales: the Mobile App Rating Scale (MARS) for functionality and the ABACUS for potential to encourage behavior change.
Results: The initial search identified 212,352 apps. After applying the filtering criteria, 5018 apps remained. Of these, 344 were classified as behavior change apps and were reviewed and rated. Apps were given an average MARS score of 2.93 out of 5 (SD 0.58, range 1.42-4.16), indicating low-to-moderate functionality. Scores for the ABACUS ranged from 1 to 17, out of 21, with an average score of 7.8 (SD 2.8), indicating a low-to-moderate number of behavior change techniques included in apps. The ability of an app to encourage practice or rehearsal, in addition to daily activities, was the most commonly identified feature across all apps (310/344, 90.1%), whereas the second most common feature was the ability of the user to easily self-monitor behavior (289/344, 84.0%).
Conclusions: The wide variety of apps included in this 2018 study and the limited number of behavior change techniques found in many apps suggest an opportunity for improvement in app design that will promote sustained and significant lifestyle behavior change and, therefore, better health. The use of the 2 scales for the review and rating of the apps was successful and provided a method that could be replicated and tested in other behavior change areas.
Keywords: health behavior; health promotion; mobile apps; rating; smartphone.
©Fiona H McKay, Annemarie Wright, Jane Shill, Hugh Stephens, Mary Uccellini. Originally published in JMIR Mhealth and Uhealth (http://mhealth.jmir.org), 04.07.2019.