Background: U.S. sexual and gender minority youth experience individual, interpersonal, and structural-level barriers to HIV prevention and care. Innovative, youth-driven approaches to mobile and electronic interventions that support use of new biomedical prevention, testing, and treatment options may address these barriers. Adapting evidence-based interventions for youth must balance core intervention components with responsiveness to the distinct needs of end-users.
Methods: The UNC/Emory Center for Innovative Technology (iTech) adapts and evaluates technology-based interventions for youth living with or at risk for HIV. We analyzed formative research (focus groups and individual usability sessions) across five iTech studies: two apps promoting HIV testing and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), one app promoting behavioral risk reduction and PrEP, one PrEP adherence app, and one mobile-optimized website for increasing viral suppression, with the aim of informing best practices for technology-based intervention development. Each study presented prototypes of adapted mHealth interventions to samples of their target end-user population for use and/or evaluation.
Results: One hundred and thirty-eight youth across seven geographically diverse sites provided feedback during the intervention adaptation process. We found high interest in and acceptability of all five intervention prototypes. Cross-study themes included: (I) Desire for multiple privacy protections (e.g., password, fingerprint) to keep HIV status, sexual identity, and sexual behavior confidential. (II) Strong but varied preferences for the look and feel of platforms. Imagery should be discrete but representative. Participants valued customizable platforms and positive themes, motivational language, and humor. Youth wanted information presented using multiple modalities (e.g., text, video, image) to increase engagement. (III) Youth preferred engagement features and functions consistent with familiar platforms (e.g., Snapchat, Instagram). Gamification features that resulted in tangible versus virtual rewards were predicted to increase engagement. Intervention messaging functions were perceived as useful; customization was desired as a way to control frequency, mode (e.g., SMS, in-app message, push notification), and content. (IV) Youth voiced varied preferences for platform content including: featuring young role models from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and/or questioning (LGBTQ) community, incorporating mental health resources, and maintaining a holistic health-focus (not HIV-centric).
Conclusions: We found high acceptability and consistent feedback in youths' evaluations of these mHealth interventions; divergence was most commonly found in preferred content versus features and functions. Identifying broadly accepted aspects of mHealth interventions for youth supports the feasibility of adaptation (versus de novo creation) and should guide the focus of future formative research phases. Continued research is needed to better understand how to balance usability preferences with finite resources for customization.
Keywords: HIV; adolescent; intervention; mHealth; youth.
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