Evaluating the use of a recommender system for selecting optimal messages for smoking cessation: patterns and effects of user-system engagement

BMC Public Health. 2021 Sep 26;21(1):1749. doi: 10.1186/s12889-021-11803-8.


Background: Motivational messaging is a frequently used digital intervention to promote positive health behavior changes, including smoking cessation. Typically, motivational messaging systems have not actively sought feedback on each message, preventing a closer examination of the user-system engagement. This study assessed the granular user-system engagement around a recommender system (a new system that actively sought user feedback on each message to improve message selection) for promoting smoking cessation and the impact of engagement on cessation outcome.

Methods: We prospectively followed a cohort of current smokers enrolled to use the recommender system for 6 months. The system sent participants motivational messages to support smoking cessation every 3 days and used machine learning to incorporate user feedback (i.e., user's rating on the perceived influence of each message, collected on a 5-point Likert scale with 1 indicating strong disagreement and 5 indicating strong agreement on perceiving the influence on quitting smoking) to improve the selection of the following message. We assessed user-system engagement by various metrics, including user response rate (i.e., the percent of times a user rated the messages) and the perceived influence of messages. We compared retention rates across different levels of user-system engagement and assessed the association between engagement and the 7-day point prevalence abstinence (missing outcome = smoking) by using multiple logistic regression.

Results: We analyzed data from 731 participants (13% Black; 73% women). The user response rate was 0.24 (SD = 0.34) and user-perceived influence was 3.76 (SD = 0.84). The retention rate positively increased with the user response rate (trend test P < 0.001). Compared with non-response, six-month cessation increased with the levels of response rates: low response rate (odds ratio [OR] = 1.86, 95% confidence interval [CI]: 1.07-3.23), moderate response rate (OR = 2.30, 95% CI: 1.36-3.88), high response rate (OR = 2.69, 95% CI: 1.58-4.58). The association between perceived message influence and the outcome showed a similar pattern.

Conclusions: High user-system engagement was positively associated with both high retention rate and smoking cessation, suggesting that investigation of methods to increase engagement may be crucial to increase the impact of the recommender system for smoking cessation.

Trial registration: Registration Identifier: NCT03224520 . Registration date: July 21, 2017.

Keywords: Computer-tailored health communication; Digital health intervention; Engagement; Motivational messaging; Recommender system; Smoking cessation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Female
  • Health Behavior
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Motivation
  • Smokers
  • Smoking
  • Smoking Cessation*
  • Text Messaging*

Associated data

  • ClinicalTrials.gov/NCT03224520