Testing Behavioral Nudges and Prompts in Digital Courses for the Self-guided Treatment of Depression and Anxiety: Protocol for a 3-Arm Randomized Controlled Trial

JMIR Res Protoc. 2022 Aug 15;11(8):e37231. doi: 10.2196/37231.


Background: Despite showing strong evidence of positive outcomes, a common problem in the field of digital health is poor engagement and adherence. Non-health care, for-profit digital ventures, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, conduct behavioral experiments to increase user engagement. To our knowledge, digital health organizations have not published similar types of experiments in ad libitum environments, and there are limited published data indicating whether nudges and prompts can be leveraged to increase engagement with digital health interventions.

Objective: The main objective of our 3-arm randomized controlled trial is to test whether registered members in two well-established digital health courses for anxiety and depression will engage with four different types of nudges and prompts, and whether engaging with nudges and prompts increases engagement within the courses.

Methods: New members who register for the self-guided anxiety and depression courses on the Evolution Health platform will be randomized into 1 of 3 arms. The first control arm will feature a member home page without any behavioral nudges or prompts. The second arm will feature a member home page with a Tip-of-the-Day section containing directive content. Arm 3 will feature a member home page with a Tip-of-the-Day section containing social proof and present bias content. The third arm will also feature a to-do item checklist.

Results: The experiment was designed in August 2021 and was launched in November 2021. Initially, we will measure engagement with the tips and the to-do checklist by calculating the frequency of use by age and gender. If members do engage, we will then, according to age and gender, examine whether nudges and prompts result in higher course completion rates and whether specific types of prompts and nudges are more popular than others.

Conclusions: Our 3-arm randomized controlled trial will be the first to compare four distinct types of behavioral prompts and nudges in two self-guided digital health courses that were designed to treat mental health issues. We expect the results to generate insights into which types of behavioral prompts and nudges work best in the population. If they are shown to increase engagement, the insights will then be used to apply prompts and nudges to the platform's addiction-focused courses. Based on the results of the experiment, the insights will be applied to using artificial intelligence to train the platform to recognize different usage patterns and provide specific engagement recommendations to stratified users.

International registered report identifier (irrid): DERR1-10.2196/37231.

Keywords: anxiety; attrition; behavior change; behavioral economics; depression; depressive disorder; digital health; engagement; future gain tip; health platform; mental health; mental illness; mood disorder; nudge; nudges; present bias tip; prompt; randomized controlled trial.