Ever wondered why after a while you got tired of using that weight loss or meditation app on your phone? For Max Birk, a University of Saskatchewan recent Ph.D. graduate, the answer could be that you need a customizable avatar that represents you the user. Birk find that if health apps include avatars that can be adapted to the users’ preferences; people are more likely to identify with their virtual “mini-me” and be more motivated to engage with health apps in the long term.
Using health apps
“The most significant barrier to using health apps is participants’ fading engagement,” said Regan Mandryk, USask computer science professor and Birks’ former supervisor. “Max’s research may help improve this by combining; so design inspire by video games and psychological theories.” App developers and video-game companies could use Birk’s research for improving app design and how people could use services more consistently. The apps could range from language learning to fitness tracking, to mental health treatment.
Birk find that the people in his study who had customize avatars; so got more engage with the tasks; so they were assign to do online as part of the experiment. Participants, recruited online through a service called “Amazon Mechanical Turk,” were able to choose anything from facial features to clothing; so to personality features for their avatars. He presented his results at conferences and published them in the Journal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR).
“I got this idea from video games, where avatar customization is quite common,” said Birk, a USask computer science graduate. “It’s not about whether your app is good or bad, it’s about including an aspect in the design that makes people enjoy the experience more, so that they are draw to use it again.” In subsequent studies involving almost 400 people over three weeks, Birk also find that participants with customize avatars more likely return to using the app than those who did not; also that avatars help improve peoples’ attention to the task they were performing with an app.
Better health benefits
“This shows they were both more motivate to come back; also that higher attention means they could have better health benefits because they are making better use of the app,” said Birk; who was award a prestigious Governor General Gold Medal that recognizes; so the USask graduate student with top academic standing. Now a professor at Eindhoven University of Technology; one of the best tech universities in the Netherlands, Birk said that a computer science degree from USask has allow him to compete at an international level for this position.
“The program in the USask computer science department is so good; so that the world is open to USask graduates in this field,” he said. “I feel like there are no close doors for me.” He move to Canada from Germany because Mandryk is at the international forefront of research studying human computer interaction. After a seven-month research internship with Mandryk he decide to stay at USask for his Ph.D. studies.
Birk plans to keep a research partnership going with Mandryk; while working on a new project that looks at how social connection can improve apps use. His research was fund by the federal agency NSERC through the Saskatchewan-Waterloo Games User Research (SWaGUR), a collaborative graduate training program between USask and University of Waterloo. The first of its kind in Canada, the program brings together a team of world-leading games researchers with backgrounds in science; also engineering, social sciences, and humanities to train games user researchers.