Putting the user at the centre: the future of digital health apps

Eighty per cent of mobile health apps fail to deliver their intended impact. Second year IfM PhD student Devmalya Sarkar tells us why he wants to help firms change this by better directed and more informed approaches to empathic mHealth innovation.


The COVID-19 pandemic served as a stark reminder of the increasing need for accessible, affordable, and inclusive quality healthcare. However, escalating pressures to deliver more with less, rising health inequities, and the lure of direct-to-consumer offerings could soon render healthcare’s cost-and energy-intensive brick-and-mortar care environments and solution shop business models unsustainable. As such, healthcare globally is exploring tools and tactics that can facilitate a better response..


User-centric digital health innovation

While digital health innovations such as mHealth apps aren’t (yet) the utopian cure-all that they are often sensationalised to be, they can help. These innovations offer a range of possibilities across care access and delivery: immediate access to health services beyond physical locations, cost-effective data collection and processing, bespoke and targeted disease management, and health promotion support (exercise and nutrition advice, for example).


‘Mobile health apps and broader digital health interventions represent the lever with which to lift healthcare up from an outdated passive paradigm to one that engages and empowers users and other stakeholders,’ says IfM PhD student Devmalya (Dev) Sarkar, a health tech and digital health innovation strategist. 


‘When applied correctly and in a context-appropriate manner, mHealth apps can promote better patient experience, involvement, and treatment outcomes.’


But four in every five mHealth apps fail, explains Dev, often because they don’t adequately consider their users’ reality. Firms struggle to accurately identify user needs early on in the ‘fuzzy’ front end of the innovation process:


‘Most firms struggle with innovation. An overly technology-driven focus often results in a failure to account for real-world complexities, such as understanding users, their behaviours, and most importantly, their unmet needs. This then limits design quality (influencing inclusivity and usability) and overall downstream acceptance of the app.


‘Most firms incorporate user feedback no earlier than concept development, or later in iterative solution refinement, or worse, once the solution has been developed. Unsurprisingly, inherent bias accumulates and results in something that users cannot relate with’


Dev, therefore, is looking at how better directed and more informed approaches to empathic mHealth innovation can improve lives. By guiding firms to better identify user needs early in mHealth app development, he hopes that findings from his work can help firms reduce uncertainty in their innovation efforts and improve their user-centric mHealth (and wider digital health) innovation ability.


‘What if we could open a window to better identify user needs early in the innovation process so that we could reduce many complications downstream?’ he explains. ‘We need to better understand how we can connect user needs to innovators’ efforts further upstream and what the implications of such user involvement are.


‘By combining aspects of front-end innovation management, open innovation, and design thinking principles, our research investigates the role of early-stage user participation in reducing uncertainty in need identification in mHealth app development, along with key issues—enablers and barriers—in involving users early in innovation. We are adopting a mixed-method qualitative research strategy for a deeper insight into this phenomenon.’


Manufacturing a better world

Dev says his research will contribute to the IfM’s unifying vision of ‘manufacturing a better world’, alongside ongoing contributions in the institute to improve affordable and accessible healthcare.


These include Professor Ronan Daly’s and his team’s work on identifying existing technologies, such as mobile phone touchscreens, for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes; the IfM’s Cambridge Service alliance’s work on a patient-centric, wearable-based therapeutic intervention (and its business model framework) for childhood cancer; and the IfM Engage’s work with the The William Templeton Foundation for Young People's Mental Health on addressing early intervention and self-care needs in young people’s mental health.


Although still early on in his research, Dev says initial findings point to the value of involving users early on in the innovation process:


‘We are beginning to understand more about key themes that underpin and influence need identification and user involvement in mHealth app development. Involving diverse target users early on, understanding users’ incentive structures, fostering trust and transparency, and framing problem scoping around users’ psychological needs all seem to foster more accurate need identification.


Our research is entering an exciting phase which will include exploring how large corporations (Pharma, MedTech) globally are approaching mHealth app-based innovations — both on their own and by collaborating with start-ups.’


If you would like to learn more and participate in this research, please contact Dev on LinkedIn or via email at ds764@cam.ac.uk or connect via Twitter: @DevmalyaS




Devmalya Sarkar is a 2nd year PhD student at the IfM (under the supervision of the Head of the IfM, Professor Tim Minshall) and also a Cambridge Trust, RADMA, and Trinity-Henry Barlow (honorary) scholar.


Date published

1 September 2022

Share This