Faster Horses: Does the User Always Know What They Need?

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Guest post by Rachael Barker & Naomi Bartle, Centre for Technology Enabled Health Research

Identifying the needs and experiences of digital intervention users can support the developments that are relevant, acceptable and persuasive. However, in a customer focused world with rapidly evolving technology, when it comes to developing digital behaviour change interventions, is the customer (or user) always right?

Dr. Leanne Morrison from the University of Southampton, was recently posed this question from the audience when she joined The Centre of Technology Enabled Health Research (CTEHR) to talk about the person-based approach for the development of digital interventions. The seminar was an interesting opportunity to develop knowledge on contemporary multi-site research, and the discussion highlighted the similarities and differences in the use of particular research and development methodologies, but in differing university research settings.

Discussion revolved around whether the user themselves is actually the expert in what they want and/or need. Leanne described the ‘person-based’ approach as one ensuring the user requirements and preferences are adhered to throughout an iterative intervention development cycle. She shared examples of interventions that have been developed in Southampton; the HealthyMind app, and POWeR which is a weight loss programme for adults. A member of the audience highlighted that a user can only tell you about what they know, but of course cannot tell you what they do not yet know. Hence the horse analogy – if a horse-user was asked what would be the way to create faster transport, their answer could well have been ‘faster horses’?!

Modern comparisons can be drawn here with technological development; initial user reactions to dramatic changes in technology design such as smartphones becoming touch screen, buttonless, and more recently even losing a headphone socket can be dismissive, but then these changes are ultimately accepted and considered by the user to be ‘breakthroughs’.

Leanne went on to explain the LifeGuide suite, a tool to support the development of web based apps that is free to use and accessible for everyone, regardless of prior programming experience. Questions and comments from the audience triggered food for thought regarding development of digital interventions.

So what is the best approach to take? The discussion at the seminar concluded in support of co-creation of interventions. On the one hand the customer or user is of course always right in expressing their needs. However, if the user is unaware of technological possibilities or insights into their behaviour change support needs, then this should be taken into account.

Ultimately digital behaviour change interventions are best when subject experts, users, technologists and designers together explore the dynamics between user-need, behaviour change theory and technological advancements.


CTEHR would like to thank Dr. Morrison for her talk, and for the opportunity to get together as a department and discuss current and future collaborative projects. If this was of interest to you, you may wish to join us for our next seminar on 29th November when we will be hosting Professor Falko Sniehotta from Newcastle University. 

Follow the story of Tweets on this seminar and our upcoming Seminars on @CovUni_CTEHR.



Coventry University