Mobile Healthcare Apps: 7 Keys to Success

The number of available health and medical apps continues to increase, and while app loyalty and engagement has been increasing for most application categories, engagement and loyalty has dropped for health and medical apps.   

At the same time, with healthcare consuming over 18% of US GDP and no end in sight, there are tremendous opportunities to use mobile technology, sensors and big data to bend the cost curve and improve outcomes. 

But none of it happens without engaged patients and physicians.   How do you take advantage of these opportunties while engaging patients and physicians?

We’ve been building and launching medical apps for both large enterprises and startups for over 10 years. We’ve also mentored hundreds of teams through the process of designing, building and launching new products in our work in enterprise innovation and with the Chicago Lean Startup Challenge.

Seven Keys to Building Successful Mobile Healthcare Apps

While every product is different, we’ve found seven keys that all successful products have in common:

Key #1: Solve a Big Enough Problem 

This seems obvious, but it’s the top reason why new product launches fail.  If you’re not solving a top problem on your customer’s list (usually number one, two or three) it doesn’t matter how well designed and built the software is, nor how good your marketing is: Customers won’t engage.

patient, provider and payor nexus It gets more complicated in healthcare.  there are typically three parties whose problems you need to solve in order to be successful: Patients, Providers and Payors (the 3 Ps). Incentives for these three are often not aligned. In many circumstances, patients are not used to paying directly, providers are incented for transactions rather than outcomes, and payors care most about paying out less.  

As outcomes based reimbursement models (through ACOs or more employers self insuring) become more prevalent, the likelihood of incentive alignment will increase dramatically.  But in the meantime, finding circumstances where incentives aligned is difficult.  One way of reducing risks is by solving a problem where you don’t need to deal with all three (for example, in an area where patients are used to paying directly) you can dramatically reduce your risks.

[Follow on post: The fastest way to validate your problem] 

Key #2 – Keep it Simple  

medical mobile minimum viable product

When building a new product it is tempting to include everything. It’s easy to put in as many features as possible, with the hope that some of them will stick and get used.  The truth is that more features do not equal a better product. Users don’t want dozens of features that are just OK – they want tools that do the things they really need amazingly well. The trick is understanding what those initial core features should be and then how to develop them in a way that satisfies and delights your users and customers. 




  [Follow-on post: How to design a minimum viable product] 

Key #3 – Design for Engagement  

Keeping it simple provides you focus – high value features to solve high priority problems.  The rapidly evolving practice of user experience design (human factors by another name for those with a device/FDA background) provides a plethora of tools to design for engagement: 

  • Interaction Design best practices such as designing for context of use, user knowledge and experience, providing immediate feedback and alternate paths, minimizing unnecessary clicks, cognitive dimensions and emotional response.  And of course great attention to detail.

bj fogg persuasion




persuasive design pattern

  • Persuasive Design techniques based on the Fogg behavioral model that is designed to change attitudes or behaviors of the users through persuasion and social influence, but not through coercion. 

fogg behavioral model  bj fogg

  • Social Sharing and Cooperative Gaming techniques that can provide powerful incentives for changing behavior.

  • Data Visualization best practices to communicate complex ideas with clarity, precision and efficiency.  Information analytics (the use of interactive information representations to shape and control an analytic reasoning process) can be particularly important for physician decision support, as can interactive information representations that change in response to user input or query, allowing users to discover new and emergent patterns in the data.

  • Visceral Design techniques that leverage the interplay between build-up and release in the animation of interactions and release endorphins.

  • Multimodal Design techniques, designing for multiple interfaces (wearable device, smartphone, email, web, tablet, kiosk, etc.) and contexts of use.

Key #4 – Optimize for Engagement 


While there are lots of design techniques you can apply, the fact is that no one gets engagement right the first time.  Showing users mockups and functional  prototypes and iterating on their feedback can help you rapidly identify which features resonate with users, and whether you’re executing on your product vision.  


Releasing software to a small set of customers and using person-based analytics to measure user behavior helps you understand what they’re doing.  Qualitative feedback helps you understand why they are doing it and get feedback on changes you’re planning. You optimize engagement by rapidly developing and releasing updates and measuring changes to engagement metrics.  

[Follow-on post: Fueling the Insight Engine to Optimize Engagement]

Key #5 – Optimize for Acquisition

build measure learn loopOnce you’ve optimized for engagement, you can start optimizing for acquisition.  New, first time users behave very differently from users who already understand and use your software.  You optimize  for acquisition using the same fast feedback loop as you do for engagement.  You optimize for acquisition after engagement because it’s much easier to focus on engagement with a smaller number of users, and you need a larger  set of users to optimize acquisition.

[Follow-on post: Growth Hacking for Healthcare Apps - How to Get, Keep and Grow Customers]

Key #6 – Build with Optimization in Mind

Releasing software iteratively and optimizing using fast feedback loops means software development is a continuous process.  Maintiaing a rapid pace of build-measure-learn loops requires practices such as lean ux and agile or kanban development, continuous integration and deployment and test driven development.  Implementation of interfaces in HTML5 rather than native code allow for rapid deployment and a/b testing.

[Follow-on post: Agile and Lean Development Techniques for Optimization]  

Key #7 – Value Your Data  

Data is critical in any healthcare application.  Beyond engagement metrics, rigorous data on effectiveness (often in the form of randomized clicial trials) is required to sell to providers, even more so if the application requires FDA clearance or approval.

Mobile applications can be extremely useful in collecting and transmitting data useful for this type of effort, either through user data entry or through transmission from wireless sensors. This type of data can be aggregated and analyzed using predictive analytics, or combined with other data to generate fresh insights.  With more outcome based pricing models, this data may well become more valuable than the direct benefits of the application itself.   

[Follow-on post: Are you leaving data on the table?  It may be worth millions.]

[Follow-on post: Infographic - The Seven Keys to Building Successful Mobile Healthcare Apps.]

[Follow-on post: Agile for Competitive Advantage in FDA Regulated Software/Speed to Market + Quality] 

About Author, Bernhard Kappe is a Founder and President at Pathfinder.

You can find him on Google+

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