Apple Watch and Health: This Time Will Be Different

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Larry Mickelberg
Larry Mickelberg

This month's introduction of the Apple Watch has given the world a number of things to talk about. This new device offers a novel communication system, mobile payments, and new, watch-specific experiences for many familiar apps. Of considerable importance is Apple's inclusion of their new iOS8 HealthKit platform and Apple Watch-specific apps, adding comprehensive activity tracking to the long list of features. This marks Apple's official entry into the health wearables market, and indicates they've taken on a considerable, new design challenge: health behavior change.

While Google is exploring this space as well, via its somewhat similarly-intended Google Fit platform for fitness tracking, we see Apple with a potential pivot into health management vs. fitness tracking. Apple's meetings with the FDA[i], and notable health and fitness hires,[ii] suggest foresight into the undertaking ahead. Improving health behavior is a task physicians, providers, patients, and the public sector have been focusing on for years; the pursuit leaving these parties with a deeper understanding of problems, and no simple strategies. The wearables category has struggled to change behavior as well: suffering from low adoption and limited engagement[iii]. These portents have left many experts lukewarm on Apple's offering, in spite of the watch's obvious innovation and appeal.

We are nonetheless confident that three vital parts of the Apple Watch experience give it an edge in a market struggling to engage: it's human, it's integrated, and it's designed to build habits.

It's Human

We seem to be programmed to respond to human cues. Even at birth we favor human faces to non-human stimuli[iv]. This natural attraction to our peers is likely one of the reasons human behavior is so contagious[v], and socially prompted behavior change is so effective[vi]. This persuasion principle makes designing experiences that feel human an important consideration when facilitating health behavior change.

As for Apple: they've been mastering the art of anthropomorphic design since their early products. In Apple's world, where a MacBook's breathing light matches the human respiratory cadence and operating systems are managed by an intelligent virtual personal assistant named Siri; making watch technology feel human will be a new attempt at a familiar game. We've seen teasers of the watch's human design: including haptic interactions (natural, non-verbal, touch-driven communication), interpersonal gestures, even intimate 1:1 interactions taking place on the device.

This human design style drives us to connect, mimicking the social motivations that drive our everyday interactions. These techniques have the power to capture attention, inspire emotion, encourage accountability, and elicit trust: important factors when it comes to persuading health behavior.

It's Integrated

While the Apple Watch will compete with its wearable predecessors on design and functionality, they've secured one significant advantage in the marketplace: integration. With an army of partnerships, an arsenal of iOS devices, and an enormous customer base already using Apple products, Apple Watch becomes a part of Apple's bigger promise of connectivity.

There is specific value in integration with new native platforms like Apple's own WatchKit/HealthKit/HomeKit, as well as the slew of existing third-party apps and devices that already serve this space. Here, data from our bodies and data from our environment can connect to give us new insight about our health and behavior. This insight from information and integration can propel the relevance of a digital health experience, leveraging what many designers excitedly refer to as the Greek principle of Kairos: the opportune moment for promoting decision or action.

Using this principle of Kairos, Apple Watch can leverage the context of our lives - our environments, preferences, the time of day, and more - to deliver resonant, relevant health messages. This helps our health-interests cut through the clutter of our distracted digital lives, making watch-wearers better at achieving their goals.

It's Designed To Build Habits

Perhaps Apple's greatest achievement is the design of a product we can envision wearing all the time. There is the tradition of the watch, as well as its innate functionality (undoubtedly amplified by Apple's take on the object). Yet deeper is the watch's ethos: designed to be a “companion” to those who wear it. The selection of this word by Apple's marketing team is no accident: this watch strives to earn constancy from its users. These elements combine to give us a product that passes the “go back and get it” test on our more forgetful days, ensuring our watch (and our health monitoring) stays by our side.

This constancy matters in the wearables market. Reports indicate that 1/3 of health wearables customers abandon their devices just weeks after buying them,[vii] a deal-breaker when many experiences require extended engagement to deliver their promise of healthier behavior.

Constancy is also critical for change: when Apple Watch becomes a habit, so do the healthier behaviors the device is promoting. Jay Blahnik, the current Director of Fitness and Health Technologies at Apple has alluded to many components of habit design in the Apple Watch experience: including the facilitation of realistic goal-setting, smarter notifications and reminders, rewards, badging, and more.

This is just the seed.

Even with a human product, habitually used, fully integrated into the fabric of our lives, developing healthier habits in its users will be a challenge for Apple. Widespread health behavior change is considered a breakthrough outcome in even the most rigorous, clinically-controlled health environments. Today's patchwork of digital health apps and devices represent, at best, a disjointed collection of datasets that hold great promise, but remain disconnected and isolated. This is pushing Apple to not only make critical health informatic hires, but also lean on partners who know the intricacies of the marketplace, namely, pharmaceutical companies, health insurers, and major digital health technology platforms such as EMR/EHRs.

These relationships won't be one-sided, as Apple Watch will offer something important to healthcare: the data generated by a ubiquitous, always-on health companion. This comprehensive, contextual data has the power to illuminate health outcomes, changing how many of these companies operate, from coverage to policy to their own approaches at behavior change. It may also serve as a new channel to speak to their customers, and may ultimately encourage a larger population to engage with their health.

Apple's HealthKit and WatchKit have the very real potential to create an entirely new kind of health ecosystem and experience.  In its initial incarnation, the system will do two things: First, it will bring more people to the party by making health monitoring “cool” among a very wide set of consumers,and, second, build a baseline by harmonizing Apple and third-party data into a common framework, creating, for the first time, a defacto standard in the digital health space.

This means that Apple, and third-parties ranging from software companies to device manufacturers can align on the framework, and work reasonably in concert to find ways to extend and enhance the system, solving thorny issues such as privacy and security. And so, in time, Apple Watch could be the lynchpin of an Apple-led new health ecosystem, providing an omnipresent and continuous health-monitoring platform from which major medical, science, and technology players could launch major innovations in access, quality, and care.








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