Healthy Aging

Health-Tracking Apps: Godsend – Or Not So Much?

Apps on your smartphone and computer that promise to help you eat healthy, get regular exercise, monitor your heart rate and follow other good habits are becoming more plentiful and feature rich by the day. Experts say it’s a natural result of being more involved in our own health care and wellness and could be especially helpful for those with chronic conditions, such as diabetes or high blood pressure.

So, these apps that help you monitor habits and manage your goals are a godsend, right?

If you hesitated on your answer, you are not alone.

These apps and trackers often come up short for the 60-plus crowd, with designs and instructions that leave a lot to be desired, according to new research.

And if you’re saying, “Of course they do! Because they were probably designed by a 22-year-old, or a grade-schooler,” you’re not alone there, either.

Ageism in Silicon Valley – the birthplace of these high-tech apps – means the folks there are focused too much on youth not only in hiring and firing but also in designing tech products for more mature users. That’s according to Mark Miller, who writes the blog Rethinking Retirement. You’ll like him right away – he’s pushing for more age diversity in the teams that develop these apps.

What’s wrong with the apps?

To find out, researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology and Georgia Tech Research Institute put two technologies to the test by older users. One is a commercially available device that attaches to clothing or a fabric bracelet, then counts steps, monitors sleep and downloads the info to a website interface.

The second is a free website that allows users to enter info on workouts and foods eaten, and to track fitness goals.

The researchers asked two older adults, both over 60, to use each product over a two-week period.

Among the complaints: On the device, it was sometimes difficult to tell when you’re logged in and how to navigate back to the home page. Also, the size of the device made it difficult to keep track of it.

On the website, some logs had drop-down menus, others did not, making personal data entry difficult. Navigation bars – the menus for accessing different parts of the site – were inconsistent, too. Universal design experts call that bad design.

The researchers saw more problems: low color contrast between icons and the background screen, and small fonts, making the information hard for some seniors to read; plus, a lack of prominent reminder options. Their study was presented at a symposium on human factors and ergonomics in health care.

Meanwhile plans by Google, Apple and Samsung to let us sync health data from several tracking apps are being called a healthcare revolution in the making – but for whom. (WebMD already offers a syncing option that also provides tips based on your data.)

Now, it’s time for a poll. If these apps and trackers were better designed, would you use one? If you already do use one, tell us in the comments below – how could the design be improved?

Silicon Valley is listening, we hope.



One response to “Health-Tracking Apps: Godsend – Or Not So Much?

  1. I had a “step counter” that went belly-up within the first 60 days after I bought it. It was (theoretically) an LED and didn’t need a battery. I’d stopped using it anyway because there was no way to attach it to my ankle or foot that stayed in place, didn’t slip and didn’t chafe! I don’t usually wear belts and putting the device in the pocket of my jeans didn’t work. How about a reliable step counter or pedometer that one could wear comfortably throughout the day?

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