Engaged Overview

Long-term, in-person treatment with a professional is currently the only proven way to lose weight through diet and exercise plans. Most intensive weight loss interventions - including the clinically proven Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP) - require participants to self-monitor their eating and exercise on paper.

Researchers from the Northwestern University School of Preventative Medicine, in collaboration with a team of interaction designers from the Institute of Design, are conducting a study to find out how new technologies can help. The study features a smartphone app which gives immediate, visual feedback on activity and dietary habits, and enables social support to help study participants maintain adherence to the DPP. The design's effectiveness will be tested in a controlled study with 64 participants starting in Fall 2010.


Five years ago, NWU research showed that using a Palm Treo, along with an accelerometer, to record diet and exercise increased the efficacy of the DPP. In 2009, they started this study to test a way to reduce the amount of doctor time needed to achieve the same effect.

Instead of relying on a professional's ethos and charisma to motivate users to make healthy decisions, an Android app will make users into experts by giving them the information they need at the right time and place.

See the NWU Study website for the latest updates.

Design Research meets Clinical Research
We started with in-context interviews and follow-alongs with 3 females and 2 males, between the ages of 27 and 50 with BMI from 30 to 45.
What we found won't surprise anyone who has studied psychology or read Shakespeare. Still, it helped put the project in perspective to see that our user group was unable to keep track of things like "How many cookies did I eat this week?", and would very seldom actively hide their decisions or reject clear evidence.
The study started with a vision of eye-catching visual feedback to help dramatize a participant's progress, as well as cash incentives for teams that lose the most weight.

Listening to users made it clear that the kind of person who doesn't already play a sport is unlikely to have a competitive edge - instead, they are inspired by their family and their community.

The study relies on the CalorieKing database to find the nutritional content of a food from its name. We assumed that the information architecture would be based on some attribute of the food (i.e. food group, meal type, ethnic origin, etc), the primary characteristic participants use to identify foods is "how often do I eat this?"
To facilitate discussion between the multiple disciplines, the design team organized a workshop between the NWU clinicians, the software engineer, and the design team. We brainstormed app concepts to help participants in 3 scenarios, then ranked them according to efficacy and feasibility to get an idea of what to implement.
Initial concepts started sketchy and rough to ensure that everyone involved would have a chance to give further input as the features neared completion.

This shows the progression in our thinking from knowing we needed to show how many calories were consumed, towards finding the right visual metaphor to capture both the amount consumed and the amount left, with a stretch goal of giving a negative affect if the user goes over the target.

See daily totals of calories and fat, and weekly totals of physical activity. Record daily weight.
Select foods to record as eaten and get immediate feedback on how it fits into your diet.
Track progress over months and weeks. The home screen shows ongoing physical activity.
Share messages and status updates with teammates. See who is recording foods and activity.

This was an interesting area of the product because the clinical team wanted to control against some users being more active in posting compared to others. So we used a posting board metaphor, where each user gets a space, rather than a feed, where the most recent posts are shown.