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Interactive apps may inspire healthy behaviours

Saturday, Feb 25, 2017,18:09 IST By anju A A A

New York | Just like real doctors and nurses, online health tools with good – but controlled – communication skills can promote healthier lifestyles, a new study by Indian-origin researchers has found.

However, if their tone is conversational, these tools may lull users into a false sense of comfort, researchers said.

According to researchers of Pennsylvania Sate University and University of Connecticut in the US, display of interconnected questions and answers promotes a feeling of contingency that leads to better engagement with the site.

Better engagement may increase the likelihood that the user will adopt strategies for better health.

“When you are having this back and forth interaction with a system, you are having a conversation with that system.

“We think that interactivity has been achieved when the system’s output is contingent on the user’s input in a continuous threaded way,” said S Shyam Sundar of Pennsylvania State University.

Although the back-and-forth feel of a conversation could lead to improved health intentions, a more conversational tone in the messages may make users feel less susceptible to health risks such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease, researchers said.

The study found that when the online tool used short phrases, such as “Mm-hmm” and “Go on” to promote an informal conversational tone, users felt less susceptible to health risks, according to Saraswathi Bellur, assistant professor at University of Connecticut.

“This conversational tone may make them warm and fuzzy, but that is not what you want to do with a health assessment tool.

“If you want people to stand up and take action, this type of friendly turn-taking softens the effect. However, if the goal of the interaction is to promote a sense of comfort among individuals, the same conversational tone strategy could work well, with the online tool acting like a virtual coach and providing reassurance,” she added.

Researchers studied 172 undergraduate students.

Participants were assigned to one of six versions of a health risk assessment website.

The sites were designed to have either low, medium, or high interactivity with either conversational or no conversational tone.

Participants took part in a question and answer session delivered through the website’s instant messaging interface.

The study found that low-interactivity site did not display any signs or visual cues of an ongoing interaction between the user and the system.

The medium-interactivity site visually called out the user’s response in a box titled “Your response.” In the high-interactivity condition, the system referred to the user’s previous answers by displaying “previously, you mentioned” or “earlier, you reported” following their answers.

The study was published in the journal Human Communication Research.

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