mHealth: Designing Human-Centered Technology to Support Health in Kenya

With Support from National Institutes of Health, MSU Researchers Collaborate with Kenyan Institutions to Develop a Mobile Health App for Adolescents with Type 1 Diabetes

An MSU research team aims to put better health at the fingertips of youth in sub-Saharan Africa. Combining mobile technology, insight from Kenyans, and an approach called Human-Centered Design (HCD), MSU faculty are working to develop health tools for mobile devices in Africa.

The project, funded by a $387,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, will explore whether mobile health technology – mHealth – paired with HCD can make a lasting impact on health outcomes.

Led by Susan Wyche, Ph.D., Associate Professor in the Department of Media & Information at the College of Communication Arts and Sciences, this research project will develop innovative mobile health technology from start to finish.

The project will involve building connections between software developers and public health practitioners, understanding the needs of Kenyan youth who are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, and working to develop a new mHealth app.

Denise Hershey“This exploratory effort will be among the first to design a functional mHealth prototype for Kenyan adolescents with T1D, using Human-Centered Design,” said Wyche. “This project will produce a novel app that our collaborators can iterate upon and work toward scaling up at the end of the project.”

Entirely made up of women, the research team includes Jennifer Olson, Ph.D., associate professor of Media & Information, and Bree Holtz, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Advertising + Public Relations, in collaboration with Denise Hershey, Ph.D., RN, associate professor in the College of Nursing.

Designing Technology with Humans at the Center

HCD, also referred to as design thinking, is a strategy that prioritizes the needs of the intended population. The approach involves three phases: developing an understanding of technology users, creating a prototype for design ideas, and working with end-users to implement and evaluate the design.

“Technology shouldn’t be hard to use,” said Wyche. “The people designing the technology should talk to the people who use the technology, and put their needs, their experiences, their aspirations at the center, rather than letting the technology drive things. Holtz explained that HCD is key to the success of the project.

“This is part of the reason that so many health apps in general fail. App designers don’t ask the target population what their life is like,” said Holtz. “We are giving them the tools to create and develop something useful and meaningful. To me, this is the truest example of what it means to be the pioneer land grant institution in the U.S.”

The human-centered approach has been used in the past to develop interventions that improve health outcomes, while keeping products innovative and relevant to local residents. In this project, researchers will not only work to develop a mobile product, but they will also train people in Kenya to understand the process. The project began with a seed grant from Trifecta, an interdisciplinary initiative that supports health research, to build partnerships in Kenya. Now, the team will train two African organizations – software developers at LakeHub and the nonprofit Kenyan Diabetes Management and Information Center – and pave the way for Kenyans to create more mHealth apps in the future.

“The goal is to help build capacity so that these organizations can build their own apps, recognizing that they are the experts,” said Wyche.

Moving Kenya Forward with Mobile Technology

“Michigan State is a leader in all things Africa,” said Wyche. “In terms of the breadth of expertise in Africa, there are really not as many places that are as strong as Michigan State.”

Together, Wyche and Olson have more than 35 years of experience conducting fieldwork in Kenya. They have witnessed “enormous growth” in mobile phone ownership over the last 15 years. The research team is interested to learn how mobile applications might be able to support health in Kenya.

“I’ve always been interested in looking at populations that are not considered in the design process,” said Wyche, who was trained as an industrial designer. “There’s a lot of hype and excitement about using mobile phones to affect health outcomes, but whether or not they actually do, that is sort of unknown.”

In the past, Holtz worked with adolescents who were diagnosed with T1D and their parents, to develop health interventions. “When developing an app intervention, you really have to understand the wants and the needs of the population that is dealing with the disease or condition,” said Holtz. “I am hoping to be able to help them understand key components of health communication, diabetes, and how technology can be used to help the targeted population.”

Holtz will help software developers understand how to create mHealth applications that might ease the complexities of managing Diabetes.

Empowering People and Organizations

The research team will work closely with software developers and public health practitioners in Kenya for to understand the possibilities of mobile technology, and how the technology could fit into the lifestyle of those living in sub-Saharan Africa.

“This is not just another attempt to develop a pilot intervention based on designers’ assumptions, rather than input from primary users,” said Wyche. “The research will incorporate local knowledge into mHealth app development.”

The research team will begin by developing curriculum and offering a workshop on Human-Centered Design in Nairobi. In collaboration with LakeHub and DMI, they will conduct interviews and focus groups with people diagnosed with T1D, lead design workshops to develop design ideas, and build an mHealth prototype that they will then evaluate with adolescents with T1D.

“The impacted population should be part of the processes every step of the way,” said Holtz. “Therefore, you can develop a product that is needed, and used, which will hopefully improve the lives of those affected.”

Researchers hope the project will benefit Kenyans well into the future, empowering people and organizations to develop new mHealth applications and improve health outcomes using mobile technology. Whether or not mHealth and Human-Centered Design prove to be effective in Kenya, Wyche said there’s value in what researchers stand to learn.

“Part of the project is exploring whether this approach to design is really valuable,” said Wyche. “Part of that means acknowledging that it might fail, but there’s value in that.”

The outcomes hold the potential to impact the local population in significant ways.

“It is really two-fold,” said Holtz. “I hope that the project will increase the capacity of developers of apps to become better at Human-Centered Design and [PM20] how that can improve the technology they develop. I also hope that once the project is over, they can continue to train others in using this method – it doesn’t have to be around diabetes, but whatever important health issues they are facing and impacted by.”

Because the project involves human-centered study and technology, as well as health, it also offers opportunities to raise awareness for a growing health issue.

“I hope that it will bring more awareness around T1D in Kenya, and be able to better support those living with the disease,” said Holtz. 

By Melissa Priebe

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