Can apps change behaviour?

Date: 18/03/2015 Written by: Rosie 8 minutes to read.
A review of five drink-tracking apps

Many people do not understand the safety limits of drinking alcohol, causing them to drink too much and often be at an increased risk of harm. In order to tackle this, public bodies and private software developers have invented apps to help people track how much they are drinking. But do these actually have the potential to change behaviour? Well, we have reviewed five drink tracking apps with this question in mind - tell us what you think!

Many public bodies, such as the NHS, and private software developers, have invented drink-tracking apps to help reduce the high levels of binge drinking in the United Kingdom. Cynically, I would argue some people have made apps to make money. Binge drinking is defined as ‘an individual consuming an excessive amount of alcohol in a short space of time’. We know that this can lead to long term health problems, as well as an increased risk of harm. This is due to the fact that binge drinking is associated with an increase in unintentional injuries, which include falls, burns and drowning. According to the World Health Organisation ‘alcohol consumption prior to swimming or falling into water is the most common contributory factor in drowning for children and adolescents in many countries’. However as many individuals do not understand safe limits, drinking apps aim to alleviate this problem by informing the person that they have reached a dangerous BAC (blood alcohol content) level. It is theorised that this knowledge will change the behaviour of the individual by dissuading them from consuming more alcohol, and will educate them on how much they are actually drinking. But do they? 

A review of five drink tracking apps 

As a smart phone user (and someone who enjoys a drink or two) I wanted to find out what is the best drink track app out there so I set out to review five I consider worthy of review. With so many available apps in the app store I found this quite a hard task. New features are being developed all the time within existing apps which improve experience and give users added features -for example, a feature of one app had an aim of ‘getting you home safely’. Another introduced calorie counting to inform you how many calories you are totting up through your alcohol consumption. For this article I picked five apps and tried and tested them. 

SoberApp

This app is easy to use. It features a simple to use interface. All you need to do is enter your basic information; gender, weight, what you’ve been drinking and when. The app will then tell you if you are able to drive or if you are too intoxicated, by showing you a red or green screen. It is important to note here, that people’s BAC levels can be affected by different factors such as what they have eaten before going out or existing health problems and therefore this may not always be 100% accurate. This app features some really useful features and as a result has been recognised by ‘bestandroidappsreview.com’ as ‘an easy way to monitor the number of drinks you’ve had and estimate your BAC, all to increase safety and awareness when you’re out for a good time.’

Fab features include:

- The ability to browse over 3100 drinks, it is the only app that contains a large database of drinks and brands with actual photos instead of generic animated pictures that make it easy for an individual to choose exactly what they have been drinking.

- It will help you find a taxi so that you can make sure that you get home safely.

- Reaction test – measures how fast your reactions are when you are sober compared to when you have been drinking. This can increase awareness of how your body actually functions when intoxicated. So if a person thinks that they behave the same when drinking as sober then this feature may make them think twice!

Negatives: Could be improved by applying some simple behavioural theory.  

Drinking Buddy

This is an app that prides itself on being fun and user friendly, with the tagline ‘this app is designed not to nag you to stop drinking or scare you into a sober lifestyle. For most of us this is not something we want. Instead Drinking Buddy allows you to monitor and track your drinking habits.’ This is a really good marketing strategy, as many people may believe that drink-tracking apps are there to stop you drinking entirely. This is instead a good approach as it takes into account the behaviour and attitudes of its consumers. This app has many features, which make it very interactive, for instance you can connect via Facebook to compare your habits with those of your friends, such as your average BAC levels and reaction times.

Negatives: Again, it could be improved by applying some simple behavioural theory.

Alcodroid Alcohol Tracker 

This is an interesting app as it adds another dimension in the fact that it tracks the cost of your drinks, so you can see how much you are spending over a period of time. You can download a widget that shows your current BAC on your phone home screen, making it easily accessible for users, who don’t want to spend a long time opening and closing the app on a night out. This theme is continued by the option to create a preset lists of drinks or you can pin the most frequently used drinks to the main screen to log your drinks by two clicks, making the process of logging your drinks faster and easier.

Negatives: It is hard to think of many negatives. Maybe it could be 'more social' and it would be even more amazing if it applied some behavioural theory. There is potential prompting people to record drinks (say, every 20 minutes). This could work well with wearable technology. 

NHS Drinks Tracker 

This app provides you with information on your existing drinking habits through the use of a drinking self-assessment tool. This will inform you if you are drinking too much and if you are, then it will suggest ways to cut down. This app is particularly good as it not only tells you if you have drunk too much or not, it also aims to provide you with help and tips on how you can drink more sensibly. It has the option to be downloaded on your desktop (not a feature available on the other apps) where you can create a drinks diary; you will then receive personalised feedback on your alcohol consumption behaviour, in order to encourage long-term behaviour change.

Negatives: Clearly one positive is that it is an NHS product so there is a certain level of trust in the information but the fact that it is an NHS tool could also be a negative. It lacks some of the 'fun' found in other apps as it has to be serious and factual. This may not sustain usage in the long term. 

Drinkaware App 

Our number one app! This app is produced by the UK’s leading alcohol awareness charity. It has a large range of features, making it relevant to a large and diverse audience:

- Track the units and calories in your drinks

- Extensive database of alcohol brands

- Learn more about the health benefits of cutting down

- Feel supported with regular and personalised feedback

The level of support provided by this app is very high! It offers users personalised guidance, and even identifies locations where you may drink more and then gives you extra help and encouragement when you are at that particular location through your phone app.

It focuses on long term behaviour change by allowing you to set goals, review your progress and access rewards by achieving your goals, such as a page where you can unlock an achievement such as ‘drink one less award’ and “100 days of tracking’.

The high level of features in this app is demonstrated through it being awarded five stars in the best FREE app review in Web User. It also featured in the prestigious review ‘Guardian App of the Week’.

Despite the positive acclaims for this app it is important to note that the large amount of content in the features can be subjected to problems once users download updates for it. These can range from features not loading to the app crashing completely.

Negatives: We like this app in the office but if it adopted some of the cool features we have found in other apps it has the potential to sustain usage and increase engagement. Some simple upgrades will stand this out from the rest. There is also the added dimension that this app is funded by the drinks industry so the cynical might not think an app like this is there to reduce consumption...

A final say...

Developers of all of these apps need to be aware that accessibility problems can dissuade individuals from using these apps, and therefore functionality is key! Design and aesthetically pleasing apps are also important in engagement. We have found that there are a number of great apps modelled on good behaviour change theory but they are ugly and clunky. 

Design, accessibility and behavioural science need to work together if an app is to engage and sustain usage and facilitate behaviour change. Interested in apps - the kind that actually engage people? Talk to us today.

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