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By virtue of where this is published, the fact that you're reading these words implies that you most likely have some degree of tech savvy. If only all people using mobile health technology were similarly equipped.
All the coolest and most sophisticated technology in the world will be for naught if the people for whom it's designed don't know how to use it. Take that last sentence, for example. While I have used the expression "it will be for naught" when speaking, I don't think I've ever typed it before, and I relied on Microsoft Word to tell me if I got it right.
But suppose I had typed "not" instead of "naught"? There are infinite examples of incorrect language use, such as when people say or write, "That point is mute." It's erroneous, but Word would not tell you that because it's spelled correctly. I, on the other hand, knew to use my Shift-F7 key combo to call up the reference tool and check the meaning to make sure I had the right word even though it was not flagged as misspelled (Of course, I could have pulled out a dictionary, but I'm a geek, for crying out loud).
I knew to do that because I am relatively tech savvy. I am also critical of usability design. I think that professionally, I am the rule, rather than the exception. However, when I spend time with family and friends - especially those who are not in the technology industry - I find myself more the exception. So many times I watch people go through multiple steps to do something on a computer or mobile device that I know can be done in a much easier way. I watch people use manual processes or workarounds because they're not aware that the technology in their pocket or on their desk is perfectly capable and equipped to do it better, faster and more accurately. Many people still do not take the simplest precautions of backing up data and using good and up-to-date malware. And many times, they just don't seem to care.
When my son was in eighth grade earlier this year, he needed his cell phone replaced. As he was headed to high school this fall, and with many of his friends already having smartphones, I decided to upgrade him and he chose a Blackberry. Actually, he wanted an iPhone, but when I told him that if he lost it he would have to replace it, and then showed him the replacement cost (i.e. without the carrier subsidy), he quickly opted for the Blackberry. My son is a typical teenager in that he is much more interested in what the device can do to satisfy his immediate needs rather than maintenance tasks. He began to build up quite a contact list with his friends' mobile numbers and e-mail addresses, as they were all scattering to different high schools come September. I told him more than once that he should use the desktop software to back up his contacts.
Now in my son's defense, his recent loss of Blackberry use you may have guessed at by now, but it was not entirely his fault. His mother was carrying it for him. In her bag. At the bottom of her bag. Next to the water bottle in the bottom of her bag. Next to the water bottle that leaked in the bottom of her bag. Sitting in a bag of uncooked rice for three days still did not bring the device back to life. And along with the use of his Blackberry, also lost were his contacts.
Or consider my mother who, despite superhuman efforts to teach her how to use a very simple cellphone, still thinks she cannot make a call because she can't get a dial tone.
So as I review the landscape of mobile health technology, I cannot help but think how ineffective some of it will be given that there will always be people who have some degree of challenges in using and maintaining their devices. The increasing number of solutions featuring biometric integration can cut both ways. On the one hand, it may reduce the need to interact directly with the technology, while on the other it may require more sophistication to initially set up and maintain.
This is to say nothing of those solutions that have poorly designed usability, presenting additional challenges. And what about those that simply don't work properly all the time? I have a collection of apps on my iPhone that I no longer use because they are too buggy.
I fear that while a preponderance of users will embrace all of this new technology and realize the intended benefits, there are those for whom it may frustrate or even potentially harm. And I am frustrated myself, because I'm just not sure what the solution is. User support functions which could do a good deal of hand-holding would be, in most cases, cost-prohibitive.
There is probably a business opportunity here somewhere. Similar to companies like Buy More's Nerd Herd, which serves customers who may be less tech-savvy, maybe there is a niche for people who need help with their mobile health solutions and are willing to pay. Or at the very least, they can provide my son with a Ziploc(R) bag for his phone.
The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not reflect the views of my employer.
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