What Pokemon Go can teach us about digital health

 In Healthcare Trends

Starting July 6, Cardiogram founders noticed a major spike in exercise. The Apple Watch heart rate tracking app noted that 35 percent of their users had logged over the recommended minimum 30 minutes of exercise that day, followed by 45, 50 and 53 percent counts the following days. What had happened that was causing this "population-level effect?" The launch of Pokémon Go, the founders told The Washington Post. 

What is Pokémon Go?
In case you're not familiar with Pokémon Go, it's a free augmented reality game that launched July 6 for Apple and Android devices in the U.S. The game simulates catching Pokémon, little creatures that can be trained to fight against Pokémon owned by other players. By exploring their own physical world, players will received notifications when a Pokémon is nearby, and can use their phones to see and attempt to catch them. 

Because the game involves going outside and searching for Pokemon to catch, the people who play it are getting more exercise. Pokémon Go has become an overnight success: SurveyMonkey's Intelligence Blog has reported 21 million daily players, making Pokemon  Go the biggest mobile game in U.S. history. The free app already has more downloads than Twitter and Tinder.

When the game starts, players are directed to head out to local landmarks which the game has dedicated as "Pokestops," where they can acquire supplies like the "Pokeballs" that they use to catch the digital critters. In order to hatch new Pokémon from eggs, players need to walk at least a mile, sometimes three while the eggs incubate. As the game taps into your location via GPS, it interacts with your real-world surroundings. It also keeps you accountable – you can't be moving too fast if you're trying to catch a Pokémon, so players can't cheat by driving instead of walking. 

Mobihealthnews has called the game "the fastest-growing unintentional health app" because it's been able to get more kids and millennials outside and moving around. Unlike traditional video games that involve sitting in front of a TV or computer screen moving only their thumbs, this game has users hiking and running outside in the fresh air, and interacting with people. While the game is ostensibly about catching cartoonish monsters, the Twinehealth blog referred to it as "an undercover digital health coaching app" because of how it motivates users to exercise, even people who haven't exercised in a long time. 

What can a medical products company learn from this?
There are a number of takeaways that digital health and life science product companies can gain from Pokemon Go's success story. 

  • Focus on the patient experience: Evidence shows that interest in many fitness apps can wane over time, and the new changes they encourage can be temporary. However, Pokemon Go engages users as a game first and foremost. Rather than simply tracking their exercise, the game mechanics encourage them to get outside and start moving – the exercise is a byproduct. By creating a fun, pleasant user experience, the game helps to motivate them to exercise instead of just telling them to exercise and then tracking their progress. 
  • Engage users: What keeps users coming back to Pokemon Go? New things to do. Players keep checking in to see if there are Pokemon nearby to catch, as well as other events like competitions. 
  • Give rewards, not pressure: Many fitness apps attempt to motivate users by pressuring them to meet goals, instead of making it fun and light. John Hanke, CEO of Pokemon Go developer Niantic, told Business Insider, "Pokemon Go is designed to get you up and moving by promising you Pokemon as rewards, rather than placing pressure on you."
  • Connect people: Exercise can be much more effective with a buddy, and Pokémon Go is no different. While players can use the app by themselves, there's a social aspect to it as well, letting users team up and compete against other teams at locations known as "Gyms." In addition, players have organized social outings centered around the game, and there have even been stories about people suffering from social anxiety using the app to get outside and meet more people. Mental health, after all, can also affect overall health. 
  • Learn how users think and act: One of the reasons Pokémon Go has seen such early success is that its simple gameplay makes it very easy for new players to jump right in. Longtime Pokémon fans and newcomers alike are able to grasp the controls quickly. Simple, intuitive design makes digital health products more accessible and effective. 

By presenting a fun, simple and engaging game, Pokémon Go is motivating users to improve their health habits by walking more, enjoying fresh air and socializing. Incorporating the important characteristics of this engaging, user-experience-focused product can help improve the design of medical products

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