5 things you need to know about building a great self-help app

Mobile technology has changed the landscape of the self-help world. Whereas once people had to read long books, carry around notepads, and try to remember all the life lessons offered by gurus, today they can get everything they need through their smartphones.

Each user has his own tailored program in his pocket that will remind him throughout the day of the various tasks he should be doing, and he doesn’t have to pay US$10 000 for the privilege of its wisdom.

This technological revolution in self-help is a welcome one. Mental disorders such as depression affect about a third of all adults across the globe. This burden hits society as well as individuals, with an estimated economic output loss of US$800-billion in the US in 2010 — a number that’s likely to double by 2030. But in many places, people are reluctant to seek the necessary help. In America, for example, 38% of people suffering from mental-health problems talk to professionals, and there is one overriding reason for this reluctance: cost.

The Value of Self-Help Apps

While an app may not be able to deal with the serious consequences of depression, it can be a major tool in combating other mental-health issues and can serve as an inexpensive and powerful force for good in the day-to-day lives of its users.

With self-help guides, people were left to their own devices. A parable explaining how somebody overcame adversity may allow for deeper reflection, but it also has the potential to be misunderstood. Put a responsive tool in somebody’s hands, and everything changes.

Instead of taking an abstract lesson and applying it to their own lives, users can get advice based on their specific circumstances and can measure progress more readily. Accessible at all hours, these apps can serve as an important first line of defense in our war on mental-health problems.

Building the Best App Possible

Entrepreneurs looking to build one of these apps must ensure that the approach and outlook offered is both distinctive and original. Nobody wants a rehash of unhelpful platitudes culled from an online quote bank.

So how can entrepreneurs and their developers ensure that their apps are the best they can be? Here are five simple tips to get started:

1. Offer a Way to Track Progress

Many healthcare professionals are wary of self-help apps. A San Francisco psychotherapist, Irene Gorodyansky, compared them to “fad diets” and singled out Lumosity as particularly unhelpful. The “only thing Lumosity made you better at,” she wrote, “was Lumosity itself.”

But this doesn’t have to be the case. A rigorous self-help app that is based on scientific approaches and allows users to track their progress can be of great help in accomplishing their goals. When progress is hidden, people are often discouraged, but by giving users clearly defined steps, input points, and the ability to enter nuanced responses about their problems, apps can encourage and sustain deeper reflection and learning.

2. Cut the Long-Winded Passages

Interaction is key to user engagement. If a user feels the need to write his own lengthy reflection on what he’s dealing with, then that’s a great way for him to come to terms with some of the problems he’s facing.

A high-quality app should not, however, respond in kind. Self-help apps are not self-help books, and there’s no benefit to offering long-winded passages that demand users to scroll through pages and pages of text without offering any interaction.

3. Use the Device Calendar as a Tool

Accessing a smartphone’s calendar won’t just help an app’s users to track their progress; it can also help ensure the app offers regular and timely advice. That could mean daily and weekly tips, or it could mean specific focuses at different times of the year.

What kind of help does a user need around the holidays, and what kind of help does she need at the end of the tax year? Context is everything, and a good self-help app will be as context-aware as possible.

4. Use Social Media, Emails, and Other Details

If a user is willing to grant an app access to her social media habits, emails, and other activities, then that app’s software can get smarter. With the right software and analysis, a great self-help tool can identify a user’s pain before he is even aware of it and then offer preemptive solutions.

Some tools go even further. Spyre uses a wearable device that analyzes a user’s physiological signs to detect emotions and then sends tips to the user’s phone about relaxation techniques.

5. Use Geolocation

Depending on a self-help program’s focus, geolocation can offer a wealth of information. If the app helps with more healthful eating, then its tapping into the restaurants the user visits allows it to provide content about choosing the right dishes. If a new state-of-the-art gym opens up, then the app could notify the user. All of these advice points can help users reflect before making decisions, ensuring that they stay on the right track.

Data on feelings, locations, and habits are not just useful for marketers; they’re also helpful for people who provide them. The more information an app acquires, the better the service it provides, allowing users to genuinely reflect on their actions and decisions on a regular basis. By designing smarter and more responsive self-help apps, entrepreneurs and developers can help people conquer their problems.

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