MetaLab has worked on many health apps over the years. Chances are, you’ve probably even used one of them.
There’s Ro, an app that creates personalised health journeys. Summit Health, which makes sure patients get the care that they need across America. And most recently there’s Tally Health, an app that helps you age healthier and live longer.
In many ways, designing a health app is like designing any other app. We use the same best practices, the same strategy frameworks, the same engagement loops, the same hook models, and so on.
But those will only get you so far, because in other ways health products are very different, and surprisingly hard to get right.
Why is it so hard?
Well, beyond the obvious red tape and legacy tech stacks, I think it’s because of people like this.
That’s my father-in-law. He’s a doctor. An OBGYN to be exact. People come to him because they need help with one of the most important things in their life — creating a family.
He keeps his patients accountable, helps them make progress, and sees them through the toughest challenges on their journey.
He understands them. Not just their bodies, but also how they think, and how they can sometimes fool themselves into thinking. And he knows how to keep them motivated.
His patients love him.
And that’s hard to recreate in a digital experience.
Many healthcare products try to replicate the experience of seeing a great doctor, but a lot of them fall short.
Some are too clinical, giving users advice that goes over their heads. Others are too fluffy, giving only vague and superficial advice. Directions are often unrealistic or scarily insurmountable, and without a real person on the other end of the line, there's nothing there to actually keep you re-engaged, besides some measly notifications.
Ironically, what’s missing from the products that are most centred on what makes us human … is them feeling human.
So the question we asked ourselves is, how do we fix this?
How do we make health care products more human — and, by extension, make us healthier?
How do you build a better health app?
At MetaLab, we've shaped 5 guiding principles to make our health products more human.
🧬 Grounded in science
People’s health is not something to take lightly. Just as you’d expect to see your doctor’s Ph.D. certificate hanging on their wall, a health app needs to have a through-line back to the science of what’s shown. Otherwise, it will feel fluffy and not trustworthy.
Information (and the experience as a whole) has to be grounded in science, but recommendations and results must be delivered in a way your audience will understand. If your users have to turn to Google for clarity on something presented in your app, you’ve failed.
It’s not enough for a product to give you information and make recommendations on what you could do. To improve your health, products have to make you commit to taking action. Then turn that action into habit.
We’re not talking about basic personalization here. Healthcare products need a holistic understanding of who you are, your biological makeup, your lifestyle, and what you can realistically commit to. You know, the stuff your doctor inherently knows about you.
A lot of healthcare is about waiting. Waiting for results or waiting for progress. Healthcare products have to solve this — so that there are periods of engagement to help you see progress, even if you're waiting.
So, that’s the theoretical framework. But what does it look like in action?
Let’s take a look at three of MetaLab’s projects to illustrate how these principles bend and flex depending on the type of product your building.
Helping patients reach their health goals with Ro
Ro provides personalised, discrete end-to-end care for conditions such as sexual health, fertility, skincare, weight management and more. They asked MetaLab to define the strategy for their brand, website, and mobile app taking a patient-centric approach.
Accessible and personal are baked into the brand pillars — guiding how Ro shows up visually and verbally in the world.
Every touchpoint feels personal to every patient — beginning with a quiz that helps Ro learn about the patients health goals rather than solely focusing on their symptoms. The imagery and language used creates an accessible and inclusive environment.
To help guide users to the care and information they need, 90% of the experience is designed to be purely functional. The remaining 10% uses colour gradients to add energy where patients need to take action.
To help patients make informed decisions, Ro surfaces the most essential and contextually relevant information such as common questions about their treatment or explanations of the science behind the ingredients in their prescriptions.
Timely check-ins at key milestone moments for all plans allow patients to track their progress over time and surface possible side effects.
Matching millions to the right care with Summit Health
Summit Health is the leading urgent care provider in the New York metro area. In 2020, they approached MetaLab to create a first of its kind multi-specialty care experience — combining primary, secondary, and urgent care under one platform.
Built with physicians and medical staff — we worked closely with internal physicians and staff to understand the pain points they experience, and insights they have working with patients on a day to day basis that we could build into the application. This helped us better understand the sensitivities that exist when consumers interpret health data.
To comply with regulations, Summit must alert patients as soon as results are ready — hitting our timely principle. However, we found this to cause alarm for some users around abnormal or negative test results.
While the science may find something abnormal, this can be okay in the context of the patient's overall health. Visual language was added notifying patients to not be alarmed and to wait for a doctor to review their results. Once a doctor takes a look, they can add notes with their interpretation of the results — written in accessible, and easy to understand language.
To enable quick action, Summit has a preferred pharmacy integration that allows patients to send prescriptions to their local pharmacy. This makes the experience feel personal as it’s designed for ease and comfort of each user.
Helping people live better and age healthier with Tally Health
MetaLab just helped with the product strategy, research, design, and build of Tally Health’s member experience.
Tally is designed to take years of research on ageing and longevity and transform it into an experience that helps users turn this scientific theory into practice, creating the sustainable long-term change to lower their biological age, also known as TallyAge.
Every aspect of the app is grounded in the science of longevity, but the language used in the experience is simple and easy to understand — making it accessible for the everyday user. A good example of this are the lifestyle recommendations. Clear language is used, like “lower your red meat intake.” For some, that’s enough context to get started. For those who want to learn more about the why, they can read the linked research and articles on the topic.
The action plans provided are extremely personal. Not only are they based on your DNA (how much more personal can you get than that) but also your lifestyle. Recommendations are prioritised based on what will make the biggest impact on their age. There’s a key moment of commitment where members take control of their plan by committing to an action plan that matches the level of intensity they can realistically commit to.
When it comes to timeliness, members test to check their TallyAge every 3 months. That’s enough time to work to make a measurable change but a lot of waiting. To ensure members don’t feel like they’re on their own, Tally will keep users engaged by encouraging regular check-ins.
As you can see, most of the time these principles are used together and can play off each other. They can mean different things based on the needs of the business and the user but are always relevant.
The result: better health products and happier patients.
Sean Lynch is the head of product at MetaLab. This post is based on his talk at SXSW in March 2023.
can use today