Top 5 trends – Use of Mobile Apps in Research Studies

by Chintan Patel, PhD

Mobile apps are all rage in research community these days. A quick Pubmed search produces several studies using mobile apps in wide-ranging areas such as parkinsons, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes management and even mindfulness! One study showed that mobile app based studies result in faster completion, more complete records and improved adherence. With big technology giants  like Apple and Google launching efforts to help researchers with release of ResearchKit and StudyKit respectively, we are likely to see widespread use of mobile apps in conducting observational research studies. A recent report in Nature talks about how ResearchKit is opening new avenues of real-time, large scale research that were not possible before.

A lot of new exciting developments are happening this space. I have compiled some key notable trends on what we can expect in near future:

1. Participant Engagement: One of the biggest challenge that comes with running research studies as “apps” is that your app is sitting right beside other apps from Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat etc that are all vying for users attention. Although the purpose of research is not to “engage” the user but a considerable thinking has to be put into identifying what are participants getting in “return” for the participation. Researchers are not necessarily trained in product management as most silicon valley startups producing competitive apps are. In launching our ResearchKit app, America Walks, we created a “leaderboard” concept to show top states on daily basis – it lead to around 70% of participants opening the app everyday.

Researchkit App Engagement
Research Apps should be sticky/engaging (Source: www.phunware.com)

2. Heavy focus on UI and User Experience: In general consumers have a very high bar on user experience with mobile apps. Even a delay of second makes people uneasy and lose attention. The apps have to be snappy and responsive. Hence, the use of cross-platform toolkits such as PhoneGap, Ionic etc while providing initial cost savings in development effort, lead to poor performance and user frustration. Researchers will need to come up with better looking, high performance apps that delight the participant.

 

Leaderboard in America Walk Study – Showing live data on top states in terms of steps walked

3. Device/Sensor Data Integration: With arrival of new medical devices, fitness trackers and wearables in the market that are “internet enabled” (see below the landscape), new data pipes will need to be built that can leverage data from such devices. One such effort is DxAPI, that can integrate data from a wide variety of fitness trackers and devices via a single programmatic interface.

New devices and sensors are entering market everyday. New pipes have to be created to aggregate and analyze data from these devices

4. Big Analytics, Storage & Security:  Large number of study participants and constant stream of data could easily overwhelm your average research department’s servers. Either the data needs to be pushed into the secure cloud server or in-house capabilities need to be build to handle large influx of data. Once data is received, it needs to be analyzed for insights and this could potentially require large scale data analytics tools.  Other unintended side-effect of big data might be increased chances of data leaks of personally identifiable information. Secure safe-guards and audit-trails need to be maintained to prevent any type of data leaks. Inaccurate and spam data are additional challenges that need to be overcome.

5. Mega Longitudinal Studies: With ability to reach every corner of the world, we will see some mega studies that span the entire globe and track various metrics deeply for a long period of time. This will enable us to identify pre-cursors to various diseases that we don’t understand the mechanisms well enough. I predict that one of the Nobel Prizes of 2050s in Medicine will be someone who made a landmark discovery by leveraging the power of such apps to derive a fundamental insight.

Despite promising future of mobile apps in research studies, there are several hurdles that need to be overcome. The cost of developing apps is significantly higher than a paper form or a website, additionally getting the user experience right requires a professional designer/consultant in mobile space.

PS: Get in touch with us if you are looking for a company to do ResearchKit based mobile app development for both iOS and Android.

 

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