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Apps for What Ails You

Interface design wunderkind Aza Raskin explains how apps could make you healthier.
September 13, 2011

Could a mobile app save your life? Aza Raskin thinks so. Formerly in charge of design and user experience for Mozilla’s Firefox Web browser, Raskin left the company last year to start Massive Health, a startup based in San Francisco that’s pursuing secretive plans to launch a mobile health app later this year.

Human centered: Former Firefox designer Aza Raskin is working on health apps.

While Angry Birds and other addictive games may top the app charts today, Raskin is among a growing number of entrepreneurs who think that apps will be powerful tools for health care, too. (See six mobile health apps highlighted by Technology Review.) That is because mobile apps offer the sort of intimate interactions the health-care system doesn’t: they are always connected, always by your side, and they can have a very personal feel.

“Health really happens in between doctor’s visits,” says Raskin, who at 27 is already an influential thinker on design and user experience in Silicon Valley. “We now have these always-on connections, rich interfaces, mobile devices, and people who are willing to share,” he says. “All that creates a substrate on top of which you can create designs and interfaces to change behavior.”

The market for smart-phone health apps is only a few years old, and market analyst IDC says that this year some 14 percent of adult Americans will use one. According to Nielsen, which tracks 5,000 smart-phone users in the United States, the most popular health app today on the Android phone is WebMD, a source for consumer medical news. It is followed by Instant Heart Rate, a 99-cent app that permits people to use their phone’s camera to measure their pulse. In third place is Epocrates, a free quick-reference guide to prescriptions.


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However, Raskin thinks that health apps have yet to reach the people who really need them. Most existing apps, such as those that track sleep or workouts, are what he calls “wellness” tools that attract people who already take a close interest in optimizing their health, rather than not-so-healthy people who must manage chronic diseases.

Raskin isn’t ready to detail his own company’s plans—Massive Health’s app will remain under wraps until it is launched late this year—but he says he is taking on the challenge of helping just that population. The idea is to make health care a constant in people’s lives, not something that occurs only during a checkup.

Using apps to encourage healthy behaviors could be particularly valuable as the population ages and more people develop chronic conditions that require active management, such as diabetes. By 2020, according to health insurer UnitedHealth, 52 percent of adult Americans will be diabetic or pre-diabetic. “That’s terrifying, and our current health care system is not ready for that,” says Raskin. Mobile apps could prompt or remind diabetics to manage their blood sugar and diets better and, in Raskin’s words, become a sort of “computer interface to our bodies.”

The prospect of hundreds of millions more people living with such diseases explains why, after helping create a browser used by half a billion people, Raskin decided that health technology was the next big user-design challenge. “What needs the most help? It’s not social photo sharing, it’s health,” he says. “The U.S. has a growing problem with chronic health conditions, and the costs of managing them are going up. We need new tools to address that.”

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