Building a health app that treats people as individuals, not robots

March 29, 2022

Hi everyone! I'm Claire, one of the co-founders of Holly Health. This article outlines our reasoning behind building Holly Health. We believe that technology has so much potential to improve health outcomes, mental wellbeing and human flourishing, but most healthtech is built in ways that don't respect human psychology, and treat people like stimulus-response robots instead of the complex individuals we are.

We're doing things differently.

The trouble with healthtech: rigid reward

Something that has always frustrated me as a neuroscientist, when looking around for apps to help me with exercise, mental health or eating habits, is that so many health apps treat their users like simplistic reward-driven robots - that all you need to solve your problems is trophies, badges, gold stars and ever more insistent reminders to Do The Thing. Underlying these app mechanisms is an assumption that the reason you are struggling with implementing changes to your life is a failure of external discipline, which can all be solved if you just get the system right, with the perfect number of push notifications, the most beautifully designed badges, and the most satisfying micro-interactions when you check off a task or hit a daily goal.

Of course, having a virtual representation of immediate reward, that breaks down a faraway goal into manageable, simple chunks, can be incredibly motivating and helpful. And for any tech company building a health app, it would be the easy choice to create another of these 'discipline systems' - everyone gets shiny badges, helpful reminders, and when your users struggle to complete the programme you set for them, start piling on the push notifications and marketing emails to keep them on the straight and narrow. JUST KEEP GOING!

But what's easy for a tech company to build doesn't always align with what makes your life easier. And life isn't a measured march from A to B down a perfectly straight road, but is a complex journey, more like finding your way through an unexplored landscape, where you might find paths that disappear into the undergrowth, have to detour around impossible terrain, spend time mapping out your surroundings or just take a break to recuperate - perhaps even deciding that you know what, here is a perfectly good place to stay.

'JUST KEEP GOING!' isn't going to cut it, when life gets in the way. Should you really expect to stick to a strict exercise routine, if your world is falling apart? Is it reasonable to weigh everything you eat and count every calorie, if you are mentally and physically exhausted by everything else going on in your life? And if an app pushes you to keep doing and doing and doing, when you've already reached your limit, is that morally right?

We don't believe that it has to be this way.

We build tech that treats people as full human beings

Any app that claims to help you change your life, needs to embrace the myriad life challenges that every one of us faces. For too long society has valourised discipline and the ability to 'power through', treating lapses as failure and a lack of willpower, rather than understanding 'failure' as what it really is - a mismatch between the thing you are trying to do, and your unique circumstances. Perhaps the sleep habits that used to work great for you, just don't fit since you started a new job. Perhaps your child just got sick, and you just don't have any energy left for your old routine. Perhaps an old health condition has resurfaced, and things that once seemed easy have now become impossible.

Every person's circumstances and challenges are different, and we built Holly with this in mind. So although the Holly app - like many health apps out there - does provide reminders and motivation for when you find a health routine that works for you, it also helps you with the all the parts and processes surrounding that, which are much, much more important. Experimenting with different activities and habits to see what works best. Helping you build up your confidence and sense of wellbeing, to create reserves of energy and resilience you can draw on to tackle the goals you set for yourself. Suggesting changes when things aren't working out, and recognising when it's time to step back instead of only ever moving onwards.

We want to equip you with your own personalised mental and physical health toolkit, collected from our own backgrounds in psychological medicine, neuroscience, nutrition and health coaching - a toolkit full of habits, practices and knowledge that you can flexibly draw from depending on what you need in the moment. I could write for hours about the great content, small confidence-building habits and helpful therapeutic exercises we've created and why we've chosen to include them, but I think the most important thing we've done is to create a sensitive guide, the Holly Bird, to help you explore the landscape of your life with a light touch. The Holly Bird provides intelligent motivation, immediate support and sensitive recommendations that's non-judgemental and blame free, designed to help you to build up confidence and a sense of control over your own life, instead of browbeating you into action.

Ultimately, what we want for everybody who uses Holly is that we can inspire and equip you to go out and take charge of your own life and goals, whatever they may be! We think we're on the right track - in the Holly beta, after 1 month, users reported feeling more in control of their health by 20%, on average, and many also took additional healthy actions outside of what they were doing in the Holly app. But this is just the start - we still have so far to go.|

We're at the beginning of our journey

I write this at a very exciting moment for us, as we've just launched the Holly app! If you have any feedback, good or bad, please do let us know at [email protected]. We're a team of scientists with our roots in academia, so we're always experimenting and open to new ideas! We can't guarantee perfection (can anyone?), but we'll do all we can to help you along your own individual path, we promise to listen with compassion, and we'll draw on all our scientific knowledge and clinical experience to build tech that supports you in reaching your goals, whether that's in physical health, mental wellbeing, your relationship with food or something else entirely.

We believe it's time for tech that supports humans, instead of forcing humans to act like robots. I hope you'll join us in our Holly journey, and help us to start a very needed, very human revolution.