"People are complicated. Their needs, especially as it relates to their health and their lifestyle, are so multifaceted. It takes a human in many cases to be able to understand that and adapt how we help each individual in a way that's appropriate for them."
What is Omada Health’s purpose?
Omada's goal is to reduce the risk of chronic disease and help people who already have a chronic disease manage it. For the first six years or so of our existence, our focus was solely on prevention. We targeted the at-risk population, people trending towards type 2 diabetes for example, and helping them through behavioural medicine to reduce the risk of ever getting a chronic illness. Now, we’re also moving into disease management to support people with a condition like type 2 diabetes, hypertension or even mental health issues like anxiety and depression, by providing them with tools to treat their ongoing challenges in a way that can reduce long-term risk.
What are the tools you’ve built to support people?
Omada started off as an internal project at IDEO in 2011 after looking at a 2002 CDC study that proved that a combination of coaching, group therapy, education and tracking led to a 60% decrease in those who are at risk for type 2 diabetes. Our core product features today are strongly influenced by this. We have an online program available through the web and mobile apps.Participants have access to a remote health coach and a participant support group, as well as educational resources and tracking tools to monitor things like diet, sleep and stress with challenges that put a lot of what they learn into practice.
What role does the remote health coach play in enabling a person to take control of their health?
Firstly a coach’s role is to figure out the core motivation that’s driving an individual to get healthy, which is complicated because it varies broadly from person to person. It’s on that foundation that we’re able to build success into the program because if you're not motivated for the right reasons it's really hard to build habits that you can stick to and persist with throughout your life.
We hear motivations from our users like wanting to fit into that dress they wore 20 years earlier or wanting to stay healthy so they can watch their young children grow up. These things have a lot of meaning and inspire an individual when they're going through the challenging process of changing their life.
The second big thing our coaches focus on is goal setting. Humans aren't expert goal setters. We don’t have PhD's in behavioural psychology, so understanding how to set effective goals is not something we're usually taught in life. Our program - both the educational component as well as the coaching - is really geared around helping people set the right sized goals early on in the program. If your goals are too big and ambitious, there’s a big chance you’ll fail before you get going. Our coaches spend a lot of time at the start figuring out what someone can accomplish with a high likelihood of success in the first week or two of the program, so that they are more likely to stick to their health goals.
A lot of companies tend to focus on how technology can solve a problem and ignore the human side of the business. What’s the interplay between the two like at Omada?
When I joined Omada there was the expectation that at some point in the future we would be able to create an automated coaching system that could really respond to people's needs without any need for humans being involved but I don't see that future any time soon.
People are complicated. Their needs, especially as it relates to their health and their lifestyle, are so multifaceted. It takes a human in many cases to be able to understand that and adapt how we help each individual in a way that's appropriate for them. The efficacy of our program is built on a hyper-personalised experience that only human beings can provide. That's not to say that we can't use technology such as data science and machine learning to facilitate a lot of that personalisation. But we’re focusing on using technology to support our coaches to make them more effective at their job. For example we look at ways of using technology to guide people through the health topics on the app and keep them motivated so the coach can support their journey rather manually guiding them through it themselves because that's just not scalable.
What role does design play in the business?
A large one. What drew me to Omada is that everyone acknowledges design is not just a way of making things look nice. It’s a strategic problem solving tool that influences the direction we head in as a business.
Because we’re an outcomes based business - we only get paid when people lose weight and keep it off, and we actually lose revenue when people regain their weight - so design plays a vital role in figuring out how to make our programs as effective as possible. Within the business, the design team functions as the collaborative hub between other departments. We sit at the intersection of business strategy, clinical and medical affairs and coaching as well as data, product and engineering, pulling insights from each team to identify ways to make our programs as effective as possible.
For people wanting to be more effective at designing for behaviour change, what advice would you give them?
The first step would be to get up to speed on behavioural psychology best practices. Read some books and get comfortable with different techniques then experiment with them over the course of a week or two. Most designers don't have the luxury of having a PhD sitting next to them as they work, but you can start to pull from science in the same way that you do secondary research when prepping for a project or solving a problem.
A good technique to experiment with is the habit loop, which you can dig into in a book called The Power of Habit. The habit loop based on the idea that human behaviour involves routines. The psychological process of that routine involves a cue which triggers us to think about that behaviour and then receive a reward for completing it. So for example, it could be the cue of starting to get stressed leads me into a routine where I walk over to the snack area or going to get a coffee. The reward at the end of the loop is what keeps the cycle spinning.
One way a designers could think about that is how do we trigger a cue if we want someone to change their behaviour in a positive way? Or how do we redirect a behaviour that is potentially harmful to your health in a productive way?
So anecdotally if I'm stressed, instead of walking over to the snack area and reaching for a donut or a bag of chips, maybe I remind myself to go outside for a walk around the block to get some fresh air, and notice that when I do, it's actually decreasing my stress levels. At this point I'm starting to rewire the habit loop that was unhealthy into a healthy one.
Read more of Patrick's tips for designing for behaviour change here.
At Omada you’re focusing on helping people to take more control over their health through technology - but a large part of that involves people spending less time at home on their devices and more time being active outdoors. How do you handle that?
I explain this to other designers as a paradoxical challenge. Our job in a way is to help people disengage from technology to a degree. We want people to have the confidence to make sustainable changes in their life without having to over-rely on a device to help them. But of course we also want to be there to support them when they need it and inevitably people will want to check back in and refresh their skills with a device. We want to be there to support that but we don’t want to be something they’re dependent on or addicted to.
It's a fun challenge as a designer because I've spent so much time in my life designing digital experiences that you start to feel almost dirty of the world you're creating when it's people staring at their phones or laptops, but I think these are always my favorite types of design problems. The question becomes, how do you get people away from the technology so that they're living the life that they want to live, and not staring at a screen? I think long term that’s what we're aiming for.