So you want to build a Smart Phone Harm Reduction App
I have had a lot of discussions about smart phone apps lately. Now I don’t have anything against apps. They can be handy and a little addictive, however I have to concentrate on not rolling my eyes whenever someone enthusiastically cries, “Let’s build an app to give people information about drugs!”
Let’s face it for every successful app that reaches a large audience there are hundreds if not thousands of smart phone applications that remain in obscurity. The idea that if ‘we build it, they will come’, just does not work with smart phone apps.
So what makes a successful smart phone application?
Looking at my iPhone there are two broad characteristics that the apps I have downloaded must meet:
- They need to be engaging. You know those time wasters that help you to fill in the blanks while you’re sitting around in the dentist’s waiting room. Angry Birds is a great example of an engaging successful smart phone app. Unless someone comes up with an engaging harm reduction themed game however, I don’t see this as being the future of harm reduction smart phone applications.
- They need to be useful. A successful application needs to provide some utility and/or efficiency that a mobile website does not. I love my Tweet Deck app. It enables me to keep track of, and post too, multiple social media accounts across Twitter and FaceBook without the necessity of logging in and out of different accounts. It is a useful tool that saves me time.
A smart phone application that is devoid of either of these characteristics (engagement and/or utility) is not likely to find an audience. Many of the smart phone applications that have been produced for the alcohol and other drugs/harm reduction sectors fulfil neither of these characteristics but instead simply convey alcohol and other drugs information, a task more readily handled by designing mobile versions of existing websites.
3 Harm Reduction Smartphone Applications I wish someone would build
If smart phone applications are not the technological panacea to all of our harm reduction communication needs then what are they good for? Well the reality is that harm reduction smart phone applications need to capitalise on the features of smart phones that set them apart from other internet capable devices. It is not just their mobility that makes the smart phone a useful tool.
Let’s have a look at some smart phone application ideas that do utilise the potential of smart phone technology.
Needle Syringe Program Locator
You’re in a new town or city and need some sterile injecting equipment. Know where to go? What if you had an application that used the geo-location features of your phone to direct you to the nearest needle syringe program. Information about the operating hours of local services, equipment distributed and even the location of per administered naloxone outlets could all be included.
Just scored a pill and you want some idea of what’s in it? You could of course spend your time searching through the Pill Reports website, but what if you could use your phone to take a picture of the purchased item. The pill identifier application would then match the photo against the descriptions and photos on sites like Pill Reports to find possible matches. Gone is the need to enter pesky search terms.
QR Code Reader Alcohol Consumption Diary
Keeping track of your intake of standard drinks over the course of a session is a strategy that has been utilised in both alcohol and other drugs treatment as well as a harm reduction strategy. While there are a number of blood alcohol calculator (BAC) apps on the market already, they require that the user manually enter data over the course of the session. This may get a bit tricky (not to mention annoying) over the course of a drinking session. Imagine however if you could simply use your phone to scan a QR code on the liquor packaging to record the type, amount and time of drink. You would then be able to order the application to report how long it would take to return to 0.00 BAC. Indeed if it was a particularly big session you may even be able to use the geo location features of the phone to output a record of where you were when you were consuming the alcohol. Other features might include a reminder text sent to yourself when the calculator records a that you have reached a preset limit, or a prompt with the phone number of a local taxi service when you have recorded a BAC over the legal limit for driving.
Opportunistic Health Promotion
All of the ideas I have outlined above utilise innate features of today’s crop of smart phones and demonstrate a utility that is outside of the capacity of traditional websites (sure you could do all of these things with your laptop but I don’t really see myself seting up my laptop up at the end of the bar). Furthermore they also provide an avenue for opportunistic health promotion, through the provision of additional harm reduction messages that can be incorporated in the apps, targeting the users’ behaviour according to the data that is entered.
When considering building a harm reduction app
- Is this idea really suited for an app or is it more appropriate to make a mobile website?
- What will be the usefulness of this application to the end user?
- Is the information conveyed by the app something that people will need to access while mobile?
- What characteristics or features of smartphone technology does this app utilise?
- Do I want to build an app so that I can say I have built an app or does the idea meet an unmet need or fulfil currently met needs in an improved way?