With the beginning of each new year comes an influx of articles and advertisements, each promising to get us back in shape. Gyms that were sparsely occupied just a few weeks ago are now filled with bodies, all starting new exercise regimens with the hope – this time – of shedding those unwanted pounds. Diet plans are ordered, meals halved, calories counted, all across America.
More often than not, these new fitness regimens fall away by the time spring comes. Quick-fix diets that ask people to deprive themselves simply aren’t sustainable in the long term. We’ve all been there: the solemn oath never to lay a finger on a cookie or potato chip again, the firm goodbye to carbs/fats/sugars for all eternity. Yet in the end, these attempts seem to lead us right back to square one, with an added sense of disappointment. As designers, how do we look at these behavioral patterns to design new health and wellness systems that avoid leading consumers down the same old rabbit hole?
In traditional design research, analysts seek to identify key archetypes, or Personas, among consumers, then leverage these Personas to evaluate and shape future product usage. For a weight loss program, we might look at “Working Women,” those characterized by a structured routine that maintains balance between work and home. In contrast, the “Stay-At-Home Mom” might have a chaotic schedule, more dependent on the needs of her children, which would change the way she addresses personal wellness activities. These archetypes certainly exist, but what Personas fail to depict is the overlap between the two: the behaviors that run counter to our more traditional – and in some case stereotypical – roles. Working Women get overwhelmed, too, and often wellness activities are the first to go when priorities shift. All user groups have versions of burnout, and all have moments of dedication. Understanding what these mean to different users over long periods of time – periods in which consumers’ habits and outlooks may change – is critical if we want to create lasting change.
This is particularly evident in the case of healthcare-related product solutions. Research shows that individuals inhabit drastically different states while pursuing lifestyle goals, fluctuating by degrees between periods of active motivation and complete inertia. We’ve all experienced this. Trying to tackle a lifestyle goal, whether it’s losing weight, quitting smoking, or lowering cholesterol, is always challenging. We get excited in the initial ramp-up period, filled with hope that the goal can be achieved. Then, over time, things begin to slip. We have a bad day and suddenly our goals don’t seem as manageable.
The healthcare industry has already identified treatment models that describe these different stages of motivation. One, the transtheoretical model of health behavior change, suggests that individuals must progress through six discrete stages of change to alter patterns in a lasting way: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance, and termination. Rather than evaluate each individual diagnosis or treatment goal, this model identifies standard behavioral patterns over a long term healing process. The fluctuations we all experience in health pursuits are more than motivational failure on the part of the individual: they are a mental and physiological reality. And it is high time that we, as designers, find new frameworks for analysis – methods that take into account the complexities of behavior over time.