2/2015

Exercise apps cure the sitting disease

A sedentary lifestyle is the bane of our modern society and affects both body and mind. But help may be closer than you think – in your pocket. Can a mobile application get us up from our office chairs and start exercising?

Aino Ahtinen

 

Aino Ahtinen collected her research data in Finland and India.

 

We usually feel most comfortable while perched on a chair, sitting in a car or lolling on a sofa. Exercise may initially leave us chronic sitters feeling sore and out of our element, but it is one of the keys of staying physically and mentally healthy.

“Mobile technology has great potential to encourage us to work out. Still, an application that is supposed to serve as a long-time motivational partner must be carefully designed. We need to understand what the users need,” Aino Ahtinen says.

New challenges and playfulness

Ahtinen has conducted extensive user research to find out what motivates working-age adults in sedentary occupations to use mobile exercise applications. She collected data from a large sample of users coming from very different cultures, namely Finland and India.

She found that Finns preferred applications that, for example, adapt and evolve alongside the user, enable collaboration or competition between users, offer new challenges, and bring a sense of playfulness into physical exercise.

“And we mustn’t downplay the importance of attractive design and the use of meaningful metaphors to present exercise data. It’s not enough to simply portray numerical data,” Ahtinen describes.

She opted to carry out the second half of her project in India, because it offered a completely new perspective on a topic that has been quite western-oriented.

“Finland is sparsely populated, peaceful and culturally homogeneous, whereas India is populous, bustling and culturally diverse.”

An application that is supposed to serve as a long-time motivational partner must be carefully designed.

 

Indian users placed special emphasis, for example, on the ability of the application to adapt to the potential present in their physical activity environment and on the use of role models and surprising elements to keep up motivation.

Guidelines for designing exercise apps

Based on the knowledge she gathered, Aino Ahtinen compiled a comprehensive set of guidelines for designing applications that genuinely encourage people to be physically more active. Her guidelines and tips are grouped under six themes, such as the ability of exercise applications to adapt to individual users’ progress and situations, provide guidance and sparring to keep users engaged, and visualize exercise data.

Ahtinen highlights the importance of knowing and understanding the users.

“It’s essential to know the cultural context of your target market. Fresh design perspectives are called for, because the development of exercise apps has been largely dominated by the western world,” she says.

Text and photo: Sanna Schildt

 
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