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5 Storytelling Concepts That Health Care Firms Are Using To Change Patient Behavior

Designers and researchers are using the power of narrative to motivate people to make healthy decisions.

5 Storytelling Concepts That Health Care Firms Are Using To Change Patient Behavior

With the introduction of Timeline a few weeks ago, Facebook emphasized the importance of life stories in human interaction. This interface taps into the way that people innately understand their own lives with a narrative structure that allows users to express a whole identity, rather than a fragmented view of events and photos.

Timeline is just one example of how companies can tap into the power of narrative to communicate with customers on a meaningful level. Recently, my team found inspiration in an unlikely source: health care. The USC Body Computing Conference 5.0 highlighted organizations that are blurring the lines between medicine and entertainment to change how consumers view their health. I asked Karten Design’s resident storyteller, Anne Ramallo, to expand on what our designers and researchers took away from the event.

When I attend medical conferences and events, I’m always inspired by the breadth of technology on the near horizon. Today, brain waves can be measured through paper-thin electronic tattoos, and heart rhythms can be visualized using an inexpensive iPhone case. Leading thinkers in entertainment and user experience are also learning how to tap into emotion and personal narratives to affect lasting behavioral changes. Rather than the technology, it was this aspect that intrigued me most about the Body Computing Conference.

Developers across disciplines unveiled a variety of immersive experiences, some of which have been developed and tested and others that are imagined for the near future. These experiences are not just fun; they tap into universal elements of storytelling, such as conflict and resolution, to engage and motivate patients to get healthier. Here’s how some of the most cutting-edge health care researchers are using narratives to change unhealthy behavior.


Every story begins with the introduction of a conflict that sends ordinary people on a quest for greatness. Health games and apps tie into this narrative structure by introducing challenges that energize players with the opportunity to earn points and status (in addition to good health). The biomedical company Proteus recently conducted a game with 40 top executives from a global company. Proteus researchers devised a point system for physical activity: one point for each step walked, 10 points for every minute a player’s heart rate was elevated above a certain level, more points for taking a placebo medication on time. The result was dramatic change in behavior. During the three days the game lasted, not one participant missed a pill ingestion. One busy executive rearranged his schedule to walk 17 miles over the course of a weekend; another walked out of a meeting to take a jog.


Once you’ve engaged a person in a quest, provide a cast of supporting characters. Developers such as have been very successful at using online community support to create healthy habits. The company’s MyQuit Coach, a mobile application that enables people to work toward their goal to quit smoking with the help of a smart cigarette-tracking system and a supportive online community, has been downloaded by 60,000 users. It boasts a 90% success rate, thanks in large part to the interaction between participants. Demand Media’s Joe Perez described the intense relationships that people form with one another in these purpose-driven communities, where a vast majority of successful users said they received continuous positive feedback when they needed it. Members developed loyalty to the group and, even once they quit their smoking habit, stayed in the community and offered support to others. The emotional experience they have in this group inspires a lasting lifestyle change.


One thing we’ve learned as product designers is that the setting in which a product is used makes a big difference. Just as a headset takes on a completely different meaning in an emergency rescue situation than when listening to music on the subway, information also takes on different meanings in different contexts. Mark Bolas, the associate director of the MxR Lab at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies, did a side-by-side comparison of data displayed on an iPhone and a large cinema screen. "Don’t assume the iPhone is the interface you’ll be stuck with forever," he said, challenging attendees to imagine new settings where the quest for health could play out. Bolas described his own immersive interfaces, from movie theaters with sensors in each seat that respond to a person’s body signals to create a personalized viewing experience to a hospital building with 4,000 sensors that can automatically tweet, collect data, or send occupants on missions. He believes that environments that fully employ one’s perception and cognition can create a useful, visceral memory of the experience that leaves a lasting impression.


A satisfying ending leaves audiences with a sense of resolution. Successful health experiences do the same. St. Jude Medical introduced an app that helps patients monitor and control their heart pressure by taking two measurements a day. The app rewards compliance, healthy heart-pressure trending, and participation in educational activities such as quizzes, with virtual points that may be cashed in for real-world rewards like Amazon credits.

But rewards do not have to hold monetary value to be effective. Virtual badges that acknowledge accomplishments can be just as successful when participants are allowed to share them with communities. The process of rewarding, sharing, and cheering becomes a virtuous cycle that encourages continuous improvement.

Technology is amazing. It can lower the cost and improve the efficacy of care. But technology alone is not enough to engage patients and caregivers in behavioral change. After developing technology, the next step is to layer on emotion, creating an experience that becomes a part of a user’s personal story.