‘Harnessing Digital Technology for Health Behaviour Change’- a two day conference by the the UCL Centre for Behaviour Change

By Eimear Morrissey


On Monday the 23rd and Tuesday the 24th of February, the UCL Centre for Behaviour Change held a conference entitled ‘Harnessing Digital Technology for Health Behaviour Change’. A small group of us from the Psychology & Health PhD programme attended. We had high hopes for the conference as it was bringing together UCL academic expertise across a range of disciplines (e.g. behavioural science, computer science, engineering, and human-computer interaction) with representatives from organisations in the commercial, government and NGO sectors, including software companies and health organisations. Presentations and discussions were planned to address issues such as how to:

  • Apply evidence and theory in development and evaluation
  • Engage user, without which the most impressive technologies will be of little use
  • Evaluate the quality and ethics of products
  • Implement digital technologies at scale to maximise their potential in improving global health.

We were not disappointed. Before the conference had even began we had been sent a link to download an app called Whova. This app contained all the details of the event, including a list if all the attendees and a messaging system to make networking even easier. A great example of a digital technology! A hashtag was also created for the event – #cbcconf2015. You can check this out to see blow-by-blow accounts of the action!

The conference welcome by Proffessor Susan Michie outlined how digital technology is providing new methods for overcoming the barriers to health behaviour change as well allowing more interdisciplinary research than ever. She spoke of the potential that digital technology has as it can both build a picture of behaviour and function as an effective mode of delivery and theory.

Proffessor Jeremy Wyatt followed and highlighted that information on its own is not enough to change behaviour. However, it is difficult to “do” m-health well when faced with practical issues such as app quality, privacy issues and intrinsic motivation. He noted that while it is undoubtedly good to include theory into behaviour change interventions, evidence is better. But we need more evidence about how interventions work. We need to know what went wrong and why… and how we can improve. It’s not just about slotting in a theory and testing it, we have to explore whether that theory enhances our intervention by addressing the target behaviour. The mode of delivery (however novel and appealing) comes later.

The rest of the day was spent attending sessions (and struggling to choose between parallel sessions!)

The first session we attended was ‘Developing Content Based on Theory and Evidence’, and it centred on showcasing practical examples of how behaviour change theory and evidence can inform the content of digital technologies to change health behaviours.

The second session was ‘Evaluation: Wicked Challenges and Golden Opportunities’. Speakers presented new solutions for new problems in the evaluation of new technologies to change behaviour and advance our understanding of behaviour change.

Next came ‘Design and Evaluation of Complex Systems for Use in the Wild’. The session featured research on how people use, misuse and fail to use technologies designed to support long-term health management.

Finally, we attended ‘Developing and Evaluating Digital Interventions’ which was a panel discussion of the key issues raised by the day’s sessions. Questions from the audience concerned the current focus on RCTs, sustainable business model for apps and the role of Public Health England and the NHS in digital technologies.


Day 2 began with the launch of the Global Institute for Digital Health Excellence (GLIDHE). This is collaborative project between Bupa, UCL’s Centre for Behaviour Change and UCL’S Department of Computer Science. The presenters spoke of how GLIDHE will research, create, test and evaluate innovative, commercially sustainable digital tools which will create healthier lifestyles.

The session we chose to attend after this was ‘Quality, Standards, Ownership, Ethics and Regulation’. Here, ethical problems raised by new technologies and the questions of what should be regulated and how, were discussed.

The final session of the conference was ‘Academia Meets Industry: What can We Learn from One Another?’.  This included real-life examples from academics and industry partners, including how to overcome the barriers to effective communication and collaborative working.

Professor Lucy Yardley closed the conference by addressing the Person-Based Approach to digital health. It was a fitting end to a conference that had stimulated many conversations about where humans come into all of this. Are we users or developers or participants or subjects? A person-based approach involves iterative qualitative research with the target user population, right through from development to deployment stages. This methodology extends on traditional usability testing or user-centred design by incorporating psychological concepts such as empathy, and respect for user autonomy. It goes beyond just asking about behaviours, but also looks at motivations and feelings regarding the intervention. The users are placed in the role of an expert and guide the development of the app or website. Yardley emphasised the need to devote sufficient resources to development before trialling, arguing that the potential value of outcomes are weakened if the methodology does not include considerations of acceptability and engagement.

We all thoroughly enjoyed the conference and it has lead to many stimulating conversations and discussions between ourselves. The many tea and lunch breaks allowed us to network with both researchers from other Universities as well as people in industry. It provided a fascinating insight into how different people are harnessing digital technologies in different ways to change health behaviour.

After the two days, what I have really taken away is that the most complex and difficult piece of technology of all is the human, and that digital technologies are allowing us an opportunity to further build on our understanding of behaviour and giving us the extra tools we need to change behaviour in the right way.


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