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Oct. 18, 2019

Designing human-centered technology to support health in Kenya

A Michigan State University research team is combining mobile technology insight from Kenyans and an approach called human-centered design, or HCD, to develop health tools for mobile devices in Africa.

The project, funded by a $387,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, will explore whether mobile health technology, mHealth, paired with HCD can make a lasting impact on health outcomes.

Led by Susan Wyche, associate professor in the Department of Media and Information at the College of Communication Arts and Sciences, the research project will develop innovative mobile health technology from start to finish.

It will involve building connections between software developers and public health practitioners, understanding the needs of Kenyan youth who are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and working to develop a new mHealth app.

“This exploratory effort will be among the first to design a functional mHealth prototype for Kenyan adolescents with T1D, using human-centered design,” Wyche said. “Our project will produce a novel app that our collaborators can iterate upon and work toward scaling up.

The research team includes Jennifer Olson, associate professor of media and information, and Bree Holtz, assistant professor in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations, in collaboration with Denise Hershey, associate professor in the College of Nursing.

HCD, also referred to as design thinking, is a strategy that prioritizes the needs of the intended population. The approach involves three phases: developing an understanding of technology users, creating a prototype for design ideasand working with end-users to implement and evaluate the design.

The human-centered approach has been used in the past to develop interventions that improve health outcomes, while keeping products innovative and relevant to local residents. In this project, researchers will not only work to develop a mobile product, but alsotrain people in Kenya to understand the process. The project began with a seed grant from Trifecta, an interdisciplinary initiative that supports health research, to build partnerships in Kenya. 

The team will train two African organizations – software developers at LakeHub and the nonprofit Kenyan Diabetes Management and Information Center – and pave the way for Kenyans to create more mHealth apps in the future.

“The goal is to help build capacity so that these organizations can build their own apps, recognizing that they are the experts,” said Wyche.

“Michigan State is a leader in all things Africa,” said Wyche. “In terms of the breadth of expertise in Africa, there are really not as many places that are as strong as Michigan State.”

The research team will work closely with software developers and public health practitioners in Kenya to understand the possibilities of mobile technology, and how the technology could fit into the lifestyle of those living in sub-Saharan Africa.

“This is not just another attempt to develop a pilot intervention based on designers’ assumptions, rather than input from primary users,” said Wyche. “The research will incorporate local knowledge into mHealth app development.”

Researchers begin by developing curriculum and offering a workshop on human-centered design in Nairobi. In collaboration with LakeHub and DMI, they will conduct interviews and focus groups with people diagnosed with T1D, lead design workshops to develop design ideas and build an mHealth prototype that they will then evaluate with adolescents with T1D.

“The impacted population should be part of the processes every step of the way,” said Holtz. “Therefore, you can develop a product that is needed, and used, which will hopefully improve the lives of those affected.”

Researchers hope the project will benefit Kenyans well into the future, empowering people and organizations to develop new mHealth applications and improve health outcomes using mobile technology. Whether mHealth and human-centered design prove to be effective in Kenya, Wyche said there’s value in what researchers stand to learn.