Engaging Patients With the Power of Voice

Virtual voice assistant technology has firmly established itself as a legitimate platform for consumers, giving them the power to complete everyday tasks like checking the weather or ordering an uber with just the ease of a conversation. Now, voice-based UIs present huge opportunities for the healthcare industry, particularly around improving the lives of those living with chronic disease.

To fortify our knowledge of usability constraints around managing a chronic disease with a voice-based UI, Worrell’s researchers and designers ran a longitudinal study with diabetes patients using Amazon’s Echo Dot.

We began by recruiting a cohort of Type I and II diabetics. Using Orbita’s experience design software, we designed and deployed custom Alexa skills in the form of surveys, daily health assessments and open-ended qualitative activities, giving participants the power of voice to complete the activities, connect with support systems and report on health concerns. We encouraged participants to engage with their Echo Dot on an ongoing basis to see how this technology fits into their everyday lives, even beyond their disease state.

Worrell team working with Alexa

Alexa as an Accountability Partner

There is a definite power in speaking words out loud, a different power than just thinking them to yourself, or even writing them down. Our team sought out to gather more insights into the correlation between regular voice engagement in the form of check-ins and patient mindfulness and disease management adherence. We asked ourselves, could Alexa act as a accountability partner for patients? Or even a friend?

We developed a “daily survey” skill, where participants were asked to report on overall health, feelings, as well as set a daily goal for managing their disease.

Participants reported that as their Alexa engagement increased by way of daily, voice-powered questions and answers, they became more mindful about their dietary choices, exercise regimen and sleep habits-all which can have tremendous impact for diabetes management and overall chronic condition.

If the day was getting late and I hadn’t achieved my goals, I would have to get my exercise in or answer to Alexa. It was a good reminder. It made me think about what I ate. Alexa is going to be asking me the question, So maybe Ishouldn’t eat this or maybe reduce my portions.

 Alexa as a Companion

Alexa holds tremendous amount of opportunity to stand as a cathartic, therapeutic friend for patients. Prior to launching the pilot study, we were curious if voice assistants like Alexa could be viewed as an empathetic tool for patients. We designed an experience called “Heart-to-heart”. Through “heart-to-heart,” Alexa  posed as both a companion and metaphorical newly-diagnosed diabetic. Participants engaged with the Alexa by sharing their day-to-day disease challenges and milestones as well as their personal diagnosis story. Study participants proved that getting over the hurdle of speaking to a robot was easier than anticipated and reported that they were able to personify and trust her with open conversation.

What do you wish other people understood about life with diabetes?

A lot of diabetics don’t have that conversation very often with a person. It was nice to be asked, and have a listener. It felt like a natural conversation with an acquaintance or someone that is dealing with diabetes. I had to simplifymy answers and remembered I was talking to a robot.

Looking Ahead

In this experiment, we set out to learn whether and how voice assistant technology like Amazon’s Alexa can help us engage with chronic disease patients, capture real-time, objective health data to track their conditions and offer meaningful support for self-managing chronic illness at home. These are precisely the types of challenges our clients approach us with. Now, we see opportunities for building more compelling and engaging content and we are excited to move into the next-phase trials with refined functionality and capabilities in order to support our clients in addressing these challenges.


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