Behavioral Design: A Vehicle for Better Healthcare

5 min readMar 14, 2024

Discover how behavioral design is a crucial component of digital health and how navigating the regulatory pathway can lead to better healthcare.

In the ever-evolving nexus of technology and healthcare, a new protagonist is emerging — behavioral design. While cutting-edge technology and advanced therapeutics form the backbone of this intersection, the true power of health interventions is increasingly recognized in their capacity to ignite positive behavioral changes. Embracing this profound realization, we witness behavioral design’s rise, reshaping our healthcare approach. This shift places an emphasis not just on disease management but, more importantly, on fostering healthier lifestyle habits.

In this digital transformation era, several intriguing questions emerge: How is behavioral design interpreted within the complex regulatory landscape? What sets mobile health (mHealth) and digital therapeutics (DTx) apart, two vital elements of the digital health ecosystem? And why is behavioral design a crucial component of digital health? This blog post aims to address these questions and more.

Navigating the Regulatory Maze: mHealth and DTx

With the shared objective of improving health outcomes, mHealth and DTx have each carved out their own niche in the digital health ecosystem. While mHealth applications leverage mobile technologies to encourage healthier habits and provide health information, they often operate under less stringent regulatory oversight. They empower users with tools for self-management and wellness, falling outside the realm of clinical scrutiny unless they make specific therapeutic claims. Conversely, DTx encapsulates an advanced subset of digital health, promising therapeutic interventions validated clinically through high-quality software. DTx products prevent, manage, or treat various health conditions.

Assessing Behavior Change Potential

The nascent field of DTx hinges on robust validation measures to establish their credibility and effectiveness. Regulatory approval and clinical trials are the primary evaluative tools in the current DTx landscape. These trials are akin to those mandated for traditional pharmaceuticals, underscoring the importance of evidence-based results in DTx.

Regulatory bodies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the European Medicines Agency (EMA) scrutinize DTx products with stringent criteria, assessing their safety and effectiveness. The role of clinical trials is equally crucial. Much like traditional medical interventions, DTx products undergo randomized controlled trials (RCTs) whose outcomes form the bedrock of their approval process.

While the FDA considers the overall effectiveness of DTx products, which could include behavioral change outcomes, its primary focus is on these health products’ safety, efficacy, and reliability. For a product to be considered a DTx, it must demonstrate an ability to deliver a clinical outcome. Therefore, the ability of a product to promote a behavior change that leads to health improvement is an essential factor in establishing its effectiveness, a key concern of the FDA.

However, evaluating behavior change potential is not typically within the FDA’s main purview. It’s typically more directly addressed in the product’s clinical trial design, where specific behavior change outcomes can be defined, measured, and evaluated. The FDA’s role would be to review the data from those clinical trials to assess whether the product is safe and effective at delivering the promised outcomes. This could include changes in behavior, but the primary focus would be on health outcomes rather than the behavior change itself.

In other words, if a DTx product claims to improve health by changing behavior (like promoting medication adherence, encouraging physical activity, or fostering healthier eating habits), the FDA would want to see evidence that the product is effective at improving health. Still, the behavior change process might be considered a mechanism of action rather than a primary endpoint.

Behavioral Design: A Crucial Component of Digital Health

Despite their divergent regulatory pathways, mHealth and DTx apps share a common denominator — the potential to integrate behavioral design. This essential component drives successful health interventions, guiding users towards healthier behaviors and ultimately improved health outcomes. While the FDA does not explicitly regulate behavioral design, integrating its principles into app development is paramount for businesses that aim to create truly impactful and user-centric applications.

Behavioral design is a powerful tool that leverages neuroscience, behavioral science, and behavioral economics insights to influence user behavior, nudging them toward desired outcomes. This becomes particularly valuable in digital health applications, where motivating certain behaviors, such as medication adherence, regular physical activity, or healthy eating habits, can profoundly impact users’ health outcomes. Even without specific regulations, considering behavioral design in the development process demonstrates a commitment to understanding and supporting users. It represents a human-centric approach to development, where the focus is not just on providing a service or conveying information but also on promoting beneficial behaviors and creating meaningful change.

Businesses are responsible for creating applications that genuinely resonate with their users. This involves understanding their users’ needs, motivations, and challenges and designing a product that helps them achieve their goals. A user-centric app incorporating behavioral design is more likely to foster user engagement, promote retention, and ultimately lead to successful user outcomes.

This approach goes beyond good business practice and contributes to ethical app development. By actively seeking to improve users’ lives and help them achieve their goals, businesses demonstrate a commitment to their users’ well-being. They also set themselves apart in a crowded market, as apps that genuinely help users are likelier to earn their loyalty and recommendation.

While behavioral design may not be a regulatory requirement, it is invaluable in creating effective, engaging, and beneficial apps. Businesses that prioritize their users and support them in achieving their goals are better positioned to succeed in the competitive app market. The intricacies of behavioral change are vast and complex, varying widely from one individual to another. Therefore, health applications must be agile and adaptive, embedding personalization based on continuous user feedback and current research findings. By understanding and incorporating behavioral design, we can create more impactful, evidence-based digital health tools that resonate with users and cultivate positive health behaviors.

The Future of Healthcare is Behavior-Centric

As we stand on the precipice of a new era in healthcare, the role of behavioral design in digital health applications is undeniable. The combined power of mHealth and DTx, underpinned by behavioral change, paves the way for a shift in healthcare delivery. This shift is one where technology treats or manages conditions and actively prevents them by encouraging healthier behavior patterns.

Our collective challenge as innovators, healthcare providers, and technologists is not merely to create DTx and mHealth products but to craft digital health solutions that genuinely harness the power of positive behavior change. Our journey towards a healthier future, empowered by digital health tools, is contingent on this pivotal paradigm shift.

Behavioral design is a rapidly evolving field, and the FDA’s approaches may evolve as it learns more about the potential and challenges of DTx products. The FDA’s evaluation of behavior change potential could become more explicit in the future, especially given the increasing recognition of behavior’s impact on health.

As we navigate the distinct regulatory landscapes of mHealth and DTx, we aim to design digital health applications that comply with regulatory standards and successfully drive positive behavior change.

The power of digital health lies not just in the technology or the therapeutics but in its ability to inspire and sustain healthier behaviors. As we continue to explore and expand the horizons of digital health, it is important to remember that the ultimate goal is to make a real difference in people’s health and lives.

Original post here.

Authored by Kate Witte.




Blending strategic insights and thoughtful design with brilliant engineering, we create durable technical solutions that deliver digital transformation at scale