Why It Matters 

When given a choice to go running today or tomorrow, most of us will choose tomorrow. We think building strong relationships and maintaining good health are important for our future, but we de-prioritize exercising, eating healthy, and calling our grandmothers in the present.

The inconsistency in decision-making between our present and future selves fascinates me. Psychologists and behavioral economists call this tendency “intertemporal choice bias,” or, more simply, “present bias.” We tend to defer our future goals and give in to short-term highs. We share these heuristics because we are humans, shaped by a set of evolutionary pressures entirely different from those in the modern world.

This same cognitive bias is used by the world’s largest social media companies to keep us hooked: Facebook, Snapchat, Netflix and the rest use AI-driven news feeds, deliver smart notifications, and auto-play content to maximize users’ screen time. But what if they had different goals? Each of these apps contains opportunities for wellness design that would have far greater impact than most public health campaigns. The real-time targeting techniques and data crunching algorithms these companies use have unutilized potential to improve wellness. Well-being is a fundamental human need yet one of the most difficult to fulfill. Aligning the core value of the product with that of the user could create a win-win situation that increases brand loyalty and cultivates well-being. 

My goal is to design and advocate for wellness-aware technology that works with us to achieve our long-term goals. By researching how these apps engage us, I can apply these tactics for good. I have developed a framework and five examples to show how we can leverage existing behavior patterns on existing technology platforms to improve health engagement. These offer a starting point for companies that want to increase goodwill and provide a satisfactory long-term user experience, as well as for users who want a positive relationship with their technology. 

Big technology companies have a direct connection to 2 billion users. They are well positioned to help address society’s biggest problems and if we could leverage these platforms to aid well-being, the impact would be unprecedented. I hope this thesis paves a way forward for wellness-aware technology and a new type of corporate social responsibility.

Download a copy of the thesis book with full citations here. Or browse through a condensed version below.