Users’ needs for a digital smoking cessation application and how to address them: A mixed-methods study

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Despite their increasing prevalence and potential, eHealth applications for behavior change suffer from a lack of adherence and from dropout. Advances in virtual coach technology provide new opportunities to improve this. However, these applications still do not always offer what people need. We, therefore, need a better understanding of people’s needs and how to address these, based on both actual experiences of users and their reflections on envisioned scenarios.

We conducted a longitudinal study in which 671 smokers interacted with a virtual coach in five sessions. The virtual coach assigned them a new preparatory activity for quitting smoking or increasing physical activity in each session. Participants provided feedback on the activity in the next session. After the five sessions, participants were asked to describe barriers and motivators for doing their activities. In addition, they provided their views on videos of scenarios such as receiving motivational messages. To understand users’ needs, we took a mixed-methods approach. This approach triangulated findings from qualitative data, quantitative data, and the literature.

We identified 14 main themes that describe people’s views of their current and future behaviors concerning an eHealth application. These themes relate to the behaviors themselves, the users, other parties involved in a behavior, and the environment. The most prevalent theme was the perceived usefulness of behaviors, especially whether they were informative, helpful, motivating, or encouraging. The timing and intensity of behaviors also mattered. With regards to the users, their perceived importance of and motivation to change, autonomy, and personal characteristics were major themes. Another important role was played by other parties that may be involved in a behavior, such as general practitioners or virtual coaches. Here, the themes of companionableness, accountability, and nature of the other party (i.e., human vs AI) were relevant. The last set of main themes was related to the environment in which a behavior is performed. Prevalent themes were the availability of sufficient time, the presence of prompts and triggers, support from one’s social environment, and the diversity of other environmental factors. We provide recommendations for addressing each theme.

The integrated method of experience-based and envisioning-based needs acquisition with a triangulate analysis provided a comprehensive needs classification (empirically and theoretically grounded). We expect that our themes and recommendations for addressing them will be helpful for designing applications for health behavior change that meet people’s needs. Designers should especially focus on the perceived usefulness of application components. To aid future work, we publish our dataset with user characteristics and 5,074 free-text responses from 671 people.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere13824
Pages (from-to)1-41
Number of pages41
Publication statusPublished - 2022


  • Smoking cessation
  • Physical activity
  • Behavior change
  • Virtual coach
  • Conversational agent
  • Chatbot
  • eHealth
  • User needs
  • Thematic analysis


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