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Designing User-Friendly, Educational and Engaging Mobile Gaming Apps

How do you reach audiences with important health information and leave users asking for more? Is it enough to create responsive websites written in plain language or to design apps with health tips optimized for handheld devices? While those ideas are a step in the right direction, we do not live in a world where, “if you build it, they will come.”

With a slew of devices and an ever-increasing array of information sources, the most desired commodity in today’s crowd communication channels is attention. As a result, agencies need to present content in creative ways that are educational, interesting and engaging so as to attract and retain visitors’ attention.

Imagine a physician’s office where a doctor is encouraging patients to exercise, to reduce sugar intake, to wash their hands with soap and water, to get recommended vaccines, etc. How can we help patients understand, remember and later employ these health messages? At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), our goal is to protect people’s health, and to do so, we need to figure out how we can promote learning about health, so that users not only learn, but put these important tips to use.

Finding creative ways to present health information can elevate health communication from a one-way process of users reading health information to a two-way process of users engaging, interacting and eventually incorporating health tips into their daily lives.

Imagine a classroom where a teacher is giving a lesson on epidemiology, attack rates, relative risk and epi curves. What tools could be developed to help create an engaging, energetic lesson that gets students on the edge of their seats?

At the CDC, it’s our job as communicators to find ways to make learning about the important work of epidemiologists fun and engaging…so much so, that students want to grow up to become Disease Detectives, solve outbreaks and help us save lives.

To educate the public in engaging ways, the CDC has taken an innovative approach to present health information in creative and interesting ways by developing two educational gaming applications. The most recent smartphone application is an educational health trivia game entitled Health IQ. This app capitalizes on the success of CDC’s widely popular Solve the Outbreak tablet application, which has been downloaded more than 350,000 times and has received nearly 19 million page views.

Health IQ Smartphone Application

The Health IQ app is a fun way for kids and adults alike to learn interesting health facts while racing against the clock to earn Health IQ points! The Health IQ application includes more than 290 trivia questions stated in plain language, dealing with public health topics, including hand washing, flu, smoking, motor vehicle safety, nutrition, physical activity and more.

The goal of the Health IQ application is to help audiences learn about health and science in an interactive way that rewards players for answering questions correctly and provides brief explanations about each topic to help players learn while having fun.

Screen capture of the Health IQ appScreen capture of the Health IQ appScreen capture of the Health IQ appScreen capture of the Health IQ app

Solve the Outbreak Tablet Application

While the Health IQ app is built to provide short nuggets of information, CDC’s Solve the Outbreak application provides an in-depth look at the role of CDC’s disease detectives, complete with complex epidemiology topics and detailed charts and graphs, better suited for larger tablet displays.

At CDC, when new outbreaks occur, disease detectives have to be ready at a moment’s notice to investigate, and ultimately solve the mystery to save lives and prevent future illness. The work of these epidemiologists is challenging, complex and sophisticated. When the Innovations Team within the Digital Media Branch at CDC began brainstorming ideas to increase awareness of CDC’s mission and to educate the public about the ways in which CDC works to save lives and protect healthy people in a healthy world, the team decided to create an entirely original concept and develop a game-like app where users get to be the Disease Detective.

In the Solve the Outbreak app, users get to decide what to do: Should they quarantine the village? Talk to people who are sick? Ask for more lab results? The better their answers, the higher their scores. Users begin as a trainee and earn points and badges by solving cases, with the goal of earning the top rank: Disease Detective.

Two screen captures of the Solve the Outbreak tablet app.

Building Engaging Gaming Applications

Solve the Outbreak and Health IQ were both developed on the philosophy of making learning fun by providing players with health information in a game-like environment. Since its launch in February 2013, more than 850,000 outbreaks have been solved using the Solve the Outbreak app. Based on the success of the Solve the Outbreak app, CDC utilized many of the lessons learned to develop a second gaming app, Health IQ, which launched in September 2015. Both apps followed the 5 best practices below:

  1. Crisp graphics targeted to audience needs: Each app utilizes engaging, interesting images and graphics to attract and maintain users’ attention. The Health IQ app has a slightly younger feel in the design as the primary targeted audience is middle-school students, while the Solve the Outbreak app is a bit more scientific in nature as it is targeted to older students in high school and college.
  2. Interesting animations: Each app presents content with interesting animations that set the content apart from a traditional website or information-based application, providing a completely unique and engaging experience.
  3. Exciting sound effects and soundtracks: Both apps utilize an array of sound effects to complement the animations, as well as, background music to add the feeling of fun and excitement. The Health IQ app also added sounds to create a sense of urgency when the clock is counting down to increase anxiety and build a game-like scenario where users want to quickly answer questions to earn higher points.
  4. Rewarding points systems: Each app includes a unique points system with different rewards. The Solve the Outbreak app allows users to earn badges from Trainee to Disease Detective as well as bonuses for good work. In developing the Health IQ app, the team used a similar model but incorporated Google Play to provide leaderboards where users can compete against each other to earn the highest score, complete with achievements, ribbons and trophies.
  5. Interesting content: Most importantly, each app provides interesting, engaging content in a new format. The Solve the Outbreak app includes original content encouraging players to solve the mystery to save lives. In developing the Health IQ app, the team chose to re-use existing content on CDC’s website to develop quick trivia questions and categorized the questions into three levels of difficulty, easy, medium or hard, effectively allowing users to customize their experience by answering questions based on their own skill level and rewards more points for harder questions.

By utilizing gaming principles coupled with interesting content, both of these apps aim to provide users with an educational experience that makes learning about health fun, interesting and hopefully addicting.

Download the apps and try them for yourself!

Health IQ

Google Play button; click to download Apple App Store button; click to download.

Solve the Outbreak

Google Play button; click to download. Apple App Store button; click to download.

Alex Casanova is the Innovations Team Lead, Digital Media Branch, in the Division of Public Affairs, Office of the Associate Director for Communications at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

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3 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Lisa Cook says:

    Great Article.

  2. Rebecca says:

    What was the process for developing the app?
    It would be useful to know:
    How much did it cost?
    How did you secure (justify) funding for an App?
    Was it done in house?
    How long did the process take?
    Who wrote the content? Inhouse staff or contractor?
    How is the App evaluated?

    Thanks.

  3. Jacob Parcell says:

    Hi Rebecca!

    I have some general guidelines I thought I’d share. There are various processes for developing the app, your best bet is to develop a good use case and you can do that by thinking about your mobile moments.
    https://www.digitalgov.gov/2015/06/01/finding-the-best-mobile-moment-is-the-first-stepping-stone-to-anytime-anywhere-government/

    Apps can cost a lot or a little, it just depends
    https://www.digitalgov.gov/2015/09/29/trends-on-tuesday-how-much-does-it-cost-to-go-mobile/

    Most apps in government are done via third-party developers. The process time varies. If you have content ready to go, API’s and a specific plan for mobile, it can be quick. If you have people rewriting content, it’s probably going to take more time. 🙁

    However even if you know exactly what you want to do, you can find yourself tied up with government processes.

    https://www.digitalgov.gov/2015/02/12/building-brick-by-brick-ed-govs-website-redesign-and-mobile-implementation/

    Good luck!

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