My Weight Loss Avatar: A Buddy that Motivates

Researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle reported that the use of avatars (digital representations of a coach, buddy, or teacher) improved user satisfaction in interactive, online weight management programs for obese teens.

When interacting on the computer, teens love their avatars (digital or graphic representations of themselves or their alter ego or character) while in online communities. Researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle wondered if animated avatars could help teens engage successfully in a chronic weight management program. They also wanted to see if virtual agents (digital representations of a coach, buddy, or teacher) might improve outcomes. Their study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, indicated that this approach is helpful and should be used more often.

The researchers stress the need for participatory interventions. A main obstacle for teens who want to lose weight is finding motivation, and this team’s research goal was to identify interventions to help participants galvanize the intrinsic motivation to change. In other words, they looked for the right tools at the right time in the right place.

They collected data from focus groups with teens, provider interviews, and parent interviews. Then, they developed a model and had participating teens and providers assess it.

Teens reported that using avatars made weight loss interventions fun. The avatars provided guidance and support in a way that was relevant to their lifestyles. Teens reported that the avatars (which translated the teens’ current behaviors to their future physical appearance and internal organ health) made it clear the teens needed to set goals. They also helped them set specific goals.

Teens asked for 2 types of characters—a virtual coach or teacher and a personal avatar. Their personal avatar was designed to buddy with them, providing empathy and becoming a surrogate for rewards.

Teens also wanted access to their avatars in mobile devices and desktop computers. The mobile apps gave them wide-ranging access, while desktop access was preferred when they needed to complete and set goals. They also indicate that they liked privacy, and wanted to regulate others’ access to their personal programs.

This research did not measure outcomes, but provides strong evidence that we need to tailor our interventions to this new computer-savvy generation. It seems to increase engagement.