Interview: Deborah Wilder, app developer and health psychologist10th February 2015
After her ten-year-old son developed type 1 diabetes, Deborah Wilder had to resort to a diet of processed foods in order to be able to accurately measure his carbohydrate intake.
Without any way to quickly and accurately monitor his carb intake, she decided to develop her own tech solution – Health Apps Ltd, a project funded by business incubator WebStart Bristol which was recently featured in a recent Tech Nation report (page 39).
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Health Apps Ltd’s first release is Cook & Count (C&C). Formerly providing guidance on carb counting, due to popular demand the app was expanded to include calories, fat, protein, sugars and fibre in January 2015. C&C is a sleek and intuitive app designed to make checking the nutritional content of your food easy, even when you’re cooking from scratch. We caught up with the researcher and academic to find out her inspiration, her experience setting up a startup and future plans for the business.
TechSPARK: Your background is in psychology and risk perception, what provoked your interest in health and wellbeing?
Deborah Wilder: It sounds a bit academic but psychology, risk perception, health and wellbeing are all linked: While studying for an MSc in health psychology I worked for the Health Behaviour Unit at UCL, which researched public understanding of health behaviours. For example, did you know that if you exercise five times a week you are less likely to get cardiovascular disease? After that, I worked on a big project run by the University of Bristol looking at ways of motivating teenagers to eat healthily and be more physically active; big challenge.
“You can never underestimate how much time you need to put in to make your business a success”
TS: Where did the idea for Health Apps come from?
DW: My son got type 1 diabetes when he was 10. It’s a condition which causes the immune system to attack and destroy insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. People with type 1 diabetes need to inject insulin to survive, and they calculate their doses based on the amount of carbohydrate they eat and drink. Several times a day we were making these potentially life-threatening decisions, without the tools to help us quickly and accurately count the carbs in home-cooked food.
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In spring 2013 the NHS launched the Health Apps Library. In August that year, extensive media, including the BBC TV Horizon programme, described the use of apps for health improvement as ‘the biggest revolution in medicine since the discovery of penicillin’. So in autumn 2013 I gave up my job and started to produce C&C.
It was a natural step, since I already had experience in medical publishing, preventative health research, decades of home cooking and recipe development, and some in-depth knowledge of carb counting.
Cook & Count on the iPad: The nutritional app for home cooking
Accurate carbohydrate counting results in dramatic improvement in diabetes control which in turn reduces the risk of developing secondary diseases such as heart disease, kidney failure, and loss of sight or limbs. Pretty important, I’d say.
TS: What are your aims at Health Apps?
DW: At a recent health tech conference George Freeman, Minister for Life Sciences at the Dept of Health said: “We want to see a revolution in health apps, and we want to see this country lead it”. Health Apps Ltd is going to be a part of that revolution. We are going to develop a collection of thoroughly researched, brilliantly designed, perfectly functioning health apps that will provide effective solutions to physical and mental health problems.
We place a lot of emphasis on the apps being trustworthy which is particularly important where health is concerned. People are necessarily cautious about using health apps, and healthcare professionals are even more cautious about recommending them.
I put in a huge effort to ensure the reliability and safety of my apps. Health apps need to come from people who have an in-depth understanding of the underlying illness or preventative mechanisms relevant to the app. That’s why there aren’t many health app developers around.
DW: So far I’ve worked with freelance designers and coders, but since I joined WebStart Bristol Mike Jackson has been an invaluable part of my team. I’m just about to take on a social media/marketing assistant as an internship. Once we get further investment funding we’ll be bringing design and coding in-house.
TS: This March will mark your second year as director of Health Apps Ltd, what has been your biggest success to date?
DW: People with diabetes will only use an app if they trust it and if it’s recommended, so it felt like success when the app got NHS approval. It took three months as the NHS Apps Library is hugely under-resourced. There are plans to expand it and create a ‘kitemarking’ system which is due to be launched late 2015. This will include the introduction of recognised app developers: Health Apps Ltd will be one of these.
It was also great to see the tables turn – I used to ask diabetes teams across the UK if I could go and talk to them about Cook&Count, now they approach me and invite me to speak (and pay my expenses!).
TS: And your biggest setback?
DW: So far there haven’t been any major setbacks. I think the main problem has been there’s not enough time in the day or night. You can’t just create an app, even a great quality one, plonk it on the iTunes app store and expect it to spread like wildfire. I have had to work hard on two things I’m not used to – marketing and PR. I’ve still got a lot more to do, while developing ideas for new apps. You can never underestimate how much time you need to put in to make your business a success.
“Health apps need to come from people who have an in-depth understanding of the underlying illness or preventative mechanisms relevant to the app”
TS: How has the Bristol WebStart incubator helped your business grow?
DW: Mike Jackson has been brilliant. Just what I needed. A calming influence, to help me focus on the most important things and start developing relationships with big organisations, as well as investors.
We now have various projects in the pipeline, such as getting major charities to endorse the app, and looking at procurement opportunities with the NHS such as population licensing.
TS: On the Health Apps website, you state that: “We use a combination of design and psychology to ensure the user experience is enjoyable as well as effective” – what do you think makes for good user experience?
DW: Common sense really, but you need to think carefully about who the target market is, and design the app in such a way that encourages them to enjoy and continue using it.
An example comes from research about use of apps among older generations. We might think that older people aren’t interested, but that isn’t the case. They just don’t want to use apps that were designed by 20-year-olds for 20-year-olds.
Our next app has an age 50+ target market, and we’re going to test two or three versions of the user interface with focus groups to see what they like the most, both appearance-wise and in terms of usability.
“It seems like Bath and Bristol are really starting to work together as a tech cluster”
DW: That, even though the market is there, I won’t necessarily sell 20,000 apps in my first year. It might have helped me with my personal budget, and I might have been able to afford a trip to the pub once a month.
TS: What are you currently working on?
DW: Research and development is currently underway on a new app, on which we’re working with diabetes consultants and professors. It’s the one with a 50+ target market. The rest is top secret…
TS: What’s the advantage of being based in Bath or Bristol?
DW: It feels exciting, like there’s lots going on tech-wise, some great new companies, lots of innovation and creativity, and a fair amount of investment. It seems like Bath and Bristol are really starting to work together as a tech cluster.
TS: Which other tech companies or people do you admire in the region?
DW: WebStart Bristol of course – Mike Jackson is playing a pivotal role in translating hard-working startups with great ideas into some of the major tech players in the South West. [cloud-based software solutions company] Mayden’s success has also been really impressive. And then there’s SETSquared which is doing some fab work helping businesses succeed and expand. I’m particularly interested in SETSquared’s recent alliance with the AHSNs (Academic Health Science Networks) to encourage, support and accelerate Health Tech Innovation in the West.
Many thanks to Deborah for taking time out to chat with us. The Cook and Count app is currently available on the iTunes App Store, with an Android release scheduled for the end of April. For updates from Health Apps Ltd, you can follow @healthapps_uk and @CookandCount on Twitter.