From INSEAD Knowledge:
We all have the best intentions in life, whether it’s reading more, regularly going to the gym or watching what we eat. But keeping to these goals isn’t always easy or straightforward. Fortunately, a growing number of apps are designed to help us better track and achieve our ambitions.
Featuring the gamification of targets and harnessing behavioural techniques such as nudges, prompts and incentives, such apps can help maintain an individual’s focus on hitting their targets. But to what extent do they work, and how can they be engineered for optimal effectiveness? Furthermore, does user behaviour tally with their initial expectations?
Jackie Silverman, Kristin Diehl, and Gal Zauberman and I set out to investigate this through the study of food-logging tools, and how different techniques – specifically, photo-based logging versus text-based logging – affect consumers’ perceived and actual logging behaviour and experiences. Our findings suggest that while people have a clear idea of what will best help them reach their goals, these expectations don’t quite align with reality.
Consumers with healthy-eating targets are often encouraged to record their food intake. Food logging is associated with greater success in avoiding unhealthy foods, and past research has documented a positive link between logging frequency and weight loss. Of course, this needs to be done consistently to be effective – which can be a challenge in and of itself.
Our research looked into whether the food-logging system used had an effect on anticipated and actual user behaviour. We were particularly interested in any potential disconnect between what people believe will be the ideal method for logging their food intake, compared to what they actually discover to be the most effective tool for fostering long-term adoption in practice.
In a study of 425 participants who all wanted to monitor or alter their eating habits, we had them consider two food-logging services. One required them to record their consumption by taking a picture of their meals or snacks, and the other through entering a text description.
As we predicted, participants were more likely to opt for the photo-based method, believing it would be more useful in helping them attain their targets compared to a text-based tool. They also thought the photo-based option would be easier, faster and more enjoyable to use, and that they would feel more compelled to continue logging meals in the future.
However, this wasn’t true in practice. In a separate investigation, we asked hundreds of participants with similar food-related aims to record their food intake for a week using either a photo-based tool or a text-based system. Compared to those who carried out text-based logging, those that performed photo-based logging ended up reporting a smaller total amount of their food intake. They also felt less inclined to continue logging after the study and had a more difficult and less enjoyable experience.
Our findings reveal a disconnect between anticipated and actual consumer behaviour, which offers insights into the differences between how individuals approach goal pursuit and the factors that affect them when it comes to following through. This also illustrates the tendency for people to make forecasting errors – in this instance, by incorrectly predicting what they imagined would best assist them in achieving their food-related targets.