Look in the iPhone app store and you’ll find an array of products intended to help patients remember their medications and ensure that side effects don’t overlap. Some of them are popular, and many have garnered four- and five-star ratings. None have become huge hits. No surprise there—medication adherence is a pretty dry subject. Mango Health, a startup loaded with employees who come from the gaming world, thinks it has created a product that can get people to care about taking their medication so much that they’ll use the Mango Health app every day. The key: game mechanics and a slick design.
Few people enjoy taking medication. It’s an interruption to daily life—a reminder that something is wrong. In the U.S., 75% of adults don’t take medications as prescribed, and 50% of people with chronic conditions don’t follow physician guidance about disease management. The result is a $300 billion burden on the health care system.
Mango Health believes the solution comes down to game mechanics. Before launching Mango Health, cofounder and CEO Jason Oberfest spent years in consumer product design and gaming, first at MySpace, and then at ngmoco, one of the earliest and largest mobile gaming companies.
"I really believed that the future of gaming was going to play out on mobile operating systems, much like I feel about health care now," he says. "What interests me are any areas where there are large consumer pain points and really large structural industry challenges behind them. Consumer health is one of the largest, most interesting areas."
I’ve watched early iterations of the Mango Health app evolve for months now; it’s well-designed and easy to use, even for an older crowd that might not be familiar with smartphones. Just enter in your medications and supplements and you’ll quickly learn whether they interact with each other (or anything else). Set a time each day to be reminded that it’s time to take your pills, and rack up points that can unlock the chance to win rewards (i.e. a giftcard from Target, which is Mango’s first brand partner). If you’re curious, you can compare your medication adherence to other Mango users.
The app’s stickiness relies on a few game design principles. First is the earned currency system. In many mobile games—and social games in general—players accumulate points that can be redeemed for items of value. The same principle is found in the Mango app, where users level up in order to win gifts and the opportunity to make charity contributions. The Mango app also leverages the idea of social comparison—in this case, by letting users see how their adherence compares to others. In a game, you might see social comparison manifested as a leaderboard, but that level of specificity doesn’t make sense in a health app.
The trend of making annoying, arduous, and boring tasks more game-like (known as gamification) has grown precipitously over the last few years, spurred on in part by Jane McGonigal’s 2010 TED talk about how gaming can make a better world. Not every gamified app is compelling—in many cases, sticking a points system and some badges on an app just makes it clunky. Mango Health has avoided that trap—most likely because of the gaming background of its founders (co-founder Gerald Cheong also came from ngmoco).
In a 16-week pilot of 55 users, Mango found that daily use of the app was "orders of magnitude better than even the best social games we know of," according to Oberfest. 93% of users said that they were likely to keep using the app, and 84% said they are likely to recommend the app to friends and family.
Mango tested the app with users as young as 24 and as old as 70, but Oberfest says that the sweet spot is with users who are comfortable with smartphones and "who are just starting to get diagnosed with chronic disease and are looking for a framework to manage that." That’s the 35 to 55 age group, skewing slightly female—a demographic that also happens to love social games.
In the near-term, Mango is monetizing its app by teaming up with strategic partners like Target that want to connect with health-oriented consumers. Oberfest says that the company is also looking into partnership opportunities with insurers, care providers, and employers.
Download the Mango Health app here.