Can animated human-like characters support people with type 2 diabetes in their everyday lives?

The acceptability of ‘Laura’ in the ‘My Diabetes Coach’ app

By Dr Shaira Baptista

In a previous blog, we wrote about our work with University of Melbourne looking at how the My Diabetes Coach ‘app’ could help people with type 2 diabetes. We also looked at their experiences using the app.

An important aspect of the app is the use of a human-like animated character called ‘Laura’. Laura provides support to the person with diabetes. Laura is as an ‘embodied conversational agent’ (ECA). She speaks with the person using the app to help them with their diabetes. She also has facial expressions and body movements. Research on the use of ECAs to support people with conditions like diabetes is still quite new.

So, we were interested in what people using the app think of Laura. We asked 93 people who used the app for up to 12 months to complete a survey with questions about their views on Laura. We interviewed 19 of them about their experiences with Laura.

A total of 66 people answered the survey. Users’ experiences with Laura were mostly positive. Many agreed that she was friendly, helpful, competent, fair and could be trusted. They also reported that talking to Laura made them feel motivated and more confident.

On the other hand, a few people said she was boring and annoying. Some were put off by her robotic voice. They were also put off by her body movements, which did not always go well with what she was saying.

Overall, the findings from this study suggest that using an ECA like Laura may be a useful way to engage people with a diabetes app. However, the technology behind her voice and body movements needs to be improved.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted that there is an urgent need to find new ways to support people with type 2 diabetes remotely. Our study suggests that diabetes apps including ECAs are worth further study.

Reference: Baptista S, Wadley G, Bird D, Oldenburg B, Speight J on behalf of the My Diabetes Coach Research Group. Acceptability of an Embodied Conversational Agent for Type 2 Diabetes Self-Management Education and Support via a Smartphone App: Mixed Methods Study. JMIR Mhealth Uhealth. 2020;8(7):e17038.

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