Home »

Archives

Episode 7: Dr Kathy Stawarz: How to change your habits |Turning random ideas into helpful tech

In this episode:

Prof Anna Cox is talking to Dr Kathy Stawarz, a lecturer in the School of Computer Science and informatics at Cardiff University. She has a keen interest in technology for health, wellbeing and safety. We talk about the role of random events in directing the course of her career; her knack for spotting new opportunities, including her role in a start-up to create a sensor to stop fire-fighters over-heating. We also find out how a fun project to develop a wearable device to help martial arts students perfect their punches, led to another to help stroke patients re-learn upper limb movements. She also reveals the best app to help you change your habits, and what you really need to do if you want to change them for good.

Dr Kathy Stawarz’s research focuses on the use of ubiquitous technologies to support health and well being with a particular interest in how mobile devices, distributed systems, and smart materials can be used to support healthy habits, by leveraging people’s environment and routines.

Find out more about Dr Kathy Stawarz’s research

 Biography and publications

You can read Kathy’s biography, discover more about their research interests and find links to their publications here:

https://www.cardiff.ac.uk/people/view/1764545-stawarz-katarzyna

 Videos

Watch Kathy’s short video where she asks whether devices like wearable trackers actually help us change our habits https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OpIzFd7mm-s

Other resources

Here’s a link to Kathy’s research relating to the online CBT programme that she talked about in the podcast https://dl.acm.org/doi/10.1145/3313831.3376510

Here’s a link to her research about designing apps to help habit formation that she referred to in the podcast https://dl.acm.org/doi/10.1145/2702123.2702230

Follow Kathy on twitter

@Falkowata

Credits

Music by ScottHolmesMusic.com

Producer: Clare Casson

Sponsored by the EPSRC GetAMoveOn Network+

Transcript of interview with Dr Kathy Stawarz

Prof Anna Cox  0:08 

Hello, and welcome to a new episode of eWorkLife, a podcast where we talk about productivity, wellbeing and work-life balance. We talk to scientists and others who can help us make the most of our technology to get our work done, to keep connected to others, and to support our health and well being. I’m Anna Cox, Professor of Human Computer Interaction at UCL in London, and your host for this episode.

In today’s episode, I’m talking to Dr. Kathy Stawarz, a lecturer in the School of Computer Science and informatics at Cardiff University. She has a keen interest in technology for health and safety. We talk about the role of random events in directing the course of her career; her knack for spotting new opportunities to do this, including how a fun project to develop a device that helps martial arts students perfect punches, led to a device to help stroke patients re-learn upper limb movements; and why the best app for habit formation is the one that you stop using. But before that, let’s listen to some top tips from our other guests about how we can use technology to survive the digital age.

Dr Marta Cecchinato  1:26 

I’m Marta Cecchinato and not the tricking them for a senior lecturer in HCI. At Northumbria University. My top tip for using technology at work is to set digital boundaries. This can be separating how you use devices for work and personal reasons, or actively changing your online status on things like team and slack to monitor availability to be interrupted.

Dave Cook  1:47 

I’m Dave Cook, a researcher at UCL Anthropology, and my top tip for using technology to support your well being is to do a daily guided meditation using an app on a non work tablet. I like short, simple mindfulness meditations.

Prof Anna Cox  2:05 

Now today’s guest, Dr. Kathy Stawarz is a lecturer in the School of Computer Science and Informatics at Cardiff University. Her research focuses on the use of ubiquitous technologies to support health and well being with a particular interest in how mobile devices, distributed systems, and smart materials can be used to support healthy habits, by leveraging people’s environment and routines. So let’s get straight to the conversation with Kathy. Hello, Kathy, and thanks for taking the time to talk to me.

Dr Kathy Stawarz  2:44 

Yes, hello. Thanks for inviting me.

Prof Anna Cox  2:47 

So I wanted to start talking to you about the beginning of your academic career and actually go as far back as when you were an undergraduate student. So you studied maths and computer science in Poland?

Dr Kathy Stawarz  3:01 

Yes. Although studying is probably wrong word because I failed it twice.

Prof Anna Cox  3:07 

Okay, so tell me a bit about that.

Dr Kathy Stawarz  3:10 

Yeah, so that was interesting, because I wanted to study computer science. But there was one exam and it was just maths exam for both courses. So you have to get more points for this, of the higher marks, to get to computer science. So I ended up accidentally doing maths, which I didn’t take seriously enough, because I thought maths was easy. So I failed. And then the next year, I did the exams again. And this time, I had enough points to do computer science. But I figured like, I failed maths, I’m going to show them, I’m going to do it. So I went to the maths degree. And I signed up for advanced levels of every single module, which was a very bad idea. Because it was very abstract. So I failed again. And I wanted to do it for the third time because, you know, third time lucky, but my parents didn’t agree. So I just came to London for a break. And then I applied somewhere else to just the computer science.

Prof Anna Cox  4:12 

So what was it that had triggered your interest in computer science early on?

Dr Kathy Stawarz  4:19 

Oh, it was the, the programming stuff, just making computers work that was really interesting. And I think that was reflected in like my career later on, because I really wanted to code, the stuff that’s inside all the back end. But then as I was learning this, I kind of realised like, hold on, what’s on the outside, the user facing features, that’s more interesting; that has more impact. So I kind of switched to doing front end as part of my degree, but then near the end of my undergrad projects, I realised that actually you can do super nice looking front end, but if it’s not usable no one’s gonna use it. So I got really interested in usability. And then somewhere along the way, with reading about all this, I kind of discovered HCI. But it all started with just like, I want to programme things, because programming sounds cool.

Prof Anna Cox  5:15 

And so as part of kind of getting to know more about HCI, you went on to do a master’s and, and then a PhD. So, back when you were first doing computer, studying computer science, did you have an academic career in mind?

Dr Kathy Stawarz  5:35 

No, never. I didn’t plan on doing PhD until I read an ad and decided to apply. It was spontaneous. It was really completely random. Because I was, I was doing my masters. And I think I was looking for examples of distinction thesis or something. So I went to the website, and I noticed an ad for PhD positions. And I thought I would check because I never thought about this. And I always thought like, you have to be super smart  to do a PhD. So I was really curious what the requirements were. And I read them. And I was, like, I match all the requirements! How is this possible? Because of that, I was okay, I’m gonna apply and see what happens. And I have never planned this. I have no one in my family who ever done in the academic career. My mom was the first person to actually do the master’s degree, although she started after me. So if I didn’t fail my course twice, I would have been… So yeah, it was completely random.

Prof Anna Cox  6:37 

While you were doing this academic track, you also had interest outside of that, and ended up working on on sort of, like a little startup outside of your PhD working, with the fire service. Can you tell us a bit about that project?

Dr Kathy Stawarz  6:57 

So again, this was pretty random, because it started at a hackathon. It was, I think, App London Hackathon in 2013. And basically, I just went there randomly in the evening, because it was advertised as a prototyping. And one of the companies who went, who came there with a problem,  were the people from the Hertfordshire Fire Service. And they said they were looking for someone to help them with the, sort of, firemen dying in building fires, because the problem is that current safety equipment is so good that they don’t notice when it’s too hot. So then the body overheats. And they can die because of that. The old, actually the old suits, they used to have the ears outside. So when the ears would start burning, they would know it’s the heat and they would go out. But kind of everything progressed and become more complex. So so they described this problem at the hackathon. And I just banged it out with a bunch of random people who were interested in this project. And one of them came to the hackathon with a bag full of (indistinguishable) – that was Ross Atkins, very lovely chap. And we kind of sat down and we develop this prototype that would measure the temperature and it will start vibrating after it crosses a specific threshold or when it started going rapidly up. And we went to the hackathon. And then we got some funding to develop this and turn it into an actual project, an actual product. So that was very interesting, because I met those five random people at the hackathon. And then we ended up running business together. It didn’t end well. But it was it was interesting while it lasted, let’s say.

Prof Anna Cox  8:50 

How do you mean, it didn’t end well?

Dr Kathy Stawarz  8:53 

There was some conflict and the startup died, basically. But yeah, the idea was lovely, is just we didn’t agree on the plan. So half of the team wanted to just develop the product and release it and have help firefighters, but the other half, they really wanted to turn it into bigger business, and expand and just go into other fields. And it was almost pushing the development of the specific device of the vendor back. So yeah, we just didn’t agree.

Prof Anna Cox  9:28 

What was your role within that project? Were you specifically looking at like the user experience side of it?

Dr Kathy Stawarz  9:35 

Yes. So I was the user experience and Human Factors specialist on the project. So for example, I spent one day on the firefighting training grounds. While we look at the fire chamber and a bunch of other places where people actually train, evacuations, doing firefighting. I got into the fire truck, we we’ve kind of had the chance to try on some helmets to see how people get trained. It was all a bit like really rapid ethnography. I was just following them taking pictures, taking notes, and then we use that to inform the actual form factor. So and yeah, cuz we’re trying to understand where the sensor should be, how sensitive the vibrations should be, and things like that.

Prof Anna Cox  10:26 

So that experience, I suppose, you know, it didn’t lead to you running that company long term. Did it kind of put you off working in industry? Or was it just did you like stick to academia because he thought, ‘No, actually, academia is definitely where I want to have my career’?

Dr Kathy Stawarz  10:46 

It’s been a mix of both, I think, because I think one of the reasons why I was happy to start the PhD was because I thought it would be more interesting, more flexible, I think, than the industry. So rather than working for, for this specific client, and focusing on profits, in academia, you can kind of do a bit more good. We tried to do this with the startup. But then because there was this focus on making more money, then I didn’t find this appealing. I mean, I find money appealing because like you need money to live. But it’s kind of I like the flexibility. And the fact that in academia, I can work on projects that may not necessarily be profitable, but they can do good. So like my research on behaviour change and habit formation, the main conclusion was that the best app for habit formation is the one you stop using eventually. And that kind of goes against of what they will have to do in, probably in industry.

Prof Anna Cox  11:47 

Tell us a bit more about that. What do you mean by the best app for developing a habit is the one that you stop using. That sounds totally counterintuitive?

Dr Kathy Stawarz  11:57 

It does, it does. And I was really surprised when I actually found this out as part of my PhD. So the plan was to develop this app or a device or something that helps people develop healthy habits, mostly in the context of medication as part of my PhD. But in general, the principles are applicable everywhere. But the problem is like when you using an app to help you form a habit, and the existing, and when you using one of the existing apps, they tend to give you reminders, or you ask to track things and you have to log in and people develop reliance on the app. So they develop a habit of using the app, not necessarily the habit of doing whatever they wanted to do. And so when the app stops working, or they get a new phone, or they just stop using the app for whatever reason, they’re more likely to stop actually doing their healthy behaviour, because it hasn’t been habit itself, the using the app was. So ideally, the app should be like training wheels on the bike, it should be something that help them start the habit. And then it should go away. Because obviously, if you using an app for habit formation for months, the app is not working. Because if it did work, you will have develop the habit and you wouldn’t need it. So that’s that’s the thinking behind this idea.

Prof Anna Cox  13:21 

So how long would someone ideally have to use an app like this in order to develop a habit?

Dr Kathy Stawarz  13:29 

Oh, so that depends on how complex the actual behaviour is. So if you look at the literature, I think the the average is about 66 days. But then the actual length ranges between 117 days to like a whole year, depending on the complexity. I always wanted to actually run a study to see how how you can phase out an app to see how long you need to use it. They haven’t gotten around to doing that yet. So that’s that’s still on the stack.

Prof Anna Cox  14:06 

You were saying that in your PhD research. He were really looking at this idea about healthy habits. And I think one theme that you kind of see through all the research you’ve done since then is like this focus on mental health and well being. And you’ve worked on some specific projects in the kind of mental health focus and the mental health space. So can you tell us a bit about some of the work you’ve done there?

Dr Kathy Stawarz  14:38 

Sure. So the mental health project was an interesting one, because it involved real patients receiving real treatments. So it was really challenging and all sorts, there was a lot of responsibility. And there’s both, so we were developing, developing an online platform for delivering cognitive behavioural therapy for depression. So it is normally a face to face therapy, they’re usually well about 12 sessions. But in the UK, if you get six, then you’ve been lucky. So the plan was to see if we could provide a platform where it can be delivered online. But also the one that it’s not just you interacting with the therapist. We also wanted to integrate specific materials, because CBT is very practical type of therapy, there are lots of worksheets you’re supposed to do between sessions. So for example, when something upsetting happens, you can fill in a thought record, when you recall that what happened, and then separately, you record what you were thinking, and then separately record what you were feeling, because the point is to teach people to distinguish between thoughts and feelings, because they aren’t the same thing. And there is evidence that when people engage with those worksheets, they get better quicker. But in the face to face therapy, people just hardly ever do that, because you get the worksheets on paper, and people misplace them. So we interviewed therapists, and they said that usually just people don’t do it. Or they just do it at the last moment, like final homework just before the therapy starts. So they don’t get benefits of that. So the platform we were developing, was supposed to have this at the centre, so both therapist and the client would… yes therapists call them clients, so we have to be clear about which words we were using – it’s very interesting, yeah, so they were all both supposed to log into the system at the same time. And they could open the worksheet, and they could do it together, fill it in together. What was interesting and unique about the system was also the fact that we focused on instant messaging. So there was no video, there was no audio, and the therapist and client, were typing to each other. And the rationale for that was that previous research on online therapy showed that this is beneficial because it forces people to think clearly about what they are trying to say, and reflect on the answers. And also when they’re waiting for the therapist to write, it also gives them a bit of space to think about it. But all that research was done 10 years ago, and things that were seen as beneficial turned out to be really tricky when we we were running the study, because now everyone is used to when you have instant messaging, you can see the other person typing. And we didn’t have the typing indicator in our early prototype for testing, because there were there were more sort of pressing features, it was sort of falling down on the list of priorities. And everyone complained about this. So everyone was really confused. They didn’t know if the therapist was doing this on purpose. So there was the silence, which actually turned out to be good, because they thought, okay, the therapist wants us to think, so I want to just think about what they said. And it’s sort of show the new new possibilities of this sort of the typing interaction when you don’t really know what the other person is typing. We did have it eventually. And the randomised control trial is running now. So yeah, it will be interesting to see if there is a difference. But the the point of the whole system was to introduce this new integrated system for delivering therapy. And we will see how well it works after the trial.

Prof Anna Cox  18:51 

And these projects kind of sound similar in some ways, right? So that so you’ve got the mental health focus. You’ve got sort of like digital health, you know, thinking about helping people to remember to take medications. And then you’ve got sort of like health and safety if we think about the working with the firefighters. So is that something that you’ve kind of consciously thought about in terms of this is an important thread for you in your work?

Dr Kathy Stawarz  19:27 

I noticed it at one point, and I think it, so it started organically. It wasn’t planned. I guess most of the things I do aren’t really planned, like randomly applying for a PhD. But then I think once I notice I am doing digital health research, this is something I want to do. I am now trying to make a conscious decision when I’m starting new projects to do something that can help people to support the health or the well being So for example, the recent project we got funding for a couple of months ago, is developing a rehabilitation device for people who survived stroke. And it’s mostly, it’s supposed to be a wearable device that helps you practice movements of your arm. So for example, to help people to practice how they eat, or how they lift the cup, because this is something they they need to do. But this started as a punching project, which I did few years ago. So I had an intern who developed the wearable device for training, martial arts training, and that it was able, it’s still able to recognise like five different types of Taekwondo punches. And it was a really fun thing. It’s just the wearable thing. So you have this clunky 3d printed box, you wear on your wrist, and it had an accelerometer and the gyroscope inside. And then it was this long cable that ran along your arm and down your back, because we didn’t have time to make it wireless. And basically, you had one person holding a punch bag, and then you, you just punch things while wearing this prototype. And it could recognise five different punches. For example, we could give you a combination of specific moves to execute, and then you will do it. And the system will tell you if you’ve done them correctly. It had quite good accuracy. It was really. we were really surprised. But then it kind of ended at that, as it was a it was an internship project. But that was two, three years ago. But since then, I’ve been thinking like how can we turn it into something useful. And last year, I met Professor Valerie Sparks from medical school of Cardiff, who specialises in rehabilitation, and we started chatting. And the general conclusion was that if this simple device can recognise punches, which is simple movement when your hand goes up, or it can go sideways, and it can recognise where this is, it could potentially recognise similar movements that are used in upper limb rehabilitation. So we wrote a small proposal, we’re collaborating on this with researchers from Bangladesh, because we’re trying to make it really affordable, really simple system for that. And we will see how this goes. But again, started as a random punching project. And but now we’re going towards the sort of health and wellbeing support.

Prof Anna Cox  22:41 

Sothis idea of like, something starts as kind of in a random way, and because you’re interested, or there’s something about it that grabs your attention, and then you seem to be really good at finding a way to turn these ideas into something that’s going to be really useful for other people. And it sounds like this drive to be helpful is really important to you.

Dr Kathy Stawarz  23:11 

It is yeah, and I don’t know where it comes from. But I like doing things that others might find useful.

Prof Anna Cox  23:19 

And is it therefore important to you that your, I suppose, your work has sort of like some real world impact?

Yes, mostly, because the random projects don’t necessarily have it. So for example, I supervise the student who built a smelly bot, which is this box you keep on your desk that releases a smell to make you take breaks from the computer. But the smell of fresh grass he ordered on the internet went bad. So it was literally a smelly stinky box. And but it did work, because the people, so the participants who had smelly box took longer breaks and more frequent breaks from the computer than the participants who have this smelly box that release the smell of chocolate.

Was this because they wanted to get away from the nasty smell?

Dr Kathy Stawarz  24:21 

Yeah. I don’t know where I could go next with this idea. So this is like the punching project that kind of sits at the back until I figure out how I could use nasty interactions to mess up with people for good.

Prof Anna Cox  24:42 

How do you kind of turn these little things into future opportunities or future projects? Where does that inspiration come from?

Dr Kathy Stawarz  24:55 

Mostly it’s from talking to people about those projects. So for example, when I was at Bristol, every day, three, four times we are day we would go to have tea together. So there will be one person saying, ‘Hey, who wants tea?”, we want tea, and there will be 2, 3, 4 of us taking tea. And we will talk about random things. And those would be the chance when I would mention some of the (indistinguishable) fun project or funny thing I read about or interesting about. And then we’ll do those mini brainstorms, which will, which weren’t always serious, they were just chats about this. And it will be two minutes. If we just went to get tea and come back. It could be 15 minutes chat. But that’s, that’s something I use the bounce my ideas off people or to contribute to their ideas. And then thing yeah, that’s the, that’s the magical ingredient.

Prof Anna Cox  25:52 

So that kind of informal interaction, like those sort of opportunities to sit and chat to colleagues are the kind of thing that lots of people have been talking about as being something that they’ve missed during the pandemic when everybody’s been working at home. So have you found ways in which to kind of keep that going for yourself?

Dr Kathy Stawarz  26:18 

So I have WhatsApp chat with some colleagues, where I just throw random thoughts or they throw random thoughts at me. I have a group chats and themes with new colleagues from Cardiff, because I joined last year. And that was another thing that actually made those random conversations really difficult, because my first day of new work, was the first day of the first lockdown. So it’s been over a year, I still haven’t been on campus, I haven’t met anyone in person. So having those randoms chances, it’s difficult. But I have a group chat with a couple of colleagues, and we just throw ideas at each other. So that’s been really helped.

Prof Anna Cox  27:06 

So how, tell us a bit more about that experience of starting a new job during the pandemic, because there aren’t many people who will have had that kind of experience. So like, have there been things that have been surprisingly easy, or good or things that have been really difficult that you’ve had to contend with?

Dr Kathy Stawarz  27:30 

So I think that’s been easy for me, because I’m used to having friends or knowing people just online. So for example, I used to be part of a community in Poland, when we were publishing an online magazine about fantasy and sci fi. And there are friends that are people I’m still friends with 20 years later, who I have never met in person. And instead communicating via instant messaging, it’s something that I’m used to. Since coming to the UK in 2004. I’ve been chatting with people from, like friends who stayed back there. And it’s been easy. I don’t like phone calls. So talking about instant messaging is a good default for me and using themes to chat with fresh new people at work has been easy. And yeah, so that’s, that’s been easy. What’s been difficult, I think, has been finding out things that aren’t written anywhere. Because like when you sit in an office, you can hear people say something and talk about something like, Who’s the person to talk to you about x? Or who knows about something else? And you kind of get a sense of where to go and who to speak when you when you have a question about something. But when you’re just doing this online, you have a few people you can message you can talk to your line manager, you can talk to you a few colleagues from your secret chatting group. But then they may not know the answer. And I like to be the person who knows stuff, so that people can ask me questions, because I like to know things. I’m curious. And then suddenly, I can do that. Because I don’t know who to ask and where to go to find that information. So that’s been that’s been challenging. Although yeah, so I like I like having coffee with new with new colleagues, just the two, what they doing, and doing this online hasn’t been that fun. It still works, but it’s a bit more awkward. Because I know when you meet someone for the first time for coffee, and you go to a coffee shop and you don’t really know what to talk about and how to start the conversation, you can talk about random things you see. So there might be an interesting dog outside example. So suddenly you remember about this and you can show them the picture of the random dog itself. But online, it just it feels a bit more formal, it almost feels that if you’re doing a zoom call, you need to have an agenda. While if you’re going for friendly coffee with someone, you can just spend an hour actually don’t talk about work at all. And that’s fine. But other than that, yeah, it’s been, it’s been fine. It’s been really interesting.

Prof Anna Cox  30:17 

It sounds like you’ve tried having, you know, just kind of replicating those coffee shop experiences online. Like, did you purposefully seek out people to let sit in our remote workspaces at home and, and have a coffee together?

Dr Kathy Stawarz  30:35 

So I tried this at the beginning, because I figured that at least I should get to know the people from my research group, just because it’s, it’s fine. I mean, we have our weekly meetings anyway, but I thought it would have been useful. So I try that, and then with some of them, where we just keep talking on the chat. With others, it just didn’t, well didn’t work. I mean, it works, because I know what they do. So they know what I do. And we can chat. But it hasn’t turned into friendship forever. But I think it’s stopped at that. Because then all the other conversations I had with people were mostly motivated by, “Okay, let’s see if we can do a project together”. So they become suddenly more formal, more directed. So that’s how I contacted Valerie, for example, to talk about the rehabilitation project. That’s how I contacted the people from Bangladesh to see like, okay, would you be interested in doing this with us? So there’s been less random chat, say, hey, let’s have a coffee. That that hasn’t really happened. I am a member of the HCA women’s slack group. And there is one channel there where you get paired up with random people for random coffee. So basically, every Monday it lists pairs of people. So I tried doing this for a few weeks before the term started. And it was fun when I was paired up with people I already knew. But the two times I got paired up with someone, some someone completely different, it was a bit awkward at the beginning, because I just don’t know, we know nothing about them. I mean, you can look them up online, but I guess that’s a bit different.

Prof Anna Cox  32:20 

I guess that’s the kind of thing where maybe, if you met up with them again, it would be you’d expect it might be easier.

Dr Kathy Stawarz  32:28 

Yeah, probably. But the thing doing this follow up call and the next calls, that’s a bit more awkward online, for some reason. I don’t know why. Because if you meet with someone for coffee in person, and then you see them in the corridor, for example, you can say, hey, let’s have a coffee, or you meet them at the conference. Okay, remember, we talked about, let’s have a coffee, but I find the bit was awkward to email someone and say, hey, let’s have another coffee after that awkward conversation we have.

Prof Anna Cox  32:57 

But overall, it sounds like you’ve found it reasonably straightforward to settle into this new job, even though you haven’t been in the office?

Dr Kathy Stawarz  33:08 

Yes, it’s been surprisingly easy. I was worried about how the teaching would work online-only as well. But that’s been surprisingly okay, without many major disasters –  apart from one time when I delivered a session, while showing slides just to myself, because I forgot to share my screen.

Prof Anna Cox  33:29 

And no one told you?

Dr Kathy Stawarz  33:31 

No one told me.

Prof Anna Cox  33:36 

So as we get towards the end of our chat, I want to kind of come back to thinking about your, your research and the projects you’ve done, which have all had this sort of like theme about enhancing people’s life in some way, and often around helping people to manage some aspect of their health. And I wondered how you go about using technology to help yourself to be healthy. So are there things that you’ve taken from your research that you’ve implemented in your own life?

Dr Kathy Stawarz  34:21 

So I’ve been I’ve been using my research and habits to try and make myself do healthy things. So for example, when I wanted to start running a bit more instead of using an app to track it, I make sure like I run three days a week, I don’t use any reminders or anything. I just decided to have this routine, like wake up, eat a banana and I go for a run at least twice a week. It doesn’t matter which day. I’ve been failing this somewhat some weeks but then the other weeks it worked and after six or seven months, it’s been long, I kind of feel like I have to go running at least once a week. And it has to be this specific routine, I wake up, eat my banana, I eat something bigger if it’s a longer run, and then they go for a run. I tried running at different times of day, but because it’s it doesn’t fit into my routine is just happens once and then never happens again. So this idea of having the contextual cues and having the specific routine that I talked about in my research, that’s been really crucial, because it helped me find the right spots. Another thing for my research was the fact that it takes trial and error to find the right routines and the right cues, which was nice to know, because when my routines were working for me, rather than discourage me, I would think that, okay, so this one isn’t working, which and it’s completely fine. So let’s try something else.

Prof Anna Cox  36:01 

So tell us about what you mean by contextual cues in this situation.

Dr Kathy Stawarz  36:07 

So basically, when you trying to start a new habit, it is the environment, that’s the best sort of trigger to action. So if you do something in the same place, or at the same time, or in between the same other actions you’re doing, all those other things can start to trigger your behaviour. So they are almost like a reminder and as a prompt to action. So for example, if you always wake up, brush your teeth, eat a banana every day, then you can decide that I will do this new thing right after eating the banana.

Prof Anna Cox  36:44 

So that’s going to be your new –  so it becomes kind of part of a routine or a chain of events that you just practice on a daily basis.

Dr Kathy Stawarz  36:53 

It doesn’t have to be exactly on a daily basis is just every time this whole sort of the same, it’s not a ritual, but the same sequence is repeated, it’s it’s a nice prompting to do the healthy behaviour.

Prof Anna Cox  37:09 

That’s certainly something that you’ve looked at in your research, but doesn’t require any technology, I guess. So…

Dr Kathy Stawarz  37:17 

I know – that’s the best bit!

Prof Anna Cox  37:19 

I suppose that kind of brings us back to where we were.  We were talking at the beginning of this conversation about how technology can end up being redundant in these situations, or you want it to, you might use it as a support for creating one of these routines, but then the sort of ultimate aim is that you’re not using it.

Dr Kathy Stawarz  37:41 

Yeah, pretty much. So I sometimes set up reminders when I want to do something. But the reminders are usually for things that are one off. If I want to start a new thing I will be doing regularly, I may use technology as just to check on me as a reminder that I’ve done it rather than something to tell me to do it, then the goal of this for me is try and do those things without relying on technology.

Prof Anna Cox  38:09 

And is that something, like is there is there a reason behind that, like a purposeful aim to try and do it without technology?

Dr Kathy Stawarz  38:19 

Mostly because I know that if I’ll be responding to technology, I will learn to respond to technology. And then when I don’t have my phone with me one day, I will probably forget to do the thing. And also, I’m just trying to use technology less basically. Although that’s not a conscious decision when it comes to this exercise.

Prof Anna Cox  38:44 

How do you mean you’re trying to use it less?

Dr Kathy Stawarz  38:47 

Oh because technically, if if it continues the way does, my phone will grow into my hand. So I am trying not to have it with me. And if I rely on reminders, and I don’t have a phone in my phone that in my room, then yeah, that’s that’s probably a bad idea.

Prof Anna Cox  39:08 

All right, Kathy. Thanks for a really interesting discussion today.

Dr Kathy Stawarz  39:12 

Yes, thank you. It’s been really fun.

Prof Anna Cox  39:14 

Thanks so much to Dr. Kathy Stawarz. You can find her on Twitter @Falcowata. You can find a link to her website and access to the show notes for this episode on eWorkLife.co.uk where you’ll also find links to our other episodes. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe. You can find us on SoundCloud, Spotify, Apple and Google podcasts. And we’d love it if you can give us a five star review. It really helps other people to find us. I’d love to hear your feedback on this episode. You can find me on Twitter @AnnaCox_ if you enjoyed this episode. Please tell your friends and you can also leave us a star rating and review wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks as always to our producer Clare Casson. This episode was sponsored by the EPSRC GetAMovdeOn Network Plus.  Music by ScottHolemesMusic.com.  eWorkLife, powered by UCL Minds.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

Episode 6: Dr David Ellis: revolutionising psychology research with tech & smartphone data

In this episode:

Prof Anna Cox talks to Dr David Ellis, a psychologist with a keen interest in technology and the data it produces. We talk about how he owes his career to his mum who first suggested that he study psychology at university, how a curiosity to play around with technology lies behind much of his research and the methods that he uses, and the competing demands of academic life. We also touch on his frustration with the reluctance of some psychologists to embrace technology to help answer important questions about the impact of smartphones on our health and wellbeing, and explore the importance of thinking carefully about what data we collect as scientists: the challenge of giving participants control over what they contribute is not straightforward when seemingly innocuous data can hold some surprisingly personal and unforeseen insights about what people are really up to.

Dr David Ellis is an Associate Professor in Information Systems at the University of Bath. His work considers the data that digital technologies collect and how the resulting information can provide insights about individuals and their behaviour, and the impact this technology has on people and society more broadly. 

Find out more about David’s research

 Biography and publications

You can read David’s biography, discover more about his research interests and find links to his publications here: https://researchportal.bath.ac.uk/en/persons/david-ellis

Psychology Sensor Lab website https://psychsensorlab.com/

 Book

Smartphones Within Psychological Science https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/smartphones-within-psychological-science/1E6378830C46451427D9A04CBE60150D

 Videos

GetAMoveOn Network+ workshops

David Ellis has collaborated with Anna Cox on the GetAMoveOn Network+.  Here are the videos of two events that he ran as part of that project:

What does health look like: visualising health stats from wearable activity trackers

Wearables in primary care: an innovation workshop

David’s TEDx talk: Is technology really ruining your life?

David’s tips on securing your first job in academia: a talk for the British Psychological Society Psychology Research Day 2018:

David discussing smartphone ‘addiction’ on BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science:

Other resources

Link to paper on privacy and open science which David mentions in the podcast: Dennis, S., Garrett, P., Yim, H. et al. Privacy versus open science. Behav Res 51, 1839–1848 (2019). https://doi.org/10.3758/s13428-019-01259-5

Follow David on twitter

@davidaellis

Credits

Music by ScottHolmesMusic.com

Producer: Clare Casson

Transcript eWorkLife podcast Season 1 Episode 6 – interview with David Ellis

Anna Cox

Hello, and welcome to a new episode of eWorkLife, a podcast where we talk about productivity, wellbeing and work life balance. We talk to scientists and others who can help us make the most of our technology to get our work done, to keep connected to others, and to support our health and well being. I’m Anna Cox, Professor of Human Computer Interaction at UCL in London, and your host for this episode.

In today’s episode I’ll be talking to Dr David Ellis, a psychologist with a keen interest in technology and the data it produces. We talk about how he owes his career to his mum who first suggested that he study psychology at university, how a curiosity to play around with technology lies behind much of his research and the methods that he uses, and the importance of thinking carefully about what data is collected by scientists so as to put the participants in control of what they contribute.  But before that, let’s listen to some top tips from our other guests about how we can use technology to survive the digital age.

Kathy Stawarz

I’m Kathy Stawarz, a lecturer at Cardiff University. My top tip for using technology to support your health or well being is thinking whether you need the technology in the first place. Sometimes the best technology is no technology at all.

Sandy Gould

I’m Sandy Gould. I’m a lecturer at the University of Birmingham. My top tip for using technology to support your well being is to take five minutes now again to look through your old photos. Deleting the junk will make you feel organised. And you also get a nice reminder of the fun times that you’ve had.

Anna Cox

Now today’s guest: Dr David Ellis is an Associate Professor in Information Systems at the University of Bath. His work considers the data that digital technologies collect and how the resulting information can provide insights about individuals and their behaviour, and the impact this technology has on people and society more broadly.  Here’s my conversation with David.

Anna Cox 

Welcome David. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me.

David Ellis 

Hello. Nice to be here.

Anna Cox 

So I wanted to start back at the beginning. As an undergraduate, you studied psychology at University of Glasgow, and I wondered were that interested in the subject came from.

David Ellis 

So I was originally going to do medicine, and that was what I thought I do. And I think I realised – I was still at school – I didn’t really want to be in hospitals, and I don’t, I don’t know why I thought medicine was a good idea. I think it’s what teachers often thought – if you do science, get them into medicine. And I think a few weeks before, or in the run up to applying for university, I was having this crisis of what am I going to do. And if my mum listens to this she’ll love this because my mother basically said why don’t you do psychology, why don’t you do that? And basically I didn’t really know much about psychology, and I thought yeah okay I’ll do that. And that was really, there was no planned, like decision. I did psychology. So that was that was how I ended up doing it.

Anna Cox 

So you didn’t have an idea about, “Oh, and it’ll leads me to doing something in particular”?

David Ellis  

Not really. I mean, I think a lot of people were clinging on to this practitioner thing of like maybe I’ll be a clinical psychologist, as you know, tonnes of people who do psychology initially think that’s what, what they might do. I was probably part of that. And it was sort of like a turning point in my third summer between my – it was in Scotland so there’s four year undergrad – so the summer between  my third and fourth years, I was really lucky to get a kind of student scholarship to do some research over the summer, and it was, it was like between the university in a private company. And I think that was the first time I was actually, “This is quite fun”. I could, I could see myself just doing this. And I just thought it was awesome that I was getting paid, not a huge amount of money but I started getting paid money to think about stuff and come up with ideas, and I thought well this is, this is quite good. And that was what then led me to finding out what a PhD was and speaking to people about it and being quite naive, probably.

Anna Cox 

So when you went into doing the PhD, did you do that with, with the idea that, okay, I’m going to be on this academic track then

David Ellis 

I think so.  How fixated it was to the academic track, I’m not sure, but I definitely liked just thinking and learning and being in that environment. And, yeah, I mean I remember like approaching, who was my undergraduate supervisor, and I was like, I think I want to do this, this PhD thing. I probably was very naive and though it’ll all be fine. I remember he said oh that’s good you know, I’m glad and, and, I mean, I sort of realised, no, I can put all my eggs in one basket, hoping I would get this funding.  I knew it was competitive but I don’t know why I thought I was doing so it didn’t apply for others. I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t gone, I mean I would have probably got somewhere else but I just, just thought I’ll do that. And that worked out, but I didn’t, I wasn’t thinking long term.  I was just, I was just amazed that I was like, I mean I’ve even explained it to my dad, you know, various times, you know, you get some money to just go and do some stuff. And explained to my dad, you get paid to just think and learn. And he said, yeah, uh hu, sounds alright.

Anna Cox 

So can you tell us a little bit about what you were doing for your PhD research?

David Ellis 

Yeah, so I started off very, I’d say very traditional psychology research and that was running experiments in a lab, as you would expect: very kind of cognitive psychology, but I started to explore and more social constructs of time and how behaviour changes over time, and this coincided with, I spent a few months in the Scottish Government, and I realised now that I was moving into like more sort of computational social science, but no one had really… I don’t know if that term existed then,  but it was like this, access to these big data sets and I kind of realised that, there’s all this data out there about people. I could still run things in a laboratory, but there’s all this potential outside of that, and then that was really exciting. And so, my supervisor sort of captured that interest I guess. Yeah, so it was quite, there’s lots of different methods in it from very small experiments which might only have 20 or 30 people all the way through to, you know, millions of people in sort of government data sets. So it’s pretty broad. It’s probably too broad. There’s no like it… I suppose you always reflect back on things, but I’ve got a good set of experiences and different methods which is quite nice.

Anna Cox 

And you said then that you were looking at how behaviour changes over time. So lots people might think, “Well, what do you mean?”

David Ellis 

Yeah. So I was looking at sort of specifically, so I’ve done these like really kind of small scale experiments where I was sort of trying to explain why, if people have ever experienced why they get confused what day of the week it is was trying to explain why that sometimes happens. And it’s partly because people have got really strong associations with the beginning and the end of the week. So if I ask you what day it is on a Monday, you’re twice as fast to respond than if I asked you on a Wednesday, for example. But these associations are really err, well you have very negative associations, people tend to have negative associations with Monday and positive with a Friday. So they were interested to see if that if that kind of bears out on like larger data, you know, and other patterns of life. So you find that people miss more doctor’s appointments at the start of the week than the end of the week, but one of the things that was more interesting about that was that while that was quite nice and it supported some of this err experimental work, this, this kind of Monday to Friday decline, if you’d like, was much stronger in younger patients than older patients. And so that gives you some opportunities to move appointments around to maximise attendance, and that led to a lot of work afterwards, with other people on – I’m still doing now – on appointments, but it also, yeah kind of this applied, this notion of like taking things outside or applying it. I had an interesting time in the Scottish Government that made me more convinced I wanted to stay in academia, I have to say. I enjoyed it but pointed back to university after those few months.

Anna Cox 

So do you know why young people behave differently to older people in this?

David Ellis 

So, yeah, I mean it’s, it probably – this is more speculative at this stage – it’s probably got something to do the fact that once you’re retired, your kind of weekly cycle is a bit more – you might not be working on a Monday, you’ve got the weekdays – meaningless in that occupational kind of context, whereas younger people (it’s seeing younger people as a big age group, but, you know, people who are in the working population), they have that pattern, and it’s, it’s quite a small effect but it’s quite significant. And we, we ended up years later, doing work with a clinic where they strategically moved appointments to different days of the week, and we were able to show that you can actually save a lot of money and a lot of time and yeah that’s… I mean it’s like everything is sort of led to meeting other people and developing new connections and then to more work on that. Like so.

Anna Cox 

Is it this kind of…like using large data is sort of a theme that runs through your work, kind of looking at data. So is that kind of where it came from?

David Ellis 

I think it probably did. I think when I moved from Glasgow to Lancaster for the first time, I was being exposed to not only all this data but wearable technology, which was like more kind of (laugh) wasn’t really as wearable as it became but it was… That also was just like well there’s so much you can do with this, and interesting again it was running lab experiments again, but I was probably being drawn towards like what’s going on outside the lab. And I think that’s why that was always just so appealing to me, I guess like, I was always interested in technology and the sort of person that was as a student I was in a band, and played a synthesiser because I was interested in technology. I wasn’t a very good musician, but that’s that’s, that’s what I was interested in. So yeah, it kind of brings those two things together.

Anna Cox 

So, that work that you started to do then, was it still thinking about health contexts? So using the data for that kind of purpose?

David Ellis 

Yeah, I think initially, well I suppose at Lancaster, yes it was. Some of it was, was more kind of occupational in the sense that we’re looking at groups of people behaved outside the lab when they were doing different tasks and I was getting introduced as well to new types of data like linguistic data when you record conversations and how you can then have that transcribed and that was all kind of new. So one of the consistencies, is that I’ve always been given quite a lot of freedom, by PIs or other people I’ve worked with which is really exciting.  But it can be quite hard to know what you’re doing some of the time, but you become really independent – you just kind of get on with it, sort of thing.

Anna Cox 

So you’ve developed particular strategies for that, then for working out, if you, when you’re given all of this freedom, like what to go and do.

David Ellis 

Yeah,I mean, I kind of, I suppose my PhD supervisor was always really kind of like he likes, liked ideas, and I was always about that as well and I think if I’ve got an i…., as always, I’ve got ideas to do things I’ve never got a shortage of things to do. It’s funny, actually, you know, I spent years sort of escaping the laboratory if you like, and now I’m actually coming back to it in more recent work, and I think it probably says a lot about my own attention span. But I just a move to what… I’ve been really lucky that people have given me space to just develop. I don’t know what strategies… I think just I’m not really… I suppose a lot of it’s like just not being too worried about things not working the way I think they’re gonna work, you know, I’m quite happy with that. There’s lots of other things why I ended up being a scientist but the certain notion of just doing stuff, and seeing what happens I’m quite keen to… yearh. This is interesting because I’ve just started to try and set up a sort of small lab from wanting to look at how people play video games collaboratively or don’t. I’m talking specifically now about things like Call of Duty, and you’re just learning how to use things like vision mixers and, you know, knowing that there’s a lot of stuff about video feeds, there’s no, I kind of just, I like generate more ideas I think when I’m messing around with stuff of that ilk, so just experimenting with tech I guess is part of it,

Anna Cox 

And that sounds like that drives your ideas as well as giving you the skills to do new things.

David Ellis 

Yeah, I think as well it’s also that’s not technically, like we’re sharing theoretical angles or like I’m quite interested at the moment in all the discussion within psychology about the generalizability crisis and how we measure things, how we do things and I suppose that kind of makes me think of, you know, the better ways we might be able to do some things and that sort of spurred me on. So it’s not always technology driven, it’s sometimes driven from like theory or from what other people are doing. So it’s somewhere in the middle, and someone introduced me once and said, they looked at what I did and they didn’t believe I was a psychologist, they thought I was a computer scientist.  I took that as a compliment, but I think yeah I probably sit right in the middle, that’s probably why I’m in the School of Management now, which is all different, lots of different people from all over the place.

Anna Cox 

So how have you… because you’ve published in, in psychology, but also in computer science. Like how have you found that? Do you find that you had to like learn new skills in order to talk to those different sorts of audiences?

David Ellis 

I mean there’s, there’s certain languages that we all use, you know, so I mean I think… it reminds me that computer scientists sometimes describe an analysis as an experiment, which I can never get my head around, but I do, I deal with it, you know. And I guess, again, it’s like we kind of the people I’ve worked with who are psychologists, we’re also working with computer scientists and they kind of embark this knowledge of almost like in a heads up sometimes but you know, that’s what they’ll do, or that’s, that’s what we’ll do. And you know, I think when you’re trying to solve a problem or, or do work, you know, no discipline is perfect on its own. No one’s got all the answers and I’m fairly comfortable with that. I think it is, it is challenging because you’re learning a new language. I find that actually sometimes harder in medical journals, just because it’s it’s a very, you work with people who are quite blunt enough to say, don’t write that it’ll get someone’s back up, but it’s, it, it probably makes you a better writer – again just because you’re thinking about who different audiences will react, and hopefully if anyone reads any of the work then that’s always a bonus but it, it’s, it’s hard, I think. And I find it hard within the context sometimes of what universities expect of me. I was, when I was more of an early career researcher, I think there’s that notion of you’ve got your discipline, the things that the discipline wants you to, and what your department wants you to do. And then you’ve got the things that the university wants you to do. And sometimes there’s a bit of a conflict, because every discipline’s got its own little thing that it thinks is good, and management is no different, that layer, to any others. And sometimes you have to, you’re trying to do everything, so I’ve got to please the department, and also want to do the stuff that I care about. And if I want to have an applied impact, I need to publish in a medical journal really rather than maybe a psych journal. Yeah. I think that’s something that, in a lot of places needs a bit of work sometimes because it’s, it’s, it’s really challenging. And it’s not always recognised maybe as it should be.

Anna Cox 

But having this applied impact sounds like something that’s one of the things that drives you.

David Ellis 

I think it’s easier for me to get up like yeah, it’s just easier to sort of, if there’s an ‘applied thing’ slapped on it, I can sort of think more critically about it and say well actually… and I think that also comes from the notion of leaving of a laboratory, you know people behave in a lab, it’s not actually how they behave outside the lab. So, if you want to change something or improve something or understand something, I’m quite keen. It is messy. People are messy. I’m quite happy to embrace that and that’s okay. But yeah I think definitely it’s, it’s, it probably drives me insane that there’s other things I’ve done where I think, “What on earth is this gonna ever do?” But then someone else might come along and say oh we thought about that so I think, I say, what I said there, I’m always slight… when I reflect and stuff, I just think it’s cool, for all those the issues with academia it’s just being able to just do stuff, and think about stuff but that freedom is really nice.

Anna Cox 

So one of the things that you’ve done with your freedom is to write a book.

David Ellis 

Yeah, yeah.

Anna Cox   

Which is perhaps not something that, that everybody in your position would have thought, that’s going to be like top of my list. So, where did that idea come from?

David Ellis 

I didn’t, again, it’s not something that I had always planned to do. It was inetresting explaining to people when I said I’m going to write this book, and you know books have kind of, in psychology, fallen out of fashion a wee bit.  Sort of like it was like, “What are you writing a book for?” It’s not, (indistinguishable) but you do do papers, and I think I again have probably been encouraged a lot by people to do things that I really want to do, and you’ve got those systems but if you’re doing what you really want to do you have to you have to balance that. And, I mean I have built up a good collection of, em, failed grant applications, and, you know, stuff that I’d written and other papers that would slot into a kind of story, if you like, and I thought, I remember saying to my colleague at the time I said I’m going to look at this.  I sort of made a deal with myself that well, I’ll send it to a publisher, just this idea and see what they say. And I thought well if they say no, I might not pursue it and they came back and were very positive and said you know can you give us a bit more and then reviews were quite positive. And so, and then they just left me alone to do it. And that was, that was great, you know, and it is a bit of a, it’s not indulgent but it’s, it is very much for you. I think there’s, there’s the book as it is, but writing the book was just a really good excuse to read, even more than I would have done, and have a disproportionate knowledge of something. That has been really helpful, and then making other collaborations where people want to know something about a smartphone in that context so I know the paper, I know, that’s good, that’s a good one to read.  So it just, it also came about due to frustration that it came out of the frustration of – I’m sure it probably reads a bit like someone who’s frustrated at times – but it’s the way psychology has gone about understanding modern technology is so baffling. In some ways it’s viewed as enemy number one, rather than what could this help people with, or what, what could it help us understand. There is so much on smartphone addiction, or whatever you want to call it, you know, it’s such a big area of psychology, and I don’t know why.

Anna Cox 

So, I mean I guess people looking at the title of your book so, “Smartphones Within Psychological Science”, like might very well think that this is about the psychological harm that smartphones might cause to us right.

David Ellis 

I suppose there’s a bit of that, but yeah.

Anna Cox 

Um, so for people who don’t know this area, um do you think that smartphones are something that we should be worried about too? You’ve already kind of alluded to the fact that there’s a lot of people looking at this.

David Ellis 

Yeah, so I mean I think, I think, smartphones, like any other technology, there, there are potential harms and there’s, and it’s not different to necessarily the internet, or other digital technologies and the work that I’m involved with now is very much about understanding what those harms are – as er genuine harms – and how you can map them and mitigate them and, you know, there’s a lot of thinking about, like, what would a taxonomy of digital harm look like for example. There’s quite a few other things we’ve been working on. But psychology has spent a lot of time talking about kind of general notions of technological, very general to the point they’re quite difficult to define. So like smartphone addiction isn’t recognised as a clinical thing, but it’s talked about by people as if it is, and then when you look at how that construct happened or how the Internet addiction happened, it’s so wafer thin, that it’s amazing that it’s, that it’s lasted and there’s a whole thing of, tonnes and tonnes of work. So, so what the book is partly about is that, but it’s also just about where these are being used as research tools. So there’s lots of really great examples of working in social psychology, personality psychology, where the data from smartphones, whether it’s from sensors or from what we tell, you know ecological momentary assessment, that are really making huge leaps, I think, in terms of what we’re learning about people and challenging what we thought we knew, in a lab. You know, so you kind of got these two dual…  The best example is within cognitive psychology. So you’ve got a group of people often a lot computer scientists as well, I should add, who have been building applications that can do cognitive testing or video games that can test for early onset Alzheimer’s or, you know, assess working memory. We’ve got another group of people who claim that smartphones are damaging children’s cognition. And now, you’ve basically got a tool here that can measure exactly when you’re using the device, and do the cognitive tests, but these two groups are totally separate to each other, and no one wants to join it. The people who build the apps are just interested in what it can do. And the people who think it’s a problem are, basically, they think as a problem. I don’t, you know, and never the two shall meet. And that gulf in cognition is phenomenal. It really… the language that’s used, the whole literature bases, do not overlap, yet the device could answer those really important questions, if you it wanted to.

Anna Cox 

Do the people who believe that smartphones are causing harm to children are not doing the science to demonstrate this?

David Ellis 

Yeah, exactly, not really. And I think there’s, there’s a whole host of problems.  It’s from, you know, there’s actually understanding, okay, I suppose this is really harsh – I’ve said this in the book too, so it’s not that harsh – but the various people who claim that the technology is the most harmful seem to know very little about the technology. Because if they knew more about it, it would totally change the way they went about doing the investigation, and that comes back to the notion of, you know, why do interdisciplinary research.  So that’s a really good space to be in for that to answer that question. Now, as with all books since the book came out, people have gone and done exactly that. And of course we find that, well, smartphones might not be the reason that kids cognition is getting better, or worse, or staying the same. So it is happening, it’s just taking like a long time. And I suppose that’s my own frustration in the field, sometimes is, is, is why that takes so long, I guess, whereas computer science moves more quickly. Psychology is a bit… takes its time.

Anna Cox 

So I suppose the flip side of this, which you said that like the book also covers, is about how psychologists can use smartphones as a data collection tool. And it seems there that like possibilities are almost endless really, I guess. So, have you done work in that area yourself.

David Ellis 

Yes, I mean I guess this came before, that sort of weird, like I was quite lucky when I started working at Lincoln. I got a grant to hire a postdoc, and had a PhD student, and we were sort of just thinking about what this technology could be used to do. We never thought we’d get involved with the screen time debate or anything like that but one of the more straightforward applications we could do at the time was collect usage. And it’s funny that at time, we just thought this was interesting, and we were showing that oh by the way, if someone estimates this, it isn’t what they’re actually doing, isn’t that interesting. And it wasn’t until, like, a year later where we probably did a bit more reading, and look, like, there’s all this stuff that saying these are addictive, and it uses this estimate of the skill. Well hang on, we showed that this, this wasn’t very good and that kind of revisited some of that work. And, you know, more recently, I’ve been fortunate that other PhD students who have a psychologist’s background, but have become basically software developers. So, Chris, who is just finishing off his PhD now has basically made a PhD out of building smartphone apps for psychologists, and it’s a very different way of developing, if you’re going to develop a secure app, you know, it’s, it kind of tries to put participants at the front and centre of of that collection process. It’s cool that he’s kind of learned all this stuff during his PhD. So yeah, I suppose my experience is that, again, it’s that mix of like technical and then try to use that as answers to answer a set of questions.

Anna Cox 

What does it mean to “put participants at the front and centre” of data collection?

David Ellis 

It’s becoming quite challenging actually. Psychology, historically, you collect like one data point. You give them a measure or scale, you know, it tells you about them. You can share that it’s just that one number. If we’re collecting someone’s location data from a form, that data is highly revealing about where someone lives, where they work probably.  When I say putting them front and centre, I mean that they have, participants are able to make the decisions about what they share and when they share it, and when they stop collection and when they start collection. I suppose we’ve been really lucky with like reviews, reviewers of papers have pointed out a lot of things that we didn’t necessarily think of was an issue. When we, when we build, when Chris has built our apps now, you know when they’re running, let’s say it’s collecting usage data, there’s always a little banner at the top that reminds people what’s going on, and ultimately we don’t get any data until the participant actually presses the button to send it to us; it’s not saved in real time it’s sent as a batch at the end and it’s encrypted. It’s not just putting participants at the front and centre, it’s also like the way that we’re building these apps is very incremental. It’s not like, here’s all the data from before, which would be comparatively straightforward to do. But we’re kind of saying, right, we’re interested in this thing, this is what we’re going to investigate, and we’ve got reasons to do it, and then we can, we kind of build… It’s classic psychology, it’s a bit slower, in a way, but it’s, it’s to try and get this right, because we don’t want to publish apps that then cause another Cambridge Analytics or something, you know it’s, I think we’re all mindful of that. So it’s about putting people in control of the data.

Anna Cox 

So thinking carefully about what data you really need to collect, and then, er, giving participants all the control you can possibly think of in terms of reminding them that it’s being collected, and they’re the one actually pressing the button to send it to you.

David Ellis 

That’s right. I mean I think that there’s there’s things we can go further with and other groups have started to do things where they’re using like differential privacy, where the researchers are, you know, is much more controlled, you know. Basically participants can withdraw their data afterwards, you know, so it, you know, so there’s, there’s a lot of, there’s some quite a bit of development in that area about  how we get that right. So I mean it does feel a bit like making up the rulebook sometimes because you’re going to ethics boards in psychology – and I won’t name any institutions – but some know more about this than other,  just by who’s on the board,  and the some things I look back on and I’m thinking, I would have asked some more questions. And then there’s other things where, you know they’re asking the right questions, but it’s, it’s not like running the lab test and then everyone leaves. And as the methods change and the data gets bigger, the rules are gonna change and I think the British Psychology Society needs to make sure that that they’re keeping up with what’s going on because it is changing quite quickly, so no easy task.

Anna Cox 

Yeah, I think certainly many institutions are becoming much more aware of, I suppose, about these issues, about what data is being collected and how is it being stored. And also thinking hard about data that’s in the public domain so, you know, issues around looking at data that you might gather from a social networking site for example, where you don’t really have consent from for the people who are posting it:  they didn’t know they were going to be part of the study. So there are a whole load of like difficult things that people are grappling with.

David Ellis 

And there’s going to be mistakes as well. I think the early papers on Facebook, for example, you’ve got like expressions of interest, basically raising the exact point you said there about, well how did you get ethics? You didn’t really get ethics. You know, if someone tried to do that again, it’d be like, no you can’t do that. So, there is, it’s really hard because it is a process of learning, and I mean even in our work, you’ve got like there’s a development of how applications for the smartphone have got better and more secure, because we’re learning, as we’re doing it.

Anna Cox 

So, given that so many people are kind of thinking about this at the moment, are there any kind of useful resources that they can look at to kind of help them, even if it’s just think through these sorts of issues?

David Ellis  21:04 

I mean I think there’s, there’s a growing number of papers, yes check out the papers. There was really good one from Dennis and colleagues called “Privacy Versus Open Science, which is a really good one about just, just really the reason these issues…how are we going to replicate all this stuff in the digital age? I mean, there’s also, it’s also I think within medicine being discussed around, you know, some of the work I’ve done in the past, we get the data set, we can never share the data set, and there’s some cases where I think we probably could, There’s ways to do it. That’s not on the agenda, and these data sets are really expensive, and there’s kind of this ongoing discussion so I mean it is it is being mentioned in the literature, in a variety of different places. It all ultimately depends on on how sensitive some of the data is, you know, that people are wanting to collect. I think the challenge for psychology is just partly people just becoming aware of what data is out there, because it’s so scattered. I mean, you know, it’s interesting that the ESRC are kind of doing a set of consultation in new and emerging forms of data that… but by the time the consultation is finished, the new emerging forms of data have already emerged and are new again. But it’s really – I think they said that not me-  but it’s really challenging. And as things change so, and it’s all at the mercy of often tech companies as to what they will release and what data is available. Facebook changed, probably for the better, but you couldn’t replicate stuff that has happened in the past because Facebook changed.  And yeah there’s not, there’s not going to be answers to how we deal with some of these questions. But I suppose, the more you use that data and the more – this is me personally –  the more you will you get drawn into those discussions because they’re important.

Anna Cox 

And I suppose that, you know, over the past year, many psychologists who perhaps were doing a lot of their research in the lab, have had to think about new ways of conducting that research and moving it all online. So many of these issues are kind of coming up for people who might not have thought that they, that these were things that would impact their research because they didn’t think of themselves as necessarily engaging in digital data collection.

David Ellis 

Yeah that’s right, and I think it’s, it’s, it’s changing a bit because up until recently, the biggest influence of the internet for psychologists, had been more self report scales, and bigger samples, so it was like I’ve got this scale, offered to online and I get 1000s of people. And I think we’re now at the point where more and more people are starting to what about beyond this scale. What else can I collect online. And again, I would say it’s taken a bit longer than it should have. But it’s slowly, that that is happening, and that leads to those kind of questions as to well, just because we can collect this should we be collecting. It’s hard because some data you don’t know how valuable it’s going to be until afterwards, I don’t think. I remember sitting in my office with a post doc, a PhD student, and we were looking at people’s smartphone usage data, and somebody submitted at 6.00 am every morning and there’s this line, there’s a gap and an identical line and a gap, and we thought there’s a problem with the software. And it turns out this was someone hitting the snooze button every morning, and we realised we could work out when they were, when they were asleep or when we’re getting up every day – because they were a very conscientious student I should say, because they were very regular and early getting up in the morning. And we said, we never thought we would know this. And we start to learn stuff and you’re like oh this – and that’s incidentally how a lot of, you know, forensic psychology tries to catch the bad guys by taking a trace and try and make better use of it. So yeah, it’s really difficult if you don’t always know until you’ve got some data.

Anna Cox 

So this idea of having, you know, looking at big, big collections of data and trying to understand people’s behaviour, it’s obviously something that underpins a lot of the different avenues of your own research. And I’m kind of interested to know what, how it impacts your own life. So, do you collect data about yourself?

David Ellis 

I don’t, not really no. I do have a colleague who I won’t name, who did spend a year collecting everything they possibly could about themselves. I believe there were some interesting insights. I can’t remember what they were. But he basically went down the quantified self, extreme, and he was tracking everything. I’ve never really done that, I mean, I probably, you know, I have an Apple watch, and I use it to track my run, you know, running, which doesn’t change that much, because there’s no other sport to do at the moment. You know, I spend a disproportionate amount time in front of the laptop, like most academics, probably, but I don’t really collect in terms of personal technology, if the technology is like useful, you know and it stays. I’ll keep it, you know, it will become a part of every day, you know. As I said, I learned about, you know, video streaming and I’m recording lots of video streams at the moment, and that’s quite interesting and I’m probably annoying my partner about it because that’s what I’m talking about and they might not be interested, but I become quite obsessive, until I know everything about it. But then, it’ll just go into the you know, I’ll move on to something else so yeah it’s a, I suppose it’s quite kind of, I suppose we started off by talking, it’s all… sometimes people… I didn’t really plan a lot of the stuff that I’ve ended up doing it’s just been quite fortunate that I’ve met people that have given me freedom to mess around with stuff and, and then sort of lightly come up with ideas.  That’s what  I’ve done my PhD students as well.  I think, it is that, kind of provided people think the works OK – when I say people I mean reviewers.

Anna Cox 

So the whole messing about with things, is sort of like the key to how you’ve created your career in a way then?

David Ellis 

I mean, the more romantic notion would be that I’m this psychologist who’s like, look to this theory and develop, you know, but I just, as I said my attention span and patience is like I just want to learn stuff and do stuff so it’s quite hands on in a way, and it’s probably become, it’s become more and more technical, in a way but then whether I’m learning all this technical skill, there’s that kind of handing over of what you know about what you don’t know about and I’m quite comfortable. Like I’m probably a worse R programmer than I was a few years ago, because other people you know are just getting better at that, and they’ve been trained up in their undergrad in psychology. I was never – I was taught SPSS or some nonsense, you know, and so you can become… I’ve reached that point that around sort of realising that I actually don’t know. There might other things I might be worried about I’m kind of like, yeah, just reached that point where people are… which is cool because people are bringing something, so we should use this and it’s like what what’s that, yeah, which is what my supervisor was doing to me probably, at one point I was that person that was coming to them.

Anna Cox 

So, before we finish up, I wondered whether having had that experience of writing your book, you’ve got another book in you.

David Ellis 

Yeah. Yeah, it’s funny I think there could be. I don’t know what the book would be. There’s, well, I think, if I was going to write, yes is the answer to the question I think so. But I don’t think… I would probably want to write something that in a way is sort of still academic but a bit less academic in a way, like I think I’ve really become more interested in how sort of we, we do science and how universities work and I think there’s, there’s lots of things that, that we get right. But I think  in the social sciences, there’s a lot of things that I don’t think we do right. I don’t think universities always get it right sometimes either so I don’t know whether if I was gonna write another book it would be sort of thinking about how we.. I  think there’s so many books on this already, you know, there’s so many books on just the state of science if you like. I don’t know if there’s a market, but I did start writing some notes down and then I sort of thought, I don’t want to write another book quite yet. So I think I would write another book but I haven’t found the exact topic, yeah.

Anna Cox 

There may be something about how we do science or could do it better?

David Ellis 

Yeah, I think, I think, I think there’s even even actually a book on sort of… I think being an ECR now is quite exciting in so many… this is my other thing of how I see things changing in the last few years, I think it is still a really great time to be a scientist, but I do worry that ECRs have been asked to do so much stuff. Like it’s I thought it was bad, when I was trying to get a permanent job. I feel though it is, you know, and again it comes back to this: the money is coming from interdisciplinary pots, but you have to serve your department in your single discipline as well, which means you basically have to do both, which are equal, just… I mean, I love my job, but sometimes I think why have had to do this.  You know, why couldn’t I just focus on this. And then there’s the kind of impact, and the REF, and probably the TEFF and it’s a lot. I don’t know. I suppose I was naive. So I didn’t really think as much about these things as I maybe should have done. But it’s just, I think it is a challenge for for ECRs to to navigate that, maybe more than it was a few years ago, I’m not sure.

Anna Cox 

So maybe a handbook for ECRs?

David Ellis 

How to get a job. Yeah!

Anna Cox 

I think there’d be a lot of people would buy that. All right, well we’re running out of time so I just want to say thanks very much for taking the time to talk to me today,

David Ellis  1:05 

Yeah, thank you very much. It’s nice to get that chance to just reflect sometimes. It’s really nice.

Anna Cox

Thanks so much to David Ellis. You can find him on twitter @DavidAEllis, all one word. You can also find a link to his website and access to the show notes for this episode on our website eWorkLife.co.uk where you can also find more evidence based tips on using technology to support work and well being, and a link to our new eWorkLife radio app.

Anna Cox

I’d love to hear your feedback on this episode. You can find me on Twitter @AnnaCox_ If you enjoyed this episode, please tell your friends. And you can also leave us a star rating and review wherever you get your podcasts.  Thanks as always to our producer Clare Casson. This episode was sponsored by the EPSRC GetAMoveOn Network+.  Music by ScottHolmesMusic.com.

Episode 5: Prof Ann Blandford, digital health pioneer, on her career journey & work on long COVID

In this episode:

Anna Cox talks to Professor Ann Blandford, an expert in digital health. We cover how her rebellious streak led her to study maths at Cambridge before embarking on a career in computer science, the importance of progressive teachers and how they shaped her life as a student, and as a woman managing a career and a young family,  and about her research in digital health that’s empowering people with long COVID to try out what works for them when managing their health.

Ann Blandford is Professor of Human Computer Interaction in the Department of Computer Science at UCL and a member of UCLIC,  the UCL Interaction Centre. She served as director of UCLIC,  director of the UCL Institute of Digital Health and Deputy Director of the Institute of Healthcare Engineering. She was a Suffrage Science Award holder, a winner of the prestigious IFUPTC Thirteen Pioneer in Human Computer Interaction awards, and has been elected to the SIG CHI Academy.

Find out more about Ann’s research

 You can read Ann’s biography, find out more about her research publications, and find a list of her publications here: 

https://uclic.ucl.ac.uk/people/ann-blandford

Videos

UCL Lancet Lecture Series: 2020 UCL-Lancet Lecture: Global Health Preparedness in the Face of Emerging Epidemics.  

Jointly hosted by UCL Grand Challenges, UCL Institute for Global Health, and The Lancet, this online lecture presented key emerging lessons on global health preparedness as the world faces the COVID-19 pandemic, and implications for the future of global health. The event took place on 13th July and was recorded.  Ann Blandford was on the panel that responded to the lecture and Q&A session.

Lecture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pqE48fmyRkw

Panel and Q&A session: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OuEbbysi-B4

Keynote talk at the Computing Conference 2018 on Technology that Works  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o6BLOoYsoEc

Talk for World Usability Day 2018 on designing Digital Health systems that are fit for purpose. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ktH4k_mxW3I

Connect with Ann on LinkedIn

https://uk.linkedin.com/in/ann-blandford-01586a2

Follow Ann on twitter

@annblandford

Credits

Music by ScottHolmesMusic.com

Producer: Clare Casson

Transcript eWorkLife podcast Season 1 Episode 5 – Interview with Ann Blandford

Prof Anna Cox

Hello, and welcome to a new episode of eWorkLife, a podcast where we talk about productivity, wellbeing and work life balance. We talk to scientists and others who can help us make the most of our technology to get our work done, to keep connected to others, and to support our health and well being. I’m Anna Cox, Professor of human computer interaction at UCL in London, and your host for this episode.

In today’s episode I’ll be talking to Professor Ann Blandford, an expert in digital health. We cover how her rebellious streak led her to study maths at Cambridge before embarking on a career in computer science, the importance of progressive teachers and how they shaped her life as a student, and as a woman managing a career and a young family,  and about her research in digital health that’s empowering people with long COVID to try out what works for them when managing their health. But before that, let’s listen to some top tips from our other guests about how we can use technology to survive the digital age.

Anna Cox

Now to today’s guest. Ann Blandford is Professor of Human Computer Interaction in the Department of Computer Science at UCL and a member of UCLIC,  the UCL Interaction Centre. She served as director of UCLIC,  director of the UCL Institute of Digital Health and Deputy Director of the Institute of Healthcare Engineering. She was a Suffrage Science Award holder, a winner of the prestigious IFUPTC Thirteen Pioneer in Human Computer Interaction awards, and has been elected to the SIG CHI Academy. So let’s get straight into it. Here’s my conversation with Ann.

Dave Cook

I’m Dave Cook, a researcher at UCL Anthropology. My top tip for using technologies to support your health is to put your device in your pocket, and let it quietly track your steps, and only allow it to interrupt you if you’re not getting up and moving about enough to take breaks.

Kathy Stawarz

So I’m Kathy Stawarz, a lecturer at Cardiff University. My top tip for using technology to support your health is to find an app or device that provides information that’s meaningful for you.

Anna Cox 

Welcome Ann and thanks for taking the time to talk to me.

Ann Blandford 

Hello. It’s a pleasure to join you today

Anna Cox 

So I wanted to start back at the beginning of your academic career, when as an undergraduate you studied maths at Cambridge, and I wondered whether you had always set your sights on going to Cambridge and always thought that maths was the way, was the thing for you, I suppose.

No, absolutely not. At GCE level which is the precursor to GCSE, I didn’t even think I was going to do well enough at that level to be able to go on and do further maths at A Level, so I kind of joined the double maths set, and then I promptly withdrew from it when I thought that my maths qualification wasn’t going to be good enough, and a fantastic maths teacher persuaded me that that was the wrong decision and I was capable of doing double maths at a level, which I did, and I did fine. Why did I go to do maths at university? Well, actually, I thought I would do computer science, but those – I was in the kind of school, even though it was a state school, that had a tradition of sending quite a few peoples to Oxford and Cambridge. And most of the double maths set people were kind of channelled into applying to Oxbridge. It wasn’t something that had occurred to me personally before that at all. But because we did, the rebel in me decided to apply to Cambridge rather than Oxford, because this favourite teacher was slightly pushing us towards Oxford,  and I just like, no, I want to make up my own mind, even though actually making my own mind up was more about not doing what I was told, than making a much more informed decision about it. But at that time, Cambridge didn’t actually offer a full degree in computer science, it only offered a third year course. So, one had to go in and do something else first, and because I was actually doing okay at maths, I went to do maths. And actually I quite enjoyed maths at Cambridge, and so I didn’t ever change to computer science, I continued through with maths.

So you said that you thought that you might do computer science at university. So how had you got sort of introduced to computer science as a subject even at school?

Ann Blandford 

Somehow in the maths lessons, or one set of maths lessons, we were taught a little bit about coding. And at that time the way to code was to fill in the paper form with lines of Fortran that we had learned, and then to imagine how this programme would work, send the coding form off to the Council offices where it was turned into a deck of punched cards, run through the council computer, and then we would get results a week later.  And actually I found this problem solving process kind of fascinating, working out how to persuade the computer to do what I wanted it to do. I think I enjoyed that problem solving, and that feedback that told you whether you’ve done it well or not. And that was the only experience of computing I’s had at school – what is very, very slow computing process – and it’s meant that as a computer scientist insofar as I might still be one, I’m very reflective about any code I write and I don’t just hack stuff up, put stuff in, see what happens. I tend to be very reflective about actually working out for myself when my code is likely to work before I put it in, which doesn’t work so well in the 21st century actually!

Anna Cox 

That seems like quite a sort of progressive thing that… I don’t expect that was really normal in schools. If they didn’t have computers in school, you wouldn’t imagine they’d be introducing pupils to competing.

Ann Blandford 

I guess you’re right. I’ve just never really thought about it. Yeah it was a sixth form college that I went to that had previously been the boys grammar school, so there were still some years of boys coming up below. Girls appeared from the Girls Grammar School or the girls secondary modern school school – we’re really going back here! And I think it was about progressive teachers who didn’t question or didn’t point out to the pupils that actually what they were doing was radical and interesting and different. But, yeah, you’re right on reflection it was, but I’ve never really thought about it that way. At Cambridge, we had a little computer lab in the maths department, and we did some simulation based computing, you know, we were modelling flow systems and kind of physical systems at various times, and it was only after I graduated that I realised that that had been quite radical. In fact, at that time as well. So I think there were just a few kind of forward thinking teachers at both school and university who could see the potential of introducing computers into the curriculum, well before it was the default.

Anna Cox 

So when you finished university, what was the next step for you? Did you, did you go and work or did you go straight into doing a PhD.

Ann Blandford 

I went to work. Because I got a double first in maths, everybody assumed I would go on and do a PhD. And although I enjoyed maths to certain extent, I never felt that I could really do it. I never felt confident doing maths. I thought of myself as being competent at doing exams, rather than being competent at maths. And of course one can’t, on reflection, one can’t be competent at exams without being reasonably competent at the subject, but I saw it that way so I didn’t actually want to do a PhD in maths. I didn’t feel competent to do that. One might say that’s a gender thing – that women perhaps have less confidence in their own abilities. So I went into industry, I wanted to experience what it was like in the real, “the real” world at the age of 21. And I’d half thought of switching, not only to computing during my degree, but I’d also half thought of switching to engineer,  but I looked at quite how hard the engineers work and how many hours they spent in lectures and the labs and decided that I wanted to do more various things in my life that precluded switching to engineering at that point. But anyway I joined an engineering company at the age of 21, with a view to doing a software engineering kind of career track. So I did an engineering training scheme, which involved doing engineering practice, you know, I learned to use lathes and milling machines and do sheet-metal work, which felt like sewing but with metal rather than with cotton and thread, and various other kind of things. Oh and some electronics as well, but actually I got steered into a sort of software engineering track, which was probably much better for my skills. I stayed in industry for 18 months, but then there was a bit of a blip in the industry and a lot of my friends were made redundant, and even though I wasn’t made redundant myself, I started to look elsewhere, and found a job at Queen Mary University of London, except it was Queen Mary College at the time, doing software development for teaching. So kind of computer based learning systems. So I moved to QM and started to develop educational software using that famous Fortran. 

Anna Cox 

Was that in the computer science department or in Education Department?

Ann Blandford  

No it was in the engineering department. And again, I think, I think it’s another example of, in this case an engineering lead, who had a vision for how computing could support the engineering curriculum. And it was partly because of that time, Queen Mary was one of the few universities in the country that offered a course in nuclear engineering – building nuclear power plants and similar. Of course you don’t want to let undergraduate students loose on a nuclear power plant, though actually there was one that they could go and use occasionally down at Greenwich. But anyway, they wanted to do most of their experiments in a safe environment, i.e. through software simulations, so students could safely, blow up, and experiment with the parameters on nuclear power plants using software simulations, and our job was to build those simulations for the students to learn about. Finding Energy and Nuclear Stability is one of the ones that I remember particularly well because the acronym was BEANS, but having set that up for, for nuclear engineering, actually the aeronautical engineers and civil engineers and various other electronic engineers also saw the value of doing simulations as part of their courses, so we ended up building software simulations for students right across the faculty, basically.

Anna Cox 

And so why did you leave?

Ann Blandford 

Because I had kids.  And I tried to continue working through but this was a time when continuing to work with preschool children was really pretty challenging. I recently dug out a book on pregnancy and, what year was it –  1986 – and the assumption was that you would take three months off and go back. Then maternity rights were really quite limited.  And it was hard. There were very few childcare options. So, I did go back when my older daughter was three months old. I went back full time. It was a huge struggle. She didn’t settle into any form of childcare, it was just five months of nightmare. She was chucked out by two or three different childminders because she just wouldn’t settle. In my final month at work, I was at work, with a baby, either on my hip, or asleep underneath my desk. And that was really hard, you know, it just wasn’t a good time to be a working parent, if you were also responsible for childcare, and somehow it was a time when it was still the default that the mother would take that role. I mean we did discuss it as a couple, but there were so few male role models of stay at home parents, that we just couldn’t work out how to make it work. So I continue to do a little bit of work. I continued to do like 10 hours a week of consultancy work. All down while said small child was asleep. So kind of catching the naps and doing bits of programming while she was asleep and

Anna Cox 

Were you doing that from home?

Ann Blandford 

Yeah, Yes I must have had a computer at home. I can’t remember now, um, I think it was the early days of what we called laptops but were really big, luggable computers. I remember having Commodore Pets at work. And it was the early days of BBC Micros and things were kind of getting smaller, they definitely weren’t the size of a modern laptop or a tablet or a smartphone. I remember installing new memory into the mini computer that we had in the lab, and it went up from 64 kilobytes to 80 kilobytes. And this was enormous, you know your smartphone now has much, much more than that now. Megabytes, at least if not, gigabytes. Things have changed a lot.

Anna Cox 

So when you left that job, did you see it as you were stopping working, or did you see it as I’m going to part time.

Ann Blandford 

I initially saw it as stopping work because I couldn’t see how to keep going. And that was actually very hard, but I didn’t feel I had any choice at that time. So there was a gap even before the part time, the 10 hours a week, kind of came in because that had to be negotiated, so it took a little while for that to come through. But then once it did come through it ran through both the older child becoming a toddler, and then me having a second child, and the first few months of her life.

Anna Cox 

So at what point did you think, oh, actually I’m going to go and do a PhD?

Ann Blandford 

I think it was before having the older child, there was always that thought that I did want to do a PhD, I wanted to do it in something that interested me. I was really interested in computer based learning, at that time, and artificial intelligence was trendy. So for me that was a question about should I start a PhD, and in my mind that would mean me delaying having a family, or have a family, while I was still relatively young and delay doing the PhD, and obviously I went for the second of those options. But then when my younger daughter was three months old, I had that first moment of freedom. I had a bath without a small baby, she was actually asleep! I took the newspaper to the bath, and had lots of bubbles in the bath, and I was reading the newspaper in the bath, and I saw an advert for a PhD studentship in computer based learning and artificial intelligence at the Open University, and I just looked at it, and I thought, “That’s what I’ve been waiting for. Having a three month old baby is not perhaps the best time to be starting a PhD. But I’ve got to try it, otherwise I won’t know whether it’s possible or not”. So I, I just pointed the advert to my husband and said, tell me I can’t do that to which his response was, “Well, give it a try”. Obviously I had to go for an interview. I remember, expressing milk, so that I could drive up to Milton Keynes for the interview, leaving both children with a friend who’s got children of the same age. And so I knew that I had a finite time to drive up to Milton Keynes, have this interview and get back before the next feed, but hey, the children survived that. And, in fact, I could probably have said at least another 20 minutes. Time wasn’t as critical as I thought it was. So, yeah, I got an offer from that, I think they knew they were taking a risk in offering a PhD studentship to somebody with two preschool children, but they took that risk, and it paid off. And I got my PhD in three years.

Anna Cox 

How did you find kind of combining doing your PhD with having two young children?

Ann Blandford 

So I basically did it in three days a week. I had childcare for three days a week. At the time my husband was working flexible hours so he worked nine day fortnights, which meant that he could take a day off a fortnight to look after the girls as well. And I tried to be home well in time for bed time. The older one, who was the one who’d been having difficulty settling with childminders when she was younger, yeah I think we found a good child minder this time, who took both girls, because, yeah, There weren’t, really weren’t nurseries or other childcare options that you could afford on a PhD stipend at that time, so really childminders was the only option for us. It was the only thing we could afford as there were very few nurseries. So, this time we struck lucky and had a lovely child minder who had her own three children, and my younger daughter absolutely hit it off with her son, who she tormented to death, but he seemed to really enjoy being tormented by this little thing, so it worked out. So I was confident about the care I’d got for the girls, and they did that in kind of three and a half days a week. Effectively I had three and a half days a week to study. Plus when they were really little, I had evenings after they went to bed, though by my third year, they were staying up later, and the kind of cognitive effort of doing that final writing up meant that I often didn’t have the energy to still be working after they went to bed. So I really was doing just three and a half days a week by the time, in the last few months.

Anna Cox 

Did you, when you were doing your PhD, did you have it in mind as the stepping stone to an academic career?

Ann Blandford 

No, I thought I was going to go into industry and earn a fortune. Because the AI jobs that were being advertised at the time I started my PhD, were really well paid, and really attractive. And in those three years that I was doing my PhD basically the bottom fell out of that style of AI market. And so, AI went into one of its several kind of really dry periods when there was very little work available, it was unclear where the discipline was going. It’s since transformed from being what was at that time called “good old fashioned AI”, which is kind of production systems, to being the kind of modern, more modern statistical flavour of AI neural nets, very large data sets, a form of AI that I know very little about.  So my PhD is in the old fashioned kind, but it went through this real dip as I was completing my PhD. I was thinking about options at that point. I actually just wrote to six research groups that were within commuting distance of my home and said hey, if you’ve got any jobs any small, possible roles for me? Here’s my CV, and I actually had interviews with three of them, even though none of them was advertising a job at the time, and ended up going to Cambridge, not to the university but to the Applied Psychology Unit where Richard Young and Phil Barnard, were just coming to the end of the first Amadeus project. I think it had four months left to run, and the researcher on the project had just left so they had like four months money, and they were hoping that they would get a follow-on project but they didn’t know at that time, so I was basically employed for four months, with both parties, viewing this as very long interview basically, like an internship, so that I could find out what it was like commuting, an hour each way to Cambridge, every day, and they could work out whether I fitted in their project and in their team.  And it did work out obviously because I stayed there for four and a half years for the whole of the follow-on project. The children were obviously growing up through this phae. The childminder who had been so fantastic through my PhD, realised that she wanted to do something different with her life. So, the first few months of me working involved the children going to a different friend every day of the week: if it’s Thursday, then it must be with so-and-so, so I need to go to the correct house to pick up the girls.  Actually I’ve missed a bit in all that because I think that was a year before the girls went to school, where we had a nanny, temporarily. That must have been while I was working. My memories of the precise timing of everything clearly a little bit vague,  but, you know, I was at the Applied Psychology unit for four and a half years I think it was. And the girls were going through primary school and going to a friend’s house after school as childcare, so I would go to work really early in the morning.  I’d be in the office by half seven every morning, which means I left at six and my husband would take the girls to school. Yeah, he’d do all the breakfast routine with the girls. And then I would get back by five o’clock. So it’s like I did the evening routine and storytelling and bath time and all those things.

Anna Cox 

And so was that job, an AI type job that you started in?

Ann Blandford 

So that was a cognitive science job. It was doing cognitive modelling, using SOAR, which was fairly popular cognitive modelling architecture at that time. So it was using my AI skills but kind of turning them on its head. It’s the same style of thinking as my AI PhD, but applying them to modelling people to understand how people interact with technology, rather than modelling people to make the technology pretend this human, if you like, so it was the same kind of thing but applied in an HCI context rather than applied to make technology seem cleverer than it actually is. Yeah.

Anna Cox 

So was that your first introduction to HCI as an area then?

Ann Blandford 

Yeah, yeah so that was my introduction to HCI completely, and you’ve continued in that area ever since.

Anna Cox 

Yes, and now it seems like your work has moved away from that sort of educational content more towards looking at digital health. So what was the story about that transition?

Ann Blandford 

Um, never touched education as a theme after my PhD, mainly because at that time, getting funding for projects was really hard. Every subject seems to have times when it’s in fashion and times when it’s out of fashion. And obviously when I moved to the Applied Psychology Unit, it was to do a particular project that was entirely an HCI project. And there was no educational technology project that I could join at that time, there just weren’t any that were being funded in the south east of England, as far as I could find. So I moved into HCI, more specifically, and when I then moved to Middlesex as a lecturer, obviously I had some choices about what kinds of research I would be trying to do. And I made an explicit choice not to try to go back into educational technology because it wasn’t clear who was funding it at that point.  I mean there have been technology enhanced learning initiatives since, but that time, there weren’t. And so I moved in a different direction. I did more on the cognitive modelling, did more kind of safety critical systems research. And one is somewhat driven by the opportunities, and which opportunities come up, and which ones one takes, and nothing really pulled me back into education as a discipline. It wasn’t that I explicitly voted with my feet, it was that there weren’t many opportunities in that area at the time when I was making the critical decisions.

Anna Cox 

But now you’re extremely passionate about digital health and devote all of your time to it as an area to sort of improve. So, what is it about it that sort of captured you?

Ann Blandford 

So there was a time, around the late 1990s, where I was doing some projects that were health related, and other projects that were not. And it became quickly apparent that health was an area that you had to be either in or out, because the ecosystem, and frankly the politics behind health care are changing so rapidly that you can’t just kind of dip in and out very easily.  So, actually at that point I kind of opted out, but I then found myself doing research on bizarre things like safety critical chocolate machines, which didn’t feel very credible, frankly, I mean, obviously the, the heart of that was safety critical systems, brackets, “find your application area that is small enough and simple enough to do some reasoning about” closed brackets.  We had various projects, which might well have got funded in control rooms, and similar kinds of clearly safety critical contexts, but I think I hit another one of those points where I had some applications in healthcare, and some applications in non health care, and the healthcare ones came through – by which I mean grant applications in healthcare – and the healthcare ones came through and the non healthcare ones just didn’t, and so I decided that I was going to commit to that and actually it has changed a lot in the last 10 years. So a lot of the research questions and opportunities are really different now from the ones that were prominent 10 or 15 years ago, whenever it was I made that shift, because it was a bit of a gradual moving from one focus to a different focus. Yeah, I decided to commit in that area, and so I’ve stuck there now.

Anna Cox 

So it seems like an area that obviously has huge potential to radically change, not just the way that people in the UK live but people all over the world, and what are the, the real challenges that you’re kind of grappling with at the moment in your research?

Ann Blandford 

The biggest challenge, I think right now is talking about systems as complex systems. Computers naturally deal well with problems that are decomposable into smaller and smaller problems, and how people behave in predictable, or prescribable ways with the technology. And actually what we’ve learned is that healthcare is really complex, you know, even an individual’s health is really complex, nevermind when you put that individual in a melieu and in an environment with lots of other individuals, some of whom are patients, some of whom are professionals and expect them all to work with technology, well together. We’ve got to rethink those two kind of layers of computing – the technology layer and the socio-technical system layer so that they actually talk together better than they do right now.  And I don’t know how to deal with that. But I think it’s a really really important challenge to acknowledge the complexity and actually start to reason about it and deal and address it directly, rather than continuing to develop technology that prescribes how people are meant to use it because people can’t use it the way that it’s mostly been designed to be used. And that applies for from everything from apps for health and well being, through to major medical devices that are run by software and have one or more operators, and technologies in between where the technology is small but the teams are big, and old technologies are meant to work together somehow but are traditionally glued together by the people doing the things that need to be done to make them actually work well together. Yeah.

Anna Cox 

So one of the things that… sort of recent events in terms of the Coronavirus pandemic, it’s really changed so many things about the way many people are living their lives at the moment so, you know, we’re communicating using digital technology. Lots of people are using technology more for work than they might have done before. How do you think this new context is impacting our use of digital health tools

Ann Blandford 

There have been a lot of changes in the last 12 or 15 months, both in terms of what we expect of technology and of how we use it, and you know that obviously starts with things like having to do a lot of health care, more at a distance now, where possible. So there have been a lot of advances in telehealth solutions. I have to say some of those are real compromises, and don’t deliver the same quality of care, as being physically co-located – being able to see each other, being able to touch, being able to communicate through all rich channels that we naturally communicate with when we are co-located. So I think that when the pandemic is over, actually, there will be some bounce back, but we’ve also learned to use a lot more different kinds of technologies. So I’m involved in a project about helping people to manage Long COVID, which is of course a major problem worldwide at the moment, and we don’t have the capacity to treat people in the individual ways that that we would all like to be treated as human beings. But we don’t have, actually, the knowledge, you know what, we’re still, we still don’t really understand this condition we’re learning about it. As more and more people are experiencing it, particularly as more and more people are describing their personal experiences and as more clinicians are getting engaged with trying to understand the underlying causes of particular individual experiences, people are having to accept the fact that they need to do quite a lot of self management, because we don’t have the capacity or the variety of clinicians who are needed to actually support people in a really close way as they manage both mental health and physical health aspects of the condition. I think one of the things that it’s forcing the health service to rethink, is the historical siloing between different clinical specialisms. So there are people who focus on mental health, and people who focus on aspects of physical health, and they often acknowledge that the others also matter but they don’t tend to talk to each other, and with a condition like chronic Long COVID, they actually do have to talk to each other, because somebody who is experiencing breathlessness, fatigue, brain fog, anxiety, depression, and various other random symptoms that somehow seem to have emerged with this virus., it requires really good multidisciplinary teams to work together to actually deliver coordinated ways of helping people to manage, and coordinated advice and coordinated guidance and coordinated monitoring of people. But also we are learning about the condition with everybody who unfortunately experiences it, so it’s not as if we have the answers yet, the answers are all kind of contingent, and we are experimenting. You know people who are living with the condition are having to experiment, to some degree with their own lives, and with what works for them, because there seems to be a level at which each individual responds differently to the various symptoms that are apparent with this condition. Not everybody has the same set of symptoms, yet they will seem to go back to this, having had the virus, and it’s impacting different people in different ways. So, as a project, we have a very multidisciplinary team led by Elizabeth Murray, obviously, my role is thinking about how to make the technology that will be a part of that care delivery, easy to use, and engaging, but also effective, and that’s not my specialism obviously:  the effectiveness, that’s, that’s down to clinicians really not me, but putting those bits of being engaging, making people want to come back and learn more about their own condition, encouraging people to engage with what works for them, encouraging people to pace themselves, because one of the issues that has been found with Long COVID is that people feel like they’re having a good day, and so they will exert themselves perhaps more than is appropriate, because they feel good today so why not, and then they suffered kind of crash, what’s called the crash, where their energy levels just go through the floor, and they often can’t get out of bed for the next two or three days. So we need to find ways to help people to manage both the physical and the mental aspects, take time, and to be patient and not expect this to get better, overnight or in a fortnight. For some people, obviously, many people, they do recover quite quickly. But then there are the people who don’t and we don’t actually understand that, but are trying to develop technology that will help.

Anna Cox 

So, it sounds like your vision for this is that the technology really empowers both the clinicians in terms of collecting data and understanding the condition itself, but also empowering the patient in understanding their own condition and self managing it. So I wanted to ask to what extent you’ve kind of taken – because I think that that theme is, it comes up time and time again in the work that you’ve done – and I wonder to what extent you have embraced that in your own life in terms of using technology to empower yourself in terms of how you manage your life or your, your health and well being.

Ann Blandford 

I use technology to some degree but probably not as much as some other people. And that’s partly because I’m lucky in that I generally have pretty good health, so I don’t have to manage the negatives of health. So for me, using technology is mostly about managing or tracking the positives. So, I’m a rock climber, and that is my main form of both physical and mental therapy, in that it is obviously physically demanding and interesting and forces one body to move in ways that no other sport does really – or few other sports, anyway. But it’s also been a huge mental therapy because you get, you’re getting out into the sea cliffs and mountains and whatever, and you’re having to focus on what you’re doing there. Because if you don’t focus on just on that you’re liable to hurt yourself quite badly, so it’s very immersive and of course the last year I haven’t had that, so I’ve had to develop other ways of managing both my physical health, my mental health. And for a long time that was walking and I was just using a very simple app to track my step count and my to do list that every day included ‘walk’and I’d tick off when I’d done it, and most days did involve some other form of exercise as well like Pilates or Zumba. Then in the autumn my daughter and I decided that we would learn to run. So we did the couch to 5k together, by which I mean that we were on the phone to each other, me running around Hartfordshire and her running round North London, but completely together, you know, we’d synchronise absolutely to the second, and we have the same coach on our separate versions of couch to 5k because we learned that the different coaches had slightly different timings. And so obviously that I used that app for nine weeks, and actually sort of fell in love with running, but I think when I can climb again I will stop running.  I’m actually having to redo it again now because I injured my ankle. So I actually had to stop for a few weeks in the new year while my ankle mended itself. So I’m now starting again at the beginning and I’m now in week four, and I do it on my own at the moment. So I’m using that programme, and I’m kind of sticking to it and I’m finding it really helpful. I had moved beyond that programme around Christmas time, and had done a little bit just with a running app that told me how far I was going and what my pace was and whatever, but I’m not sure that that really helped me because I do have to manage my legs, you know, my, my ankles are quite prone to going AWOL on me, so actually trying to push my performance is not a good idea for me, I’ve realised. I have to just use running as a way of getting out and getting some fresh air. I went this morning, you know, it was sunny first thing this morning, and I enjoyed the only half hour of sunshine we’re likely to get today, running around my local park and getting dew in my shoes. So I don’t use a lot of apps myself for specifically for physical activity or… and I certainly don’t use them for diet or anything like that, mainly because the ones I’ve seen for diet just require too much input too much time, too much effort. And I’ve got other things to do with my life.

Anna Cox 

Well I’m just looking at the time and thinking, knowing, that we only have a certain amount of your time today, because you do have other things to do with your life. So I think we ought to stop there, but thank you very much for talking to me I could talk to you for at least another hour. So thanks very much.

Ann Blandford 

Pleasure.

Anna Cox

Thanks so much to Professor Ann Blandford. You can find her @annblandford on twitter, you can find a link to her website and access to the show notes for this episode on our website eWorkLife.co.uk where you can also find more evidence-based tips on using technology to support work and well being, and a link to our new eWorkLife radio app.

Prof Anna Cox

I’d love to hear your feedback on this episode. You can find me on Twitter @AnnaCox_ If you enjoyed this episode, please tell your friends. And you can also leave us a star rating and review wherever you get your podcasts.  Thanks as always to our producer Clare Casson. This episode was sponsored by the EPSRC GetAMoveOn Network+.  Music by ScottHolmesMusic.com.

Episode 4: Dr Conor Linehan – Psychology and the design of technology for fitness and health

Episode description:

Prof Anna Cox talks to Dr Conor Linehan, an expert in the design and evaluation of technology to support education and health behaviours. We cover his journey from being a psychologist to a leading HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) specialist, working on the application of behavioural psychology principles to technology design. Conor has a particular interest in gaming and gamification, and reveals how we already know which games are best at encouraging people to exercise over the longer term, so physical activity researchers are on a bit of a wild goose chase trying improve on those. We also get the low-down on a ground-breaking, multi-disciplinary, behavioural intervention he’s been involved with to reduce harms from recreational drug-taking, that has been years in the making. Conor also lets us in on the secret of his own personal motivation for keeping fit and strong.

Dr Conor Linehan is a senior lecturer in Applied Psychology at University College Cork, Ireland, and an expert in the design and evaluation of technology to support education and health behaviours. He has a strong interest in how games and gamification can be useful in these contexts. He’s worked on a wide range of research projects, investigating the design of educational games, vision therapy interventions, dietary interventions, wearable sleep monitors, and online mental health interventions.

Find out more about Conor and his research interests

 You can find Conor’s biography, research interests and a full list of his publications on his profile page at University College Cork: http://research.ucc.ie/profiles/A011/conorlinehan

You can download all his publications from his Google Scholar profile: https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=KXZj4J0AAAAJ&hl=en&oi=ao

or his Orchid profile: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-7654-6697

Video

Conor talks about experience-centred design and evaluation of mHealth technology at the NUIG mHealth Conference 2016:

 “The Process Through Which We Make Things Is Important” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4by1LKp03pU

Follow Conor on twitter

@conorlinehan

Credits

Music by ScottHolmesMusic.com

Producer: Clare Casson

eWorkLife podcast Season 1 Episode 4

Interview with Conor Linehan

Anna Cox

Hello, and welcome to a new episode of eWorkLife, a podcast where we talk about productivity, wellbeing and work life balance. We talk to scientists and others who can help us make the most of our technology to get our work done, to keep connected to others, and to support our health and well being. I’m Anna Cox, Professor of human computer interaction at UCL in London, and your host for this episode.

Today’s episode, I’ll be talking to Dr Conor Linehan, an expert in the design and evaluation of technology to support education and health behaviours. We cover his journey from being a psychologist to a leading HCI specialist, working on the application of behavioural psychology principles to technology design, with the aim of creating ground-breaking health behaviour interventions. We also cover how we already know which games are best at encouraging exercise over the longer term, and how physical activity researchers might be on a bit of a wild goose chase if they focus on trying to improve on those. And we talk about how his desire to not get hurt when playing American football is a powerful personal motivator for keeping fit and strong. But before that, let’s listen to some top tips from other guests about how we can use technology to survive the digital age.

Paulina Bondaronek

I’m Paulina Bondaronek and my top tip for using technology to survive live in the digital age is combining pleasure to distract you from the pain. For example, listening to your favourite podcast whilst you’re running.

Marta Cecchinato

I’m Marta Cecchinato. I’m a senior lecturer in HCI at Northumbria University. My top tip for using technology to support your well being is to make sure technology is serving you in that specific moment of your life. Maybe you liked having work email on your phone during your commute to triage messages. If you suddenly start working from home, having an email on your phone can be an unwelcome disruption.

Anna Cox

Now to today’s guest. Dr Conor Linehan is a senior lecturer in Applied Psychology at University College Cork, Ireland, and an expert in the design and evaluation of technology to support education and health behaviours. He has a strong interest in how games and gamification can be useful in these contexts. He’s worked on a wide range of research projects, investigating the design of educational games, vision therapy interventions, dietary interventions, wearable sleep monitors, and online mental health interventions. So let’s get straight into it. Here’s my conversation with Conor.

Anna Cox

Welcome, Conor. Thanks for joining me today.

Conor Linehan 

Thanks for the invitation, Anna.

Anna Cox 

So, I know you started your university education by studying psychology at Maynooth University in Ireland. So can you tell me first, how you like got interested in psychology and why you decided to do that at univeristy rather than anything else.

Conor Linehan 

I didn’t realise we’re going all the way back today!

Anna Cox 

We’re going *all* the way back!

Conor Linehan 

To answer your question:  I er, I got in to study arts in university and I picked psychology as a subject to study, and I just found it really fascinating. Now, I suppose it’s the kind of subject, because it’s, in some ways, aimed towards a profession – you know there are professional psychologists – but it can be a very exciting thing to study because you know, you’re, you’re kind of carried along not just like learning something, academically, but learning a lot of professional skills as well. I think that really appealed to me at the time, but just, I think, from a very… I was very interested in video games, I was interested in sports, and you could see how psychology was kind of I think the science that seemed most useful in understanding those things and, you know…

Anna Cox 

Yeah, OK, and so at what point did you think, ‘Oh, when I finish this I’m going to do a PhD’?

Conor Linehan 

After I finished my university degree, I’ve spent a year working just, but not in an interesting job in customer service, and I decided I wanted to come back to university. I wanted to do masters, and I was literally about to go in to do the registration for a master’s course in sociology, and my supervisor for my final year project, in psychology, rang me up and said, “You know I’ve got this funded project, do you want to come back and do a research degree?’. And yeah, it was incredibly good look that happened that day and not the following day, and I was delighted to have funding to study instead of having to pay to study and I would get, you know, 2 years – it was originally a 2 year research master’s rather than a one year taught masters, and then I just did an extra year to turn it into a PhD kind of thing.

Anna Cox 

Okay, so was the topic for that already set out by the supervisor or was that something that you chose?

Conor Linehan 

Yeah, it was. So it was part of a funded project about video games. It was, it was about, actually you know this is going back… This is kind of thing that, you know, we wouldn’t really study now.  It was about network latency and how it affects video game playing. And so the project was funded in 2004, when that was a big issue, and, you know, before we had broadband and all of that. And so it was a bigger project there was a bunch of PhD students from engineering or computer science who were working on network communication protocols and, you know, ways to minimise and harms to the experience and that way, but we were really interested in how psychology could be part of the problem. Like is it possible to think about how, I suppose, the complexity of gaming might make you less aware that fast…that problems are actually happening in the, in the game because you’re concentrating on solving problems. So, lots of expe… look we did lots of experiments around problem solving and puzzles in game playing, and looking at, you know, the distracting but also the disruptive potential of that but also, you know, basic research on how people solve those kinds of puzzles.

Anna Cox 

So we just sort of talked about the work you did for your PhD. A lot of your research since your PhD has been looking at computer games that you know have a health and wellbeing context. So, how did you sort of make that link, like to kind of looking at games in this other context rather than just looking at games for the sake of playing games or just like the general player experience.

Conor Linehan 

It’s interesting, isn’t it, so I’ve actually been, you know, when you do these kinds of things I suppose you take a moment to reflect on your career and why you’ve done things and I think there’s, there’s always a temptation to kind of put like there, you know, a narrative on if that makes sense. You know, and in some ways I was kind of thinking, maybe that, that in some ways, does a disservice to people doing their PhDs currently or early career researchers, who might think that people like us who are further on in their career had a really clear direction of where this was all going where.  I don’t think it is, I mean, some might. So like I was very, in my PhD, it was very much a behavioural psychology approach that we were taking. So my PhD was about video games, but it’s also about behavioural psychology. So I have always had that kind of interest in, like, how we can measure behaviour, really well and how we can get some control and prediction and using all the basic principles from behavioural psychology in technology design. And I think when you have that interest, it’s kind of natural, to think about the other things that those kinds of behavioural principles are useful for. So you often see kind of behaviour change interventions, built on behavioural principles or you see you’ve seen psychotherapy built on behavioural principles and you see, ah, health interventions, and education as well as another place where, you know, principles, like reinforcement tracking behaviour and measurement analysis and all of this and you know really controlled defining of target behaviours that you’re trying to change and measure, and using those principles to kind of get you to that direction. So I think it’s kind of a natural thing if you’ve got that background to see, well, we can use games which seem to be based on those kind of principles to, you know, to help in areas like education or health, which also have interventions built on those principles. So hopefully it makes sense but, but I suppose it kind of made a lot of sense to me. I suppose the first thing that I went to do after I finished my PhD, I went over to the University of Lincoln to work with Sean Lawson, and we were, for the first year working on educational games, and before we kind of got into, into looking at health applications of it. And I suppose that really, that experience of having to design the games – because before that I was just studying games –  but the experience of having to design them really made it obvious to me how useful the behavioural psychology stuff that I learned in my PhD was actually for game design, and for.. as was thinking through the process of well, if we’re going to build a game that is going to encourage some behaviour change whether it’s education, whether it’s health, then it needs to do these kinds of things, you know, X, Y & Z.

Anna Cox 

So you’re sort of like initial training in psychology has had quite a profound effect, I guess, on all the research you’ve gone on to do since and that, in that kind of bringing those principles through.

Conor Linehan 

Absolutely. The interesting thing is that I you know I went from being in a psychology department where I did my undergraduate degree – started my undergrad and my PhD –  to a computer science department where I worked for seven years. I, like the longer I stayed there I didn’t really see myself as a psychologist anymore. I was very much an HCI researcher you know doing HCI research. I was going to CHI, I was going to mobile HCI, CHI Play and going all these places, and I wasn’t doing any psychology conferences. And yet, like, it was everything I was doing was psychology. At its heart, it was taking, you know, some principles and applying them in that technology context, you know.  I was kind of involved in a lot of projects at Lincoln that weren’t mine so like Derek Foster he was at Lincoln. He, he was doing really cool research looking at and encouraging changes in energy consumption. And we did a lot of kind of fiddling with how the interventions would work to try to encourage people to, to lower their energy consumption. You have to present those messages in ways that were, you know, fun or nice rather than being really aversive. It was you know, all of those things, there was just.. psychology was in the model, it was just wasn’t obvious maybe on the first look.

Anna Cox 

So, I want to kind of get on to talking about some of the particular papers that you’ve written about the research that you’ve done. And one thing that I guess you perhaps won’t be surprised that I’m asking you about, is the paper that you’ve written about using video games to encourage exercise. So, so I guess that in that paper, you asked whether exergames are exercise. So what’s the answer, are they?

Conor Linehan 

I mean, there’s, I suppose when we were doing that project, we found that look, like, as what normally happens very annoyingly is that that’s a very complicated question, and there’s lots of different ways you could ask it and various ways you could answer it. Like, in order to answer that question… so it was a project that myself and Joe Marshall did together, and, and Joe did most of it I’ll be very honest, you know, I was going to talk to Joe and help them do the reviews and stuff but, but it was it was kind of largely his word guiding it. And, but I suppose we, we kind of we kind of saw in order to answer that question, there was actually four studies necessary, and we actually only published the first one. And so, because, because, in order to answer it like… that first paper is the one that we’ve actually published,  is a systematic review that looks at, in the moment when people are playing exercise, are they, demonstrating the kind of cardiovascular activity that we would have expected with comparable forms of exercise. So, you know, comparing it to jogging or dancing, or, you know, not necessarily really hardcore exercises but exercises that very much, raise your cardiovascular exertion levels. There are some examples in the literature, where games do bring players consistently to that level that’s, that is similar to jogging or dancing but its really rare. So it’s only under very specific circumstances, and the best kind of examples are generally with Dance Dance Revolution, which really does seem to encourage people to exercise in a way that’s very similar to if you say were to do a sport, or dancing or something like that. A lot of times, the research finds that, that, that the extra games just aren’t… they’re not consistently bringing people to that level of exertion is not that far above, sitting around or standing. And, but, but also like we found big problems with the research designs as well where a lot of studies that were claiming that exergames were better than something else, they were comparing it to something really boring. So they did this… so what really annoyed us when we were doing the review is that a lot of the times say, like, they compared a game, which seemed like a really fun task, with like walking on a treadmill.

Anna Cox 

So what would you have preferred them to be comparing it to?

Conor Linehan 

I suppose if you’re if you’re interested in the question of “is there something about a game that makes you want to exercise more?”, so if you’re if your game involves,  say it’s Dance Dance Revolution, then maybe what you should be comparing it with is dancing with the game,  rather than comparing it to walking on a treadmill.

Anna Cox 

Okay, yeah. So you said that you were really looking at, does it make you be as energetic or more energetic than these other activities but then you also kind of touch  on, does it encourage you to do this more and that’s like a different question, isn’t it?  So, in general, not so great at getting us to raise our heart rate, the way that we might need to. Are they effective at making us want to do exercise more, or engage in these kinds of activities more?

Conor Linehan 

Yeah, and that’s a very good question, and it’s, it’s actually probably really is probably two questions as well because you could answer it like, does it encourage me right now to play tennis more than playing tennis those, or you could look at it as a longer term thing, you know, am I playing more regularly, which is kind of more, more of a behavioural way of looking at it which I like.  But we don’t really have those long term studies.  The systematic review that myself and Joe did, em, we didn’t study systematically those longer term questions of motivation like “do games over the longer term encourage more exercise than an alternative which isn’t game based, because we just didn’t get that study done. The first one had 120 papers. It took us years to do. So I mean, I think that’s the question that’s yet to be answered, there just aren’t a lot of long term studies really, or at least it wasn’t what we were looking at. What we found was that gernerally the studies of games as exercise were very short term, they were you know over a session, or over a few days.  Ah, the best ones were over a number of weeks, but there was very little that kind of looked that over months or over six months, and I think it was one study and in our… that we came across that looked at Dance Dance Revolution over six months and that was kind of the best one that we found in that respect. So, I mean anything that that can improve that kind of long term look at games as exercise interventions will be really valued, I think.

Anna Cox 

Yeah, yeah. Now I geuss when we’re thinking about games in health or for health, a lot of the time we tend to be thinking about gamification don’t we, so like, rather than real games, like just taking elements of games and putting them into some intervention. And I know you’ve been thinking about this quite a lot in your research. So do you think that this is effective? Are really good examples where gamification has been used to motivate people to go live healthy lives or engage in some kind of health behaviour?

Conor Linehan

It’s such a hard, such a hard question to answer!  (Laughs).  It’s not because there’s no answer, it’s because I’ve got like twenty answers that are all like bubbling in my head at the moment! I mean, here’s one of them. I mean, so I’ve actually gone back to your last question about games encouraging exercise over the longer term.  Like we have those things right, I think this is another thing that myself and Joe kind of got across about in some of those papers as well, like we have, we *have* this technology already called sports, so these are games that encourage exercise right! And they are really engaging over a long period of time so people will play soccer from the age of, you know three to like 65 or beyond even. So we have, so we have games technology that encourages exercise – sports!  We should be comparing exercise games with sports because that’s really the alternative, you know. Myself and Joe did some really cool research where we tried to make games that were you know – it’s all it’s all part of the same project that we’ve been describing where we’re kind of critial of the exergames being a bit boring and not you know… they’re a bit safe. So we kind of designed a lot of games that are a bit more dangerous, and therefore create a lot more, I suppose, engagement, and a lot more, they really raise your heart rate a lot. So, for example, one of the games that we designed, it’s called The Balance of Power, so it was played in a squash court, which, first of all, like in itself was a fantastic thing to be involved in. So we, we realised, well we realised that the, the Microsoft Kinect (sensor), if you put it in the middle of a squash court, kind of a quarter of the way in, it’s designed so that it picks up exactly the same size as the half of the squash court. So we put that in there, and we designed games that people could play in the squash court, and the Microsoft Kinect would actually pick up where in the courts they were, and we made some really simple games.  The one Balance of Power basically you’ve got four players, so to two teams of two, you have a half of the court that you have to stay in, and on a random schedule, you know once every 30 seconds, it would say 54321, if there was more people on your side of the court than the other side of the court, you win points. That’s the only rule! Everything else is fair game. So we have, we have the lights turned off, we had a really nice sountracks of Adrian Hazard from Nottingham who designed the sound, it was incredible. It was like being in a an arcade in the 1980s, and we had some projections on the back wall which recognised stylized versions of what was happening on the court, and what happened was you got this 54321, as that was happening… before it kind of counted down, you find the two teams kind of stalking each other, you know, feeling each other out. I mean it was 5432… you got this incredible rush of aggressive – aggression isn’t the right word – but kind of just wrestling into… they’re trying to each other to their side of the court, and, you know, what we found was that people were playing it for two minutes, three minutes, they couldn’t stand up anymore, they were so… they were so… they’re using all of their energy. Absolutely 100% of it to, you know wrestle a friend, trying to get them out of there,  bring him on their side, and you know, get a break for 20 seconds and do it again. And, and it just seemed like a much different thing than, you know, Wii Sports, which is kind of ah, you know… I suppose for me and Joe we’re both coming from this, you know, that’s, Wii Sports isn’t the kind of exergames that we’d like to see. We’d like to see people fighting in a squash court!  (Laughs).  Not everyone is obviously going to be into that kind of level of physical interaction, I realise that but, but I think we can be a bit more ambitious I suppose is the point. The point is that leaderboards only work, to an extent, you know, they tend to have a short term impact, So self determination theory is something that is really being, you know, latched on to in the, in human computer interaction in games research.  And its kind of like, it’s just, it’s a it’s a nice theory that, that in some ways identifies different types of motivation and different sources of motivation for why people might choose to do things right.  So, one of the nice things that self determination theory does, is it identifies the difference between how do they say… extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation. So I think the kind of critique that you get from a lot of games researchers, is that kind of adding points and badges to things, encourages  this kind of extrinsic motivation, so people engage with that activity because they’re going to get some points and badges.  But that actually has limited value in the longer term, you’re going to get very sick of that, it kind of loses its motivation building.  The other thing it does is if you are already intrinsically motivated to do something is that adding those things to it can actually be quite patronising. So like, if you’re, you know, playing soccer, and you’re really good at it, and then you get like badges for like for every good tackle that you make, your kind of like well no, that doesn’t satisfy me.  Like, why am I doing the game? I want to be good at it, you know, so I suppose the thinking has turned towards more thinking about how you can use more intrinsic motivation, so how we can think more about people’s values and use that in how are we going to motivate people. So, I’m trying to find kind of those matches between what people’s values are the kind of activities that you’re, that they’re trying to engage in. So instead of just saying, well, ‘you did a thing you got a badge’, using kind of more sophisticated motivational techniques that are more to do with your err, what are the kinds of things you want to do and do the habit or behaviours that you’re doing actually match up with that?  And, you know, you can monitor the link between those two things. And maybe that’s a better way of motivating because what you’re really trying to do is trying to teach a longer term behaviour. So like with the exergamres, ideally what you would like to do is not get someone to play *a* game for a short amount of time, but teach people to go back to … to generalise them to pick up *any* game and enjoy it.  Or actually enjoyed running, which I know you do. But not everyone does!

Anna Cox 

So in terms of like thinking, like, trying to think about what motivates someone intrinsically, to do these sorts of things, it strikes me that what you’re saying is we need a deeper understanding of what drives people.  You know, like stickers and badges work for young children, like they’re *really* good for young children, but beyond that, they’re not. They’re not generally so effective or they are but there are other things that are better.  And I guess that kind of, I can see how that draws on your interest in psychology again, like getting to the understanding of what’s driving people what, what are their values, what do they want to do, what are their needs and so on.

Conor Linehan 

Absolutely, and the learning thing though for the app developer is is that those things are very individual. So it’s hard to kind of give everyone the same, you know, what’s the easy thing? You can give everyone a badge, you know, but it’s very difficult to give everyone that type of meaning in their life that they need. From I suppose a behavioural perspective like, these are things that we learn over our entire lives that… our values are things that, you know, you don’t learn in a day, you don’t learn in a weekend or by playing a game, there are things that are ingrained in how you’re raised and the kind of environment you grew up in and all the kind of experiences that you’ve had, and you don’t decide what your values that have been… They’re, you know, they’re things that you learn and are really…Well, the brain has to really guide how you behave in that way. So, you know, we can fight against those things, or we can try and understand them and work with them I suppose is kind of where we’ve got to. With, em, some of… actually some of the projects that I’m doing at the moment where we’re actually taking more of that kind of approach, and not around games around health interventions but…yeah.

Anna Cox 

Can you tell me about one of those then.

Conor Linehan 

Yeah, I can tell you about one that’s actually ongoing at the moment and we’ve been doing it for years and years now, because it turns out if you, if you want to design a behavioural intervention following like the behaviour change wheel, and, you know, that whole process, that takes years and years to do properly. So this is a project in UCC where I work – University College Cork – and it was kind of done in collaboration with the Students Union there, and the Student Health Services. There’s a bunch of people from Business Information Systems. A few of us in Applied Psychology,and the health service and public health. So a whole load of people involved in it, but it’s a project for drug taking among students. So, but what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to build an intervention around… that would encourage, harm reduction around drug taking. So high reduction is, you know, it’s a, it’s an approach, which involves a whole load of things, but the idea is that the outcome would be people would be suffering less harms from taking drugs, which obviously, part of that is, you know, in trying to encourage people not take drugs maybe at all. Yeah, but if you, if you are going to do it then to do in ways that, you know, I suppose are mindful and safe and… But, so, but the interesting thing about that project is that often the prevalence of drug taking among students at the moment is really high actuall.  Also at the same time, most of those people don’t really see it as problem, so like to do an intervention in that kind of context is quite challenging because if people don’t immediately see that they need to or want to change their behaviour, then what can you do, you know? What kind of levers you have, it’s different for somebody who wants to quit smoking and you’re trying to help them to do that, when they’re kind of very motivated and they see the damage that smoking is doing. It’s different for something where you don’t really see the harms in it. And that’s why we’ve kind of taken this approach that’s less about, you know, ‘I want to take less drugs, here’s my goal, I’ll just, you know…. Can you imagine getting badges? Oh you didn’t take drugs this weekend. You know, it’s not really something… I don’t think anyone would appreciate that.

Anna Cox 

A streak of three clean days, or whatever.

Conor Linehan 

Yeah.  It would be so patronizing like, you know. Em, so, what we’ve done in that project is kind of go more to like drawing on actually psychological therapy, some techniques that were developed in the form of therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which is behaviour therapy.  It’s like cognitive behaviour therapy and mindfulness based stress reduction or any of those kind of behavioural therapies, which involves… So, what we’re doing involves asking people about their own values and then, like, asking them to reflect on how their behaviour aligns with those, and then giving them skills to apply back – kind of reflective decision making in moments when they are actually making decisions, so it’s kind of like an educational thing, I suppose.  It’s kind of skill building, and then now that you have the skill, look at how you can apply it in your own life.  But you could see how a similar approach could be effective, regardless of what the behaviour is, you know. I mean it was great that we got years and years to think this through. It was a very difficult problem.  The intervention exists now and we’re about to do a trial, which is great because it’s taken a long time to get there. But, I suppose, you know, you can see how it’s a very different approach. You know, it’s not always probably going to be necessary, and there will still be situations where just logging your behaviour, you know, and keeping an eye on it will be really useful, but I suppose in situations where maybe it’s kind of people are finding it more difficult, or don’t see the need for change, then that more kind of values based approach I think it probably is necessary.

Anna Cox 

So can you tell us a bit more about the intervention itself? So is it something where you sort of sit down and you work through this online programme, and you learn something?

Conor Linehan 

Yeah, so it’s it’s kind of – I hadn’t really imagined speaking about this at this length in this talk! But it’s great that you’re, you know, everyone’s gonna be delighted I’m promoting it. And so the project is called MyUse M-Y-U-S-A if you want to look at it. Yeah, so, it involves a website.  So it’s a website but it’s also an app depending on whether you’re on a laptop or on phone. At the start, it kind of screens you basically for, how often or frequently you,  that you take drugs, and it and it gives you a different experience based on whether you’re like, not taking them all, occasionally, or quite lot: it completely changes, what, what the intervention is depending on on your kind of scores on that Screening Questionnaire. So that in itself is quite nice because often problems don’t do that. You know, they assume like  the same kind of thing will work for everyone. And then at the start, there’s a chunk where it kind of aims, it kind of takes information from you, and then gives you feedback about it, kind of like a social norm, where it’s like, asks you for information about your own drug taking and it compares that with other people who’ve completed the survey, but also, you know, it’ll publish the information. And so the idea is that it gives you some context for your own behaviour, and then it goes on, and does these skill building activities that are based on Behaviour Therapy. So they involve videos and exercises where it asks you to kind of fill in information and it uses that information later on. So you might have to declare a goal, you’re one of, one of my goals is, you know, or I want to, you know, do well in college, I want to do, I want to, you know, make the first team for sports team.  And it uses them then to ask you later on how are your behaviours going to match up with that, and what, what can you do if a situation arises where you think that the behaviours that you’re engaging in maybe don’t match with your values. It doesn’t involve the kind of data and tracking of behaviour I suppose is the interesting thing, because we talked about that and we realised that it didn’t really make sense to do that. It’s not the kind of thing you would track every day, the vast majority of people do it the odd time, you know, every weekend. I’m not suggesting the vast majority people take drugs; the vast majority of people who take drugs do it at the weekend!

Anna Cox 

So it sounds like this intervention that you’ve created, could be adapted – or maybe it can be used just the way it is – for supporting people in adopting other health behaviours, whether that is increasing their physical activity or eating more healthily. Like this whole idea of thinking about, what are your goals and values and how does your habits, your lifestyle and your behaviour really support you achieving those? So, is it something that, that someone could just use for something else or would that require a bit of adaptation?

Conor Linehan 

I mean, I mean, technologically, you could adapt it quite easily, because the, the way it’s been built. Yeah, absolutely. But the problem is the content is very specialised and this is, this has to do with, you know, the behaviour change wheel process that we’ve gone through. It’s really identifying what’s likely to work as an intervention with this behaviour with this type of behaviour, given what we know about this behaviour. So it would require a little bit… so if you were going to change to healthier eating, I think there would be, you know, there’s different environmental or contextual cues that are going to cue you sticking to or not sticking to your goals in that kind of context. So a little bit of work I think probably might need to be done to find what the most appropriate possible behaviour change techniques would be for that particular behaviour. That’s, I mean that’s the thing that’s one of the things I really value about the whole process really is genuinely the amount of time it forces you to think about the behaviour, so not trying to just use the same process on every single behaviour because they will be different, and I suppose different stresses on people in relation to different behaviours.

Anna Cox 

So the general principle could be used or the kind of approach could be used to develop interventions, but then it’s a very… it’s kind of specific for the problem that you’ve been addressing?

Conor Linehan 

Yeah I mean I think the general idea of having it based on values amd looking at, you know, and the whole process of considering your values in relation to your behaviour, and then also like having that as a skill that you apply in the rest of your life, so that you can draw on that, whenever you think you’re making a bad decision. I think all that stuff is totally generalizable. And it does, it does feel like something more worthwhile than putting badges and points on things, and I think people could go away with it from that intervention, having learned something, not just today, drugs, but actually will be useful in a lot of different ways. If you give people skills to, I suppose, make decisions in a more considered way then that could have lots of rippling impacts on people’s lives and I think, I think those are the kinds of goals that it’s like with when we  we’re talking about exercise earlier, trying to encourage like a love for exercise, you know, and, and, you know, really you know attending to what you liked about the experience of exercising is that’s the kind of thing that’s going to generalise and actually encourage a change in behaviour in the longer term.

Anna Cox 

So it sounds like you, you know in your work, this engagement with really understanding people and using psychological theory to help you design interventions, it’s working really well for you. Like, it’s actually sort of ticked lots of boxes and pulling your interests together. And what are the things that make it really difficult to do that kind of research?

Conor Linehan 

Yeah, so, it’s about lots of things. It takes a lot of time to do that as well. And it genuinely is that my youth project has been going on for four years and we’ve had basically three full time researchers working on that full time. So you can imagine, it’s taken a lot of funding, you know, just be crass about it but a lot of time, a lot of money, a lot of work. There’s no kind of quick fix solution I suppose if, if you’re interested, but I suppose the benefit then is that, you know, we’re quite confident that it’s going to actually be useful so it’s not a gamble in the same way that many other things would be.  Like any sort of learning, it’s gonna cause discomfort, and so you need to kind of be set up in a way that you can deal with that in the research process. We have a clinical psychologist on the team, which is fantastic. One of the postdocs is a clinical psychologist, amazing does everything Bacillus is fantastic. I think it’d be very difficult to to do that kind of work, if you weren’t, if you didn’t have people from that background, because you’re putting participants in situations where, you know, maybe uncomfortable stuff is coming up and it needs a processes in place to deal with that, so that you’re not putting the researcher in a really awkward situation or you know kind of causing harm for the person and they go away thinking, ‘Oh, you’re just, you just, you know, you just raise things that I feel about myself that I’m not happy about, and then you just left me.’ An element of that is always going to be necessary if you’re actually trying to encourage that kind of long, like, actual change in behaviours. So, yeah, I think I think that’s the big challenge as well, is that actually, this idea of, we can change behaviour just with some free badges and and some points, and not having really big psychological impact on people, you know, it’s probably overly optimistic, you know, we’ve got… we are putting people in weird situations anyway.

Anna Cox 

In the work that you’ve done on the way to kind of creating this thing, you’ve obviously had to engage with prospective users of this kind of technology. And so I expecte that at some point you’ve asked them, sort of how they feel about having a piece of technology, facilitate this, where as it’s perhaps it’s the sort of situation that many people would expect that they might engage with a therapist about. So do people tend to be open to this idea of technology taking this role?

Conor Linehan 

They do and it’s because things are probably a bit better in the UK than they are in Ireland,  like our services are atrocious, so like if you’ve been really frustrated by the lack of services, then if something will be available to you tomorrow that you could actually access and might be helpful I think, yet people see the benefit in that. Now, they would prefer therapist maybe, but it’s just not going to be. It’s not, it’s not feasible, I suppose people are very open to the idea that, at least they get a service if we do it digitally and we do it well. I mean I think with some of these issues people who maybe they might avoid going to real world services as well and…

Anna Cox 

But I guess the flip side of it is that someone might be concerned that, you know, this computer system is gathering data about them and knowing stuff, not… both about their behaviour and about their innermost thoughts and values and so on. Do you think there are things we need to worry about there?

Conor Linehan 

See, I think we should be worried but the participants don’t seem to be as worried about it – they probably don’t understand enough about it and that’s why.  I mean like the way we build our system I didn’t have to worry about it.  It doesn’t log anything, it doesn’t log things in a way that’s in any way identifiable, but I think that’s a really good question in terms of like us as a university research group you can probably trust that we’re not doing something nefarious with data but if this was, if the same approach was then taken by a commercial company… And yeah I’d imagine that we should have concerns about especially the more personal this data becomes, the more maybe worried we should be about it.

Anna Cox 

We’re coming towards the end of our time, and I’m kind of curious as to how your research has impacted your own life.  Are there ways in which you made use of technology to keep yourself healthy, or are there perhaps skills or knowledge that you’ve come across, perhaps on this project you’ve been talking about, about how to change your own behaviour and that’s something that, that you use alot?

Conor Linehan 

(Laughs) I don’t use any. Maybe, maybe this is a natural consequence of really digging into, into, like how it worked and what the value is and stuff like that and maybe I just internalise all this stuff, in a way that like, I mean I, during the lockdown, I just got into this really weird habit where I just worked out in my sitting room every day. I don’t record anything, I’ve never, I’ve never tracked my runs, I’m not gonna say that I don’t think it’s valuable like I mean, like other people get value from it, but I, in my own life, even though I am a researcher on this topic, I don’t.

Anna Cox 

Is it just like you’re naturally quite motivated to, to engage in physical activity as an example, because you know how much you enjoy it?

Conor Linehan 

Yeah, I think, I think that’s the, that’s it and I’m probably kind of doing the thing about attending to the exercise as an enjoyable thing in itself rather than trying to have some sort of externalised motivation for it, so I don’t see the need for that externalised motivation.  On a longer timescale, through the reason why I exercise so much is because I play American football, and I love it so much that I’m like, that’s how much I love that game – that I’m willing to do all of this work, you know, so like that is a game encouraging me to exercise, it’s just not as highly technologically oriented. Like that game you just have to be in great shape or you get hurt. So that’s a really good motivation in itself! (Laughs.)

Anna Cox 

(Laughs.) Indeed. (Laughs.) Okay, so I think we’ll wrap it up there. So thanks very much.  It was a really interesting discussion. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you.

Conor Linehan 

Thanks Anna.  Yeah that was a very different discussion than I was expecting to be honest but it was, it was really interesting as well and I thought, you know, kind of, you made me think quite a lot there. Yeah, thanks for that.

Anna Cox

Thanks so much to Conor Linehan. You can find him @ConorLinehan on Twitter. And you can find a link to his website and access to the show notes for this episode on our website, eWorkLife.co.uk. And there you’ll also find more evidence based tips for using technology to support work and wellbeing, and also an opportunity to try out our new eWorkLife radio app.  I’d love to hear your feedback on this episode. You can find me on Twitter @AnnaCox_   If you enjoyed this episode. Please tell your friends. And you can also leave us a star rating and review wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks as always to our producer Clare Casson.

This episode was sponsored by the EPSRC GetAMoveOn Network.

Music by ScottHolmesMusic.com

Episode 3 – Joe Newbold: How can music help us to sit less, move more and be more productive?

Episode title:

eWorkLife: How can music help us to sit less, move more and be more productive? (Hint: there’s more to it than go-faster music in the gym.)  Prof Anna Cox in conversation with Dr Joe Newbold.

Episode description:

Professor Anna Cox talks to Dr Joe Newbold, an expert in Sonic Interaction Design, about how he’s managed to combine his passion for music with his curiosity about how we interact with technology. We talk about how we can take our expectations of how music unfolds, and what that means, to help us really focus on our work, or to be more active – in a way that’s much more subtle and sophisticated than just paying high-energy, go-faster music in a gym;  or to be still and really focus on our work. We also talk about how we can use the way music moves us to encourage people to take activity breaks when working and how we can use changes in rhythm to not so much interrupt work, but give people a better sense of time passing – so we don’t just get lost in work and end up sitting for hours on end.

Dr. Joe Newbold is a lecturer at Northumbria University and an expert in Sonic Interaction Design. His research explores how we can use audio interaction to encourage physical activity and wellbeing.  He’s published on how we can use musically informed sonification for facilitating progress in chronic pain rehabilitation and is currently researching whether a music app can help people to both concentrate on their work and take regular breaks.

Find out more about eWorkLife, including tips for managing your own wellbeing and work-life balance, on our website https://www.eworklife.co.uk/

Episode transcript and show-notes: https://www.eworklife.co.uk/podcast/

Follow us on twitter @_e_worklife and @annacox_

Show Notes: Season 1 Episode 3:  Dr Joseph Newbold

Find out more about Joe’s research:

Read Joe’s research publications

https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Joseph_Newbold

Watch Joe’s video about his research into how we can use music to help us move more

Music moves us physically as well as emotionally. It can also help us to concentrate. So how can we harness these aspects of music and optimise them using technology, in a way that will encourage us to get up and move more when working, yet at the same time enable us to remain productive?

Visit Joe’s website

https://jwnewbold.com/

Follow Joe on twitter:

@joemaybe

Credits

Music by ScottHolmesMusic.com

Producer: Clare Casson

eWorklife podcast Season 1 Episode 3

Transcript of interview with Joe Newbold

Anna Cox

Welcome to a new episode of the eWorkLife podcast where we talk about productivity, wellbeing, and work life balance. We talk to scientists and others who can help us make the most of our technology to get our work done, to keep connected to others, and to support our health and wellbeing. I’m Anna Cox, Professor of Human Computer Interaction at UCL, in London, and your host for this episode.

In today’s episode, I’ll be talking to Dr. Joe Newbold, an expert in Sonic Interaction Design, about how he’s managed to combine his passion for music with his curiosity about how we interact with technology. But before that, let’s listen to some top tips for surviving life in the digital age from some of our other guests.

Ann Blandford 

I’m Ann Blanford, a professor of human computer interaction at University College London. My top tip for using technology to get the best out of life is to reflect on what really matters to you, and experiment with tools that might help you, but also to work out how to fit them comfortably into your life, and not to expect instant results, because it takes time.

David Ellis 

So I’m David Ellis, associate professor at University of Bath. My top tip for using technology to be your best at work, is to make sure you’re using the right technology. If it isn’t helpful, use it less. If there’s a gap, explore what’s available. If what you want isn’t there, build it.

Anna Cox

Now to today’s guest, Dr. Joe Newbold is a lecturer at Northumbria University and an expert in Sonic Interaction Design. His research explores how we can use audio interaction to encourage physical activity and wellbeing.  He’s published on how we can use musically informed sonification for facilitating progress in chronic pain rehabilitation. We talk about how we can take our expectations of how music unfolds, and what that means, and remap it onto something else, in a way that’s much more subtle and sophisticated than just paying high-energy, go-faster music in a gym. We also talk about how we can use the way music moves us to encourage people to take activity breaks when working and how we can use changes in rhythm to not so much interrupt work, but give people a better sense of time passing. So we don’t just get lost in work and end up sitting for hours on end; or to create expectations of a break, which may trigger us to actually take a break. So let’s get straight into it. Here’s my conversation with Dr. Joe Newbold. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, Joe.

Joe Newbold 

Thank you for having me.

 Anna Cox 

So I know that you started your university education by studying, electronic engineering with music technology systems and that you did that at the University of York. So, what got you interested in that degree and what made you choose that to start with?

Joe Newbold 

I think definitely I’ve always had an interest in music, it wasn’t something I pursued academically for a long time. It was more of a personal interest but then, yeah, it came time to choose what I wanted to do, and obviously the, the engineering side in computing has is always been an interest of mine. But yeah, looking for something where I could incorporate my kind of love of music and, and the idea of merging those two together and having you know the, the technical and digital sides of computing and how that might play into to my kind of love of music and more creative stuff. But yeah, I didn’t… I think I didn’t really consider when I started that the interplay the other way round, which is probably where I’m more interested in now, is how we can learn from our creative interests and bring those into our more digital lives.

 Anna Cox 

Okay. So, when you chose it, what was it that interested you? Was it like, how can we use tech to make music?

Joe Newbold 

Yeah, I think if I’m being very honest it was, how can I do some kind of engineering or computer degree but also get to bunk off and do music at the same time, and it was only throughout my time at York that I started being interested in learning about different audio techniques, recording techniques. And through that, kind of becoming more and more interested in stuff like sonification and audio interfaces through my time there –  which is what then led me into my PhD,  where I started to become more acquainted with areas of human computer interaction and how the way we listen and understand music might play into that.

 Anna Cox 

And what kind of careers does that degree, normally lead to?

Joe Newbold 

Yeah, that’s a good question. So, I know there’s a lot of people who work in er game audio deciding audio for games. Some people try and go to films.

 Anna Cox 

And they’re like composers?

Joe Newbold 

Yeah, composers, or audio engineers that kind of thing, as well as a bunch of, you know, engineers who have very good signal processing skills

 Anna Cox 

And had you thought about where it might take you?

Joe Newbold 

Yeah, I thought I would be more one of those engineers who, you know, had some good knowledge of music. I think I always wanted to do something where I could still have some aspect of music in in my day to day life.  I think it’s such a powerful part of what being a person is about,  is being able to enjoy those creative endeavours. I think I never thought it would be so closely paired with with what I do on a day to day.

 Anna Cox 

So, how did you end up thinking that you might choose an academic career and go and do a PhD?

Joe Newbold 

Yes, so it was kind of through my first contact with audio interfaces. It was it through a series of lectures that… in which I missed the first one, so that is that is the real stroke of luck there, is catching up on that lecture, and it started to really catch my eye and needless to say, I went to all the ones for that series afterwards. And yeah from that I started to really think about more how kind of everything we know about music and understand it and the way we use it in our personal lives to, you know, cheer ourselves up, to get ourselves dancing, to share with other people. How could we bring that into the way we interact with technology day to day – which predominantly is something that’s done a lot more visually and tactilely: we click clack on keyboards and we look around on our desktops, but that we have such a rich, shared understanding of what musical elements mean, of different pitches and tones and progressions, was really started to interest me and pulled me into academic career. When  I started my PhD in UCL was thinking more, how can we share that understanding of music with how we interact with technology and really building sound feedback for, in the first case, physical activity.

 Anna Cox 

So when you say that kind of a shared understanding of music. What do you mean and does everybody have understand music or experience music in the same way? Because I guess I kind of think there’s a lot of difference between what music I might like and what music someone else might like.

Joe Newbold 

Yeah, sure. I wouldn’t dare say everyone experiences music in the same way. But yeah, and certainly through different cultures musical structures mean different things as well, but certainly within a culture, even though we might not make the same kind of music and maybe someone might have a better vocabulary for describing what the different parts of what makes a piece of music up, the majority of people who listen to music on a day to day basis, through the radio or more likely now through their Spotify accounts or whatever, understand what composers are saying in music. And what I mean by that is, there are these shared feelings of resolution and tension. Certain rhythms mean things. If we hear, say, a major key it sounds happy, something in a minor key, it sounds sad.

Anna Cox 

Tell me what you mean by resolution and tension.

Joe Newbold 

Yes, so you know we hear it all the time in the build up to choruses that there’s a sense of building tension, an anticipatio as, you know, the composer or the musician is building up to what we know is going to happen. And then when they finally reach that, that’s what we call the resolution and it’s where you get those… certain songs you get a very nice fulfilling end, and it sounds like they hit that final chord and you go boom, that’s the end of that song.  Where some artists – and this is the kind of joy of composing – I think is playing around with these expectations. You leave it a little bit unfinished and that’s where those little elements of tension or confusion, come from.

 Anna Cox 

I never thought before about how when you’re listening to music, sometimes you know what’s supposed to happen next.

Joe Newbold 

It’s all a series of little, you know hints that throughout the song of where it’s going to go. And the really exciting bits and the bits that you can pick up people’s ears, or the really nice bits which make you feel really content are all either those expectations being defined, or met. Sometimes you might, so we’ll finish in a really weird place and you’ll see a bunch of people sat in a cafe or whatever, whereas play will perk up and look around and see, it’s because that they even if they weren’t listening to it as a primary activity that anticipation and expectation is still there.

 Anna Cox 

So how would you use to be this kind of knowledge about music, to think about technology and physical activity?

Joe Newbold 

Yes, so building kind of on that idea that these expectations of music are kind of core to how we listen to it and experience it. What I was really interested in, the core I think of my PhD work, was how could we then remap that on to another thing. In that case it was physical activity though for general well being as well and for rehabilitation. Because we also have, you know, we have a set of expectations for our exercise when we try and do a new exercise or when we’re trying to improve the expectation of what we can do. And it’s often the setting, and you know meeting or not, of that expectation that determines whether we feel that we are good at that thing, which in turn will determine if we’re going to keep doing it. If I think I should be able to do hundred squats right now, that’s a very high expectation to meet, I probably wouldn’t meet it. And then I’m probably never going to try to do 100 squats again, whereas if we can develop these expectations and build on them, we might have a better chance of maintaining regular physical activity and also not punishing ourselves too much for that lack of progression. So what we were really interested is in sonification, which is the turning of data into a sound of some kind, and looking at tracking the movements people are doing:  when they’re doing certain movement via squats or stretches, getting them to set the kind of parameters for their goal of where they want to go, how deep you want to squat, how far you want to stretch, and using a musical feedback.  So as you move, it would play some music to represent your movement. If we could embed the tensions and resolutions I was talking about in music before, could we encourage you to go a little bit further, or could we make you feel that sense of resolution and contentment, and really reward through the music? So as you reach a certain point, you’d hear that nice resolution of the music, and through that you would think, oh, that was good, I reached the end, not only of the music that you were listening to, but to the movement you just did.

 Anna Cox 

Okay, so I suppose in a lot of exercise classes, like, trainers will put music on, but I don’t know to what extent that music is… like, what the relationship is, I suppose, between what that music is and what they’re really trying to get people to do.

Joe Newbold 

If you think about that, you know, very stereotypical music you could think of in a gym, or the kind of things people put on running play lists, they’ve got a set tempo. And that is largely… it’s partly to do with it another kind of aspect of how we listen to music, which is we like to sync up to it. So, you know if music is playing in the background, you might start bobbing your head to a certain rhythm or tapping your foot, but also when we’re running we like to listen to music that will fit our running cadence, will fit our rhythm. So the music that is chosen in those classes is chosen to meet those expectations and maybe push them a little bit as well, so not have something that’s too slow or too easy for people.  You’ve got to have something that is a steady and reasonably paced rhythm, for all the people taking part in the class. And also have something that is very uplifting in itself. And that’s more the emotional side, where I think a lot of the, you know, there’s these practical benefits or illusions we’re trying to do with the music. One of the more pragmatic aspects of it is that it’s nice to do stuff with music played so there’s an enjoyment factor that comes both with music in the gym and in these sonifications we’re talking about, where people get a sense that they’re doing something creative as well, which is what it’s all about for me.

 Anna Cox 

And so, in the work you were doing, you were trying to see how you can make it… because you talked about how you’re turning movement into sound or data into sound. So were you trying to make the sound adaptive to the person’s capabilities then?

Joe Newbold

Yeah, so, a key concept that I would say within that work is that it’s completely driven by the individual’s movement.  So how we work is we would get a smartphone and using the kind of sensors in the smartphone we would measure the angle of the movement they were doing that is calibrated to the individual, to the movement they can do and is comfortable for them. And then, as they move through the angles that they have set up, it will play the next chord in in the sequence. So the next musical set of notes will play. So, say you’ve set a range of, you know, 40 degrees, as you move 10 degrees the first note will play, the next 20 degrees, we’ll move on to the next note, and so on till you reach that end point, at which point, that’s where we start to do our musical mischief almost, where it will either sound like you have reached the end and you get that nice reward, or we leave it a little bit tense – which we found in the series of studies we did, does encourage people to feel like they really want to push further because they want to reach that resolution and meet that expectation.

Anna Cox 

So as they were kind of listening to the sounds, they were thinking, “Oh there’s an expectation that I do more” and so they would, because the sound didn’t seem to have resolved.

Joe Newbold 

Exactly. And it’s that bringing together… it’s kind of interweaving those expectations of the movement in the music so it’s not even a conscious thought that, oh I want to reach that resolution of the music. We saw, even in the physical measures – so measuring the amount of movement people do instinctively – people kept on moving because they felt even though they had reached the end of what they said they wanted to do, they wanted to keep going. They felt there is an expectation to keep going because the sound hadn’t resolved. So therefore, in the moment, you feel your movement hasn’t resolved, you haven’t reached the end of what you’re going to do.

 Anna Cox 

So more recently, you’ve been looking at how we can use music when people are working in offices or, well, I guess, or doing desk-based work seeing as people are working less in offices now, do you want to tell us about that a bit?

Joe Newbold 

Yes, so in lot of ways it builds off of that work, but looking a lot more long term, so rather than thinking of your activity when you’re, you know, doing some exercise or doing some stretches, how might we encourage activity throughout the day? So one thing we know about people doing office based or desk based work is that they spend a lot of time sitting down, kind of at their desks doing their work. And it’s really important to break that sitting up with frequent activity breaks. So thinking again to that kind of the way music moves us, and the expectation we have to meet different kinds of music. One of the things I’m looking at now is, how can we use music which is also used to help us focus and concentrate. If we’re getting distracted by people chatting around us, moving around the house, knocking on doors, we might put on some music to help us kind of get in the zone. But one of the things I’m looking at now in my research is, how can we adjust that music in a similar way to the kind of changes I was making in the other type, to encourage you to get up and move around every so often, by increasing those elements of the music that make us feel like we want to get moving.

 Anna Cox 

When I think of people listening to music while they’re working,  I often think of young people, right. So, at school or university, and they’re supposed to be revising for something, and they’ve got their headphones on and most likely – and maybe this is totally wrong and this is just what happened when I was growing up –  but most likely I think their parents say to them, “You can’t possibly be concentrating whilst you’re listening to that”, who’s right? Because always the teenagers say, “No, no, that helps me to work”. So who’s right in that situation?

Joe Newbold 

There’s a lot of different factors and it really depends as well on what barrier you’re trying to overcome to help you focus. For a lot of people it is there’s external noises or other distractions, in which case, some sound can be good, especially very calm music with not a lot of changes in it: it helps us to drown out all the sounds that keep changing in our environment; it keeps the soundscape around us a bit more stable, and we’re not distracted by pots clanging or people moving behind us. Another aspect of it – and this is where you find a lot of people who are listening to, you know, more of their pop hits albums or big sing along things, is the internal distractions that we feel.  So especially I think for your example of people revising, it can get pretty boring, and that’s when the mind starts to wander and we start to move off into other things, so bringing in music there as an intentional distraction. Somewhat bizarrely actually helps get us to focus because we’re distracting that part of our brain that wants to go off and not do revision anymore; that’s getting entertained a little bit while we do this, by listening to the music, so that allows us to keep focus for a longer period of time on the piece of work we’re doing. And it does depend on the kind of work you’re doing, the kind of  individual, how, how distractible you are. But yeah, those are the two key uses of music generally through the workplace.

 Anna Cox 

(Interrupting) Sorry – you said that you might need to choose like calm music. Does that mean it needs to be like some kind of lullaby type thing?

Joe Newbold 

Again it’s yeah it’s very dependent on the individual. I know a lot of people who like, kind of, plinky plonky piano music that that doesn’t do a lot, doesn’t move very much, there’s not a lot of variability – or “energy” would be the term we would use kind of musically for it. And for other people that’s too far the other way and it is going to lead to them very being very bored or even some people they find it helps them doze off a bit, so probably not what you want when you’re working. Other people, they’re looking for just something that doesn’t have a lot of changes, stays pretty constant throughout. Maybe some, you know, Techno – something very repetitive that you can learn the changes of. LoFi beats is a very popular genre now which is kind of this instrumental music that has very subtle changes but a very steady drumbeat that kind of gets you into that rhythm. One thing, generally if you’re trying to focus on very complex work or things where you have to do a lot of comprehension, it’s generally a good idea to avoid stuff with words in it. Words are one of the biggest distractors for people working, but it’s also one of the things that can keep us the most entertained. So, if you are looking for that motivational aspect of work, sometimes it’s a good idea, and you’ve really got to choose it based on how you’re feeling, the time of the day, the task you’re doing. It’s something that changes a lot. And one of the things is adapting to those needs, and adding this third need of getting you moving around as well. So how can we almost trigger that instinct to get up and have a bit of a boogie or a bit of a stretch, whatever it is.

 Anna Cox 

So, do you think people can are good at choosing the right kind of music for the right kind of task?

Joe Newbold 

I think generally people are pretty good because it becomes very apparent to people, I think, quickly, if you’re trying to do a bit of work, if something is too distracting, or not distracting enough. In some of the initial studies we’ve done in in prior work in this area, we’ve seen the motivations for why people choose music, and it does tend to be on that mood by mood basis that they’d like to switch it up. Whether those choices are always going to give the best outcomes, I think it’s impossible to know, but I think getting people to perceive that they’ve got the right balance is good enough –  if people feel like they’re focused and they’re being productive. That will be probably a good enough measure for them to be able to complete their work. And yeah, we see very quickly that people are willing to change if something comes on that they either don’t like or is very distracting,  they’ll switch it off for something else, or if something is too dull and they need something a bit more high energy. You see a lot people with with playlists to that effect, they can put on my Friday afternoon playlist or my morning jams playlist that kind of thing.

 Anna Cox 

So it’s not that people are likely to have like a generic work playlist but that they might choose specific playlists, depending on the kind of work they’re going to do because then they can kind of intuitively know what sort of music they need to help them get to this next task that they’re doing?

Joe Newbold 

Yeah, some people do have these different kind of “boxes” of music, they’ll go to. Sometimes people have the more generic work playlist of music they like. And we’ll just do it on a song by song basis so a song comes on that’s too distracting you’ll just skip that one. But I think for a lot of people it’s more reactive than that. So you’ll start doing a piece of work with maybe no music, realise you’re not getting anything done, put some music on, and then be able to focus a bit better; or you’re really struggling to get any of this work done, so you turn all your music off and just focus on what you’re doing. So I think, while people are able to do it, I don’t think they’re able to forecast it as well as maybe they would like. Some people definitely do it and they know – especially I think if you have a more stable kind of work tasks, that you know what you’re going to be doing and the kind of concentration that requires you can probably learn that. But I think for a lot of people they have to play it by ear, as well.

 Anna Cox 

Like depending on how variable their work is I guess. And so you said that you’re interested now in how you might be able to also use music to get people to take physical activity breaks. So how do you imagine that to work?

Joe Newbold 

Yeah, so I’d say it’s a tricky thing because focus and concentration is such a fragile thing that it’s really important I think not to disrupt it even for something so important as kind of staying active and being healthy. What we kind of know,  what I’m sure we can all attest to, is things that interrupt us when we’re really concentrated are very annoying! So any technology that you introduce that’s going to help encourage these breaks has to be cognizant of people’s concentration and respectful of  their work. So the idea for the music is that – similar to that kind of ear pricking example we were talking about before, in the cafe where that music where the music suddenly changes and everyone sits up a little bit and looks around. If you’re deep in a conversation or you’re in the middle of reading a good book, you’re probably not going to drop everything and go attend to what’s going on with this music because it is, in the grand scheme of things, a very subtle change, but the hope is that, through those changes in music we can give people a better sense of time than they get currently. I think a big problem with focus and concentration is time getting away from people, and suddenly it’s been four hours and you’ve not looked away from your screen. If we can use those changes in the music –  not to out and out disrupt people and say hey you stop what you’re doing right now you’ve got to you’ve got to pay attention to me –  but give them those kind of almost peripheral interruptions, where you maybe take a little note that something has changed, but it’s not too disrupting, you can finish what you’re doing. And then maybe by the time you finish that thought, go, “The music has changed, it must be break time I’m going to get up and move around”.

 Anna Cox 

So, you were talking earlier about this idea of resolution in music. Do you think that if you’re listening to music and you have that kind of thing in the sound,  that it might influence your feelings towards your work and that you might feel like, “Oh I’m coming to a break bit now”, because the sound has kind of brought that?

Joe Newbold 

Definitely I think, thinking about that in a longer scale it’s definitely a possibility to get people to learn those expectations. I think it’s tricky because going back to the sonification work I did, the expectation we’re talking is on a very small scale, where the language is quite simple. So if I play a piano scale that goes da, da, da, da, you kind of know where that’s going. That’s easier to do. With thinking about work, which is typically for throughout a whole day, the time flows we’re talking about are a lot different, but I think definitely creating those expectations of, “Oh this is where I’m coming up to a break”, or even when the break has happened, the expectation, “Oh that music has changed” you think “Oh, something’s different here, this isn’t what I expected it to continue on” in my “focus” brain, and that has triggered me to think that maybe something else is going on, and what we’re hoping is that people will get active and stretch up a bit, maybe walk around, get a cup of tea, and all that good stuff.

 Anna Cox 

Yeah, it sounds really interesting. Do you use music in this way, when you’re working?

Joe Newbold 

Yeah (laughs), I use music in a lot of different ways. Typically, I’m one of those persons who gets very internally distracted, so I do listen to a lot of singing and I’m one of the people who can’t do anything without some music on. So I need at least something, and typically I go for those higher energy ones but I do, especially now while we’re working remotely and maybe those external distractions to get us moving or removed, I definitely have to put on some more dancing music and maybe have a little jaunt around the kitchen while my tea is brewing, to get that movement in during the day.

 Anna Cox 

That sounds like a really good idea. And do you use it as well when you’re trying to be physically active? Like have you thought about how you use music yourself to encourage yourself to go running or something?

Joe Newbold 

Yeah. So again, that’s something where I personally, I have dedicated playlists or songs that are there to get me in the mood for certain activities, and it’s again it’s partly that linked expectation so when I hear this song, I know this is time to get up and get moving song, or this is the song I play when I’m really working to a tight deadline and I need to push through. Or building those kind of expectations from scratch, using kind of the music that I listen to, and yet you’re definitely using it for different kinds of routines. And similarly, I think, for switching off as well. So, more recently I started having music that I listened to for non work activities. So if I can, you know, do some doodling or reading a book or relaxing, I have some music that that’s picked up for that as well.

 Anna Cox 

So, that’s kind of like a really interesting idea for people. When lots of people have been talking about how when they’re working from home, they’re finding it difficult to switch off from work because they’re doing everything in one place, but you’re using certain bits of music to kind of signal to yourself this is a not a non work time now. This is a relaxing time.

Joe Newbold 

It’s very difficult to bring those differences to bear especially when it’s all in the same place, so I spend most of my working day here at this desk.  I spend a lot of my free time here as well because I’m interacting with all my friends and family online. So yeah, having some things to signal to me that there’s been a change of state, a lot of times for me that is that is music. It’s, you know, whether I’m wearing a shirt or a T shirt, it’s all these different things that you can use, I think, even if you’re not able to distinguish physically that you’re at home or at work. I think having these other aspects to help with that transition I think is really important.

 Anna Cox 

Wow, thanks for that because I think you’ve given people some really interesting ideas about how they might be able to use music to help them in all these different types of different areas of their life to achieve these different outcomes, and it’s been interesting hearing your ideas about how we can embed this in technology as well as solutions to help people. So, thanks a lot for joining me.

Joe Newbold 

Well, thank you. I hope people go away and think about what music they want to listen to now.

Anna Cox 

Thanks so much to Dr. Joe Newbold. You can find him @JoeMaybe on Twitter. You can find a link to his website and access to the show notes for this episode on our website, eWorkLife.co.uk where you can also find more evidence-based tips on using technology to support work and wellbeing. I’d love to hear your feedback on this episode. You can find me on Twitter @AnnaCox_  If you enjoyed this episode, please tell your friends, and you can also leave us a star rating and review wherever you get your podcasts.  Thanks as always to producer Clare Casson. This episode was sponsored by the EPSRC GetAMoveOn Network.  Music by ScottHolmesMusic.com 

 

Credits

Music by ScottHolmesMusic.com

Episode 2 – Paulina Bondaronek: There are over 300,000 health apps available so why aren’t we all much fitter?

Episode title:

There are over 300,000 health apps available so why aren’t we all much fitter?  Prof Anna Cox in conversation with Dr Paulina Bondaronek.

Episode description:

Prof Anna Cox talks to Dr Paulina Bondaronek, an expert in behaviour change technology about her journey to studying psychology at university, how her father’s disabilities sparked her interest in health psychology, and how she dealt with her own mental health struggles during her PhD.  They also discuss her research on behaviour change technology which has shed light on how apps that are supposed to help us stay physically active, often fail. It’s a good question: when there are over 300,000 health apps available, why aren’t we all much fitter?

Dr Paulina Bondaronek is an expert in behaviour change technology, and is currently a behavioural insights advisor at Public Health England. Her PhD was on the public health potential of mobile health applications to increase activity, and she’s published on the relationship between popularity, and the likely efficacy of physical activity apps.

Find out more about eWorkLife, including tips for managing your own wellbeing and work-life balance, on our website https://www.eworklife.co.uk/

Episode transcript and show-notes: https://www.eworklife.co.uk/podcast/

Follow us on twitter @_e_worklife and @annacox_

Show Notes: Season 1 Episode 2:  Dr Paulina Bondaronek

In this episode:

Dr Paulina Bondaronek is an expert in behaviour change technology, and is currently a Behavioural Insights Advisor at Public Health England. Her PhD was on the public health potential of mobile applications to increase physical activity, and she’s published on the relationship between popularity and the likely efficacy of physical activity apps. In today’s episode, we talk about her journey to studying psychology at university, and how her father’s illness and disability sparked her interest in health psychology. We also talk about how she dealt with her own mental health struggles during her PhD, and how her research on behaviour change technology has shed light on how apps are supposed to help us stay physically active often fail –  and in the words of one of her participants, end up making us feel like physical activity is a bit like masturbation.

Find out more about Paulina’s research

Read Paulina’s research publications

https://www.researchgate.net/scientific-contributions/Paulina-Bondaronek-2130175648

Watch Paulina’s video on her research into health apps

Choosing an app to help you get fit can feel a bit overwhelming. No wonder – there are over 300,000 to choose from! So where do you begin? Should you ask your doctor? They’re probably as confused as you are, and the best-known apps aren’t necessarily the best in terms of helping you to actually change your health habits. Paulina Bondaronek, a researcher from UCL and GetAMoveOn fellow, has been investigating what makes apps easy to use and more likely to help you get fit, so you can find the right app for you.

Practical guidance on evaluating digital health products

Developed by Dr Paulina Bondaronek and Dr Henry Potts from UCL in collaboration with Public Health England: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/evaluating-digital-health-products

Connect with Paulina on LinkedIn

https://www.linkedin.com/in/paulina-bondaronek-bb88b32b/?originalSubdomain=uk

Follow Paulina on twitter

@paulinabond1

Credits

Music by ScottHolmesMusic.com

Producer: Clare Casson

eWorkLife Podcast Season 1 Episode 2

Transcript of interview with Dr Paulina Bondaronek

Prof Anna Cox

Hello and welcome to a new episode of eWorkLife, the podcast where we talk about productivity, wellbeing and work life balance. We talk to scientists and others who can help us make the most of our technology to get our work done, to keep connected to others, and to support our health and wellbeing.  I’m Anna Cox, Professor of Human Computer Interaction at UCL in London, and your host for this episode.

In today’s episode, I’ll be talking to Dr Paulina Bondaronek, an expert in behaviour change technology, about how her father’s disabilities sparked her interest in health psychology, how she dealt with her own mental health struggles during her PhD, and why, when there are over 300,000 health apps available, we aren’t all much fitter. But before that, let’s listen to some top tips for surviving life in the digital age from some of our other guests.

Joe Newbold

I’m Joe Newbold, a lecturer at Northumbria University, and my top tip for surviving life in the digital age, is to create different playlists for different parts of your life, so that you’ve got one for getting up in the morning, one for exercising, one for relaxing, one for cooking dinner and one foot working.

Conor Linehan

I’m Conor Linehan, a senior lecturer in Applied Psychology at University College, Cork. My top tip for using technology to get the best out of life is to be very careful when using apps to set new rules for our behaviour. Research tells us that following rules is very satisfying and rewarding, and can stop us thinking about whether the rule really works for us.  Moreover, breaking the ruel can be very stressful.

Prof Anna Cox 

Now to today’s guest. Dr Paulina Bondaronek is an expert in behaviour change technology, and is currently a behavioural insights advisor at Public Health England. Her PhD was on the public health potential of mobile health applications to increase activity, and she’s published on the relationship between popularity, and the likely efficacy of physical activity apps.

In today’s episode, we talk about her journey to studying psychology at university, and how her father’s illness and disability sparked her interest in health psychology. We also talk about how she dealt with her own mental health struggles during her PhD, and how her research on behaviour change technology has shed light on how apps that are supposed to help us stay physically active, often fail. And in the words of one of her participants, they often end up making us feel that physical activity is a bit like masturbation. So let’s get straight into it. Here’s my conversation with Dr Paulina Bondaronek. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me Paulina.

Dr Paulina Bondaronek 

Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Prof Anna Cox 

So I wanted to start our conversation by kind of talking to you about how you created this interesting career that you have. So I know you started your university education by studying psychology. So what was it that got you interested in that in the first place?

Dr Paulina Bondaronek 

I think, first of all, I studied three times and only the third undergraduate I finished. And the learning (indistinguishable). I studied in Poland to become an English teacher. And then I studied in Warsaw to become, well, that was social psychology in English, it was the first course in Poland. And that I haven’t finished either, just because I loved London so much and wanted to be here. And the third course was psychology. And I think it took me a while because I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. And I still say – I’m 37 now – I’m not quite sure what I want to do when I grow up. But for those people who are still not sure, I think this is such a, it’s such a nice, comforting thing to know. But, um, so, psychology.  Well I think I was always interested in how the mind works. But also, I grew up with a father who was on a wheelchair, he stopped walking from one day to another, I was at the age of 14 now. And that was looking how he would adjust to long term condition like this not being able to walk for seven years before he passed. And I saw how little support there were for the social psychology, of adjusting to long term condition to make it easy for the person. So I think this was just helped me to ingrain this kind of psychology in me, to be motivated to be more interested in these issues.

Prof Anna Cox 

Okay, but it must have been really hard for, I guess, not just for your father, but also for other members of your family.

Dr Paulina Bondaronek 

Watching him have to deal with this. It was incredibly hard, but I think, well, we not that’s the other thing… I think the second motivator was just to get to know myself a little bit because it’s you wanted to work one on one. And this was the exciting bit that you see in the films. And then it turned out that it wasn’t so…  not maybe so interesting altogether. When I did the module in health psychology, I realised OK, this is it. I love this about healthy behaviours, this is about long term management of (indistinguishable) conditions. And that was the exciting bit for me that I associated myself with, and with growing up with my father being a little disabled in his (indistinguishable).

Prof Anna Cox 

And so you then went on to do a master’s in health psychology. And, and after that, you worked at the UCL School of Pharmacy, and on a couple of projects, looking at adherence to medication before starting a PhD and perhaps, you know, what led you ultimately to your PhD topic.

Dr Paulina Bondaronek 

During my undergrad when I did my health psychology module, I realised I just want to do research. I just… this is… this gives you such freedom. I just love this and just having just one topic and expanding it and expanding yourself was amazing. So this was a good thing that I realised I want to do something. I got first class honours. And then I got distinction from my Health Psychology, I thought the world is open. I can go… I’m just gonna get any job I want. And obviously that wasn’t the case at all. So actually, before I got the research assistant post, I was working in a lot of sort of social support worker roles with people with mental health disabilities, and then I managed to get a job in charity Mind, just like a temporary job. And I mean, I’m, I always wanted to be a research assistant because that was the next stage. To get university to PhD, I knew I needed more experience. So this was actually any sort of health psychology work, I was so open to it. And it didn’t matter what kind of topic it was. So it wasn’t like I really wanted to do this or that, I just wanted to be at University and just throw stuff at me, so I can do some research, gather data, write papers. I just needed more experience. So that was it. And I think… I think that was that, if that answers the question.

Prof Anna Cox 

Okay. Yeah. And so, um, alongside doing your PhD research, you also started working at Public Health England. So how did that opportunity come about?

Dr Paulina Bondaronek 

So this is through the Research Councils – give this kind of opportunity that you could choose a place. There’s so many different places, I mean, government, these are governmental institutions, and you can apply your skills to actually do some stuff, to use your skills in a governmental institution or in public health institution. And I always wanted to do something in Behavioural Insights, because I heard about behaviour science. What… about behaviour insights more, so applying what we know about behaviour science, to public health issues. So this was this opportunity where you could take three months off from your PhD, officially, if you are funded by Research Council, and I did this internship.  I took an opportunity. I had an interview, they liked me, they took me on. And then after three months, they asked me to extend which actually was possible. And so I did it part time, and then they I got employed, and I’m still there.

Prof Anna Cox 

Okay. And I guess, you know, that kind of public health message and the importance of understanding behavioural science seems super topical right now. So there’s been, you know, lots of talk in the media over the last few months about whether the government is following the science and in coming up with its COVID measures. And also, I think we’ve had a number of scientists talking about how we can use behavioural science to help us I guess, help people to keep themselves safe. So those are the sorts of things that you’ve been looking at whilst working there.

Dr Paulina Bondaronek 

Yes recently – and there’s more of things are put on hold because of COVID. And we just saw them as priority. So the recent work I’ve been doing is looking at the contact tracing system of Public Health England, to analyse the feedback, the customer feedback data. So the qualitative stuff that’s there, following the service completion and looking into sort of what’s, what are the themes, what people have problems with to try to make the service better. And so use some, you know, just use semantic analysis, see, what are the issues. So this is more, I mean, this doesn’t… it’s not strictly behaviour, science, sort of feedback data, how can we improve the service, but this is still extremely interesting in terms of what kind of issues people have with the system. But, what I was working on… so for example, so a good example would be a bit of strategy behaviour analysis. So this is something we use to improve interventions that are nationally available. So for example, the one I’ve done is antimicrobial resistance, and I was involved in the project. So, the target behaviour is to decrease antibiotic prescribing in primary care. So, what we will do in the first stage is we would identify the behaviour and then look at the influences on that behaviour – so the barrier and facilitators to decreasing antibiotic prescribing in primary care. And then we would look at the interventions that are already there, implemented, to see if they target those influences on the behaviour. And then again, are the gaps there that we could potentially target. So, for example, if we see that all the interventions that are nationally available target knowledge of the GPs, because its okay, but that might not be the best way, if it shows that the impact – that the influences – are more environmental rather than knowledge base. So an example of environmental will be the lack of time. That’s a big one, right, especially for general practitioner. But if we target their knowledge, how likely it is to change the behaviour? Quite unlikely.

Prof Anna Cox 

If the reason that they’re prescribing is because they’ve got a lack of time, and that’s the thing that’s driving them to make that decision?

Dr Paulina Bondaronek 

Yeah.

Prof Anna Cox 

Okay. So it sounds as though working there, you’ve got to use… you’ve got to… you’ve had the opportunity to think about how to design behaviour interventions, behaviour change interventions, and now you’re looking very much at designing digital services. Is that right?

Dr Paulina Bondaronek 

Hmm, mmm. I improved digital service. Yes, yes – even sorts of work that we wouldn’t…that’s the thing I like about working in such an issue, you work with so many different projects. So most of this is not designing anything new, but providing some recommendations. So looking at the landscape and making it… trying to make it better. But yes, I’ve been involved in work where we tried to design interventions from scratch as well. Or, actually, yes, so there’s less of that actually, we’re doing more in academia, it’s more looking at the interventions that are already there and trying to improve them, I guess, and see, where should we focus now. 

Prof Anna Cox 

Okay, yeah, it sounds really interesting, and that you’ve had the opportunity to successfully combine today working in the academic world, and doing academic research, with also this opportunity to work in Public Health England, and like, apply what you know, to real problems that influence everyone in their everyday life. And one of the things this makes me think about is that for most people, when they’re doing their PhD, just doing that on its own is hard enough. So I wondered like, how, how did you manage to do both, to fit both alongside each other.

Dr Paulina Bondaronek 

So technically, the nice thing about this internship is that you get those three months off your PhD, and you still get paid your studentship. But what I have done – I timed it well – so I was recruiting for my trial. So I’ve done a trial for my PhD, assessing physical activity apps. So I would be in the office in the morning until 5pm. And then I will run around and recruit people. And that was perfect for me, because actually gave me a little bit of anxiety relieving thing, because it took me seven months to work out what I’m doing for my PhD. And that was extremely stressful for me. And I was just not good enough for my expectations. So actually, this bought me some time, so I could run around London and recruit people and run a trial during that. So to answer your question, actually, you’re supposed to take those three months off and refresh yourself – leave your PhD – but I don’t know how many people do that. Is it even possible to leave your PhD for three months? I doubt that. But I think I managed it very well. I was absolutely exhausted at the end of that because I was running a trial and doing a full time job. But I’m so used to it, I used to just you know, I had to support myself in London, and I was a waitress for eight years whilst I was studying and sometimes I was full time studying and full time being a waitress. So I’m kind of used to that. It’s okay for now.

You’ve built up lots of kind of skills in being super organised and ensuring that you know exactly what you have to do across all of these different areas of your life, and making sure that you deliver on all of them. Do you think of yourself as being a really well organised person?

Dr Paulina Bondaronek 

(Pause) No, no, I don’t. When you say… it’s funny, because when you describe me, even nice, positive things, like you manage to do a PhD and then not many people have experience, I’m listening to this, I think I really like what you’re saying, but I don’t associate.  That is the critical mind. And I always say this is why I meditate because I don’t receive any of the positives. I just get on with it. But I think it must be in me because, um, you know, you learn a lot about those self-regulation techniques during, you know, in behavioural science. It feels like this is the bread and butter of designing interventions which we can talk about. I mean, it’s not great, but you know, this self-monitoring, goal setting, action planning, feedback and behaviour, how to improve, re-evaluate, do it again. And I quite loved that because in… well, I never, I was never familiar with agile working, but I think that’s the part of it like sprint planning and doing a sprint review. And actually note that I need to do it for myself. So this is kind of work.. I work for digital for the Public Health England digital team (indistinguishable). And we do every two weeks, we do the sprint review, sprint planning, I just love this kind of stuff. I think I need a little bit more of that. Because the PhD is finished. And rather than writing up my fellowship, you can get very, very used to doing other stuff.  And I think you’ve done this. And you’ve, you’ve been really good at that. I’ve been really impressed when I saw you doing your, do you have like six months? Every six months?

Prof Anna Cox 

In terms of planning? Yes. Yeah, well, I try. And I go through a process every quarter, with my PhD students and my postdocs. And we all sit down and we plan the next three months. And we think about what do we want to achieve in that time? And how are we going to fit that into the time that is available?

Dr Paulina Bondaronek 

Mm hmm. I think I need this now. I had it, because it’s a tangible, you know – you need to finish a PhD. (Indistinguishable). But now it’s a little bit… I think I need a little bit of that. Because you can see, it’s just, there’s some stuff on the horizon: that’s output, and output makes you actually scared of it. Because you need to achieve something. But how are you going to do it? It’s just not there at the moment. Yes.  In terms of… I’ve done this before, in my life, I was dealing with mental health issues. And what I did was create… every day, I had a diary, writing about what the issues are. And then every week, I would re-evaluate how am I. How am I going towards recovery? Of course, when I was able to do so because at the beginning, if you’re completely lost in your sort of mental health issues, you don’t have time to do goal setting. Oh, definitely a motivator. And so that helped me a lot in the past, so I might need to do it again, a bit more.

Prof Anna Cox 

Okay, so I wanted to talk to you a bit about your PhD research as well, in a bit of detail, because I just recently I saw a pre-print paper that’s become available, um, but showed that when the UK went into lockdown, that people’s physical activity dropped quite dramatically.  They – as you would expect, right –  people weren’t able to go out of the house, they weren’t commuting to work, they weren’t doing the school run. So all of that kind of incidental walking around disappeared. They were also not able to go out and run or whatever they normally did; they couldn’t go to the gym or the gyms were closed. So it’s perhaps not surprising to see that these indicators of physical activity had dropped dramatically over that period. But what I found really interesting was that even by mid June, which was a month after the lockdown had kind of been relaxed, and people were now allowed to go out multiple times a day, the physical activity data hadn’t recovered back to its original levels. So it seems – this paper seems to suggest – that people lost the opportunity to be physically active, and then when those opportunities came back, they weren’t able to reinstate their old practices and so on. And I know that in your research, you’ve been looking at physical activity apps. And so I wanted to talk to you about whether you think physical activity apps kind of hold the key to helping us get back to where we were before lockdown with our levels of physical activity and perhaps even surpass that. Because I guess one of the things we know is that people aren’t as active as we might want them to be for optimal health. So it seems particularly worrying I guess, now, if the levels are much lower than they were before. So I thought maybe we could start by talking about what it is in behaviour change theory that would suggest are the important parts of an intervention, if it’s going to help us change our behaviour. So what do we need to know from the theory and put into our interventions?

Dr Paulina Bondaronek 

Mm hmm. So there’s no such thing as one theory that we could put into it. But I think there’s two things. There’s one thing, let’s look at an example of the apps that I’ve been looking at. And I spent far too much time in the App Store! I spent about two years looking at Google Play and iTunes, and I knew what was high ranked and what’s popular. So I looked at, I focused on the most popular apps. And this is, I think, worth saying, what they… what they miss and whether they hold the key, I think will answer the question that you asked.

Prof Anna Cox 

Okay.

Dr Paulina Bondaronek 

So most of the apps on the market, and these are downloaded in millions, um, they focus on what I mentioned. So these are the things that we call self-regulation technique. And if you think about self-regulation, as a word, it has to do with something that you do to yourself, you regulate yourself in one way or the other.

Prof Anna Cox 

So you kind of take control of your own behaviour.

Dr Paulina Bondaronek 

Yeah. And so these are stuff like monitoring your running, elevation, time, and doing your seven minute workout challenge. You know, again, you’re monitoring – ticked the box, I’ve done it. And then it shows you a feedback, how many times a week you’ve done it, how many times you ran for how long, and how many calories you’ve burned. And then sometimes it helps you to set some goals, not always, and helps you to action plan towards these goals. And so even if we look at this simple, these features, which are prevalent in most apps… and there’s a social support bit, but mainly the social support, I find a little bit primitive because it’s sort of: yes, I’ve done my run, give me a little thumbs up. I think we could do much better. Okay. There’s a little digital rewards as well as things like that, little prompts, and that’s pretty much it. And now if you think about behaviour science, if we know that people like Daniel Kahneman, who popularised the dual process theory, so the system one system two, which is simplification, but still it’s really helpful. This is one of… the system one is the one that is more emotional impulse. It relies on habits. It’s a very automatic process. It’s cue dependent, I see chocolate, grab the chocolate, a chocolate, because I’m stressed. And then the other one is the self-regulation one – the decision making process, the deliberate decision making process, the effortful system. Okay, if you think about that, I would argue that the apps target the second one, which is the effortful decision making – I make a goal, I stick to the goal,  a regard, re-evaluate my goal.  And I think that this is a huge problem because we are not those robots – rational human being – that we think that we are ourselves, because my motivation, I don’t know about you but bitter experience from my life shows me that I will decide something and I will decide for sure in the morning; in the afternoon it goes away and in the evening, forget about it. I’ll start tomorrow. Now I convince myself that I’ll start tomorrow again and I will be so sure about that. And then again, I mean, I had it with trying to quit smoking. I smoked for six years, you know how many times you promise yourself that this will be for sure your last cigarette, you know, and this is because the system one is the emotional one, the cue dependent one. Again I see cigarette, I smell cigarette, and I think I really need one.

Prof Anna Cox 

And you’re saying that the system one drives a lot of our behaviour, but we kind of when we’re thinking about trying to change our behaviour, we tend to focus on system two and that and the technology is all around system two. 

Dr Paulina Bondaronek 

Yes this, thank you, summarises very well.  I just talk too much about that but yes, exactly. Because I think also, it’s much difficult – well, I don’t know if it’s much difficult – but it’s easier to, you know, set the goal in apps. I’m not a designer, and I don’t know, in terms of technology, what’s available there, but I’m sure we can do better than that, in terms of helping people to, you know, to help them in terms of sticking to behaviour, even if, if this is not something that you feel at the moment (indistinguishable) are fighting their habits that they would like to get rid of.

Prof Anna Cox 

Uh huh. Yes. So do you think that, um… it sounds like you’ve identified a real gap there, that, that we need to be thinking about – system one, and it impacts on behaviour. But the technology isn’t really helping us there. So do you think that’s something that technology can help us with?

Dr Paulina Bondaronek 

This is why I love multidisciplinary work. Because I think it can. And I think we need to work – so behaviour scientists, practitioners of physical activity, let’s say, and designers, and people from you know, human computer interaction, like yourself, and work together, and answer this question, because actually, I don’t know if technology work, how technology can help us. But I know we can, if we only get away from this self regulation stuff that’s already there. Because if you think about it in behaviour science, if we look at what works now, physical activity, we’d say that those feedback monitoring, goal setting works, and of course, it does work. But the problem is that we don’t have evidence for any other stuff that’s not there at all, or is so scarce, that we can’t conduct systematic reviews on those to say that, the self-regulation, to say that those things work, because they’ve a bit more obscure. And they might have been tested. But not tested enough to be certain as we need to be well, certain, to certain degree, in science that this works. So if I was to design tomorrow, behaviour, change intervention of physical activity, I would have to put self monitoring goal setting in there because that’s what everyone does. And of course, it does work to a certain degree, but it’s not sustainable. Probably also, I think I’ve seen review recently that for older people actually, the self regulation techniques do not work, really. So we need to work together to do that. And I think this thing’s… like when I look at the behaviour science – so first of all, if you look at a goal setting theory, because you’ve asked about theory, even that is not done very well, because yes, we have this feedback, we have goal setting, we have self monitoring, but what’s very important in in this kind theory is that you need to really re evaluate your goals. Okay? And apps don’t even do that. So it’s not only that this is okay, this is tick box, we’ve done that bit, the (indistinguishable) apps hardly ever ask you to re-evaluate your goal and maybe readjust it. Now it only goes as far as tells you that you done it, or you haven’t done it yet. So if you see, for me, this is quite primitive. What about changing identity? What about talking about the emotional bits, for example? And could we do something about identifying yourself as a role model in certain way and think, you know, this kind of stuff, which is a bit more fuzzy, how do you design for that? Well, that’s why we need this multidisciplinary work. How do you design for to create, to develop an identity as a healthy person? And work out, necessarily physical activity, how does that spill over to other behaviours? So we need to go bigger, I believe,

Prof Anna Cox 

In order to have the kind of impact that we really need to have.

Dr Paulina Bondaronek 

Exactly. And I think that’s why possibly people stopped doing physical activity during COVID and maybe didn’t get back to it. That’s just my thinking that because it was extrinsically motivated often, possibly, that it just faded away, because it wasn’t so much ingrained in intrinsic motivation. I love this stuff, and I am a healthy person. And I love I know that this run oh my goddess it’s raining and I don’t want to do it, but I know how it’s gonna make me feel, like also focusing on the pleasure as well. That’s another thing recently I was looking at American Psychological Association, they have a book on sports psychology and exercise that came out recently. And one of the academics in the first chapter said we haven’t come up with anything new for years. I mean, living where I live the same stuff, we not doing very well. But what about the pleasure in physical activity? What about the hedonic motivation? Why do we do you know, this kind of.. and it’s true, it’s all about goal setting and action planning. And that makes this kind of stuff make me really excited. So how can we come together and design something, you know, something better than focuses maybe on the fun of physical activity for God’s sake? There’s no fun, is it? One of my last thing I want to say, one of my participants, because I assessed the seven minute workout challenge. And he said to me, it’s like, so you do the heat based seven minute, you know, if I start at ten, seven past ten, I’m done. There’s no excuse not to do it. And he said, Paula, this is something dirty. (I’ve done some qualitative interviews after the trial was finished.) This is like, this is like masturbating. I’m closing my door. I’m doing it for seven minutes. I’m done. Thank God I can get on with my life. Is this what physical activity is about? Like, is this? I mean, it just doesn’t make sense, does it?  If we think, if we actually reflect.  So to answer your question, yes, I think those apps are not very effective, especially in the long term.

Prof Anna Cox 

So in terms of trying to address this, like, current problem of people, not, you know, people who have been more sedentary and not being as physically active as they were even, you know, nine months ago, say? And it sounds like you’re saying that the current apps we have are not the key to solving that. Do you think they have… they offer something, though? So even if they’re not going to solve the entire problem, are they effective in helping people to change their behaviour and to be a bit more active than they were before?

Dr Paulina Bondaronek 

Absolutely. I think I’m just being quite negative, because for the sake of it, because that I’m a pessimist. Absolutely. And you know what the beautiful thing in my trial is, because I had people from 20 year olds to 60, 70 year olds. And the one guy said, you know, I got, I took out my shoes, and it’s like, my running shoes, it’s like being reconnected with an old friend. And the app for running that was peach was new ‘Couch to 5k’, help you start running again, and for certain people definitely did work. It’s sort of that the app has to be introduced at the right time at the right moment, and those critical moments when you are more likely to change. And I think yes, of course, if you told me in the 80s, that there’ll be little thing in my pocket that can tell me how much I run, set goals for me, you know, ask my friends to maybe to give me thumbs up. It’s an amazing thing. It’s just that it has to introduce at the right time. So of course, apps has lots of potential and it did work, they do work for some people. And with the trial, I needed to show that it worked, it increased physical activity for some people. For some people, there was no change. And actually, there was a decrease for some people. So it definitely works. And I think this is what I’m writing, in my fellowship, sort of to try to find out who it works for, when is it okay to introduce those apps? And if the apps don’t work, can we just have something else? And this is where my work at Public Health comes in right? We know that this is not the thing that will change the world, right? We need to work on so many different levels. And it’s not just about physical activity. Like it’s not, you know, like this masturbation thing for seven minutes and stuff. It’s about healthy living, right? Yeah. And yeah, and work life balance and healthy eating and spending time with family and in the current climate is very hard to do because we are workaholics or many of us are.

Prof Anna Cox 

Okay, so thinking about um, I’m curious to know how your, research and your knowledge on this area, how do you bring that into your own life? And we’ve talked a little bit already about how you organise yourself and make sure that you know, you, you balance, multiple different jobs or things that you focus on, but how do you keep yourself physically and mentally well? Do you use physical activity for that?

Dr Paulina Bondaronek 

I do. But that’s quite recent. I think in Poland, we have a very good saying and we say a shoe maker walks without shoes, meaning if you’re drawn into certain fields, like psychology or behavioural change, it’s because you see it as lacking in you, and I’ve seen that before. So I’ve seen that a lot. So, but yes, physical activity, definitely. So, actually, but the reason was because of my mental health. So my mental health went down during PhD, because I have innate tendency to criticise myself immensely, and have high expectation. I thought, I’m going to finish my PhD in a year, for sure. And I just it’s, and often I just have to ignore that voice. And so mindfulness is a huge thing. And, but actually, regular mindfulness. So mindfulness is something that’s more cognitive change techniques, I call them, however, the sticking to the behaviour is definitely behavioural. So then, so how I started. So the implementation intentions here really helped me which is, you know, I did this at this time, it’s very specific setting. Setting of goals. So that helped me with meditation, you know, I’ve got my meditation couch, that’s where I sit down. After I brush my teeth, I sit down, and I meditate for 15 minutes. And the more I stick to it, the more habitual it becomes. So this this is a really, really nice technique. Physical activity: so because of my mental health issues, I was doing my PhD in in Hampstead in Royal Free hospital. Yeah, this is a wealthy area that you could never live in,  but there what they have is the ponds and the Parliamentary Lido. And there are only three lidos in London that are unheated. So I started swimming in them. In cold water, yes, yes. And that’s my fourth year this year. And it’s just so amazing for mental health. I mean, I go in, I lose all my – I leave all my troubles there, and I come out as a fresh, amazing human being. And everything is just there. Everything. It’s an amazing feeling. And then I think there’s more research coming out about that – the benefit of cold water immersion for.. so yeah, mental health. So this is what I do. But I also run well, now I actually moved to my partner in East London, so I cannot swim so much. So I run up on my running routine. But there’s something interesting that I’ve done since I started running, because I would find it quite boring. And I can imagine why people don’t stick to it. And this is another technique. So add something nice whilst you’re doing something that you might not enjoy, especially at the moment. So I listen to my favourite podcasts. And this is the only time I listened to it. And this is Eckhart Tolle – he wrote the power of now. And it’s so funny because it’s a book, but there’s also his teaching. And that’s the only time I allow myself to listen to it for those 40 minutes I run. So I’m looking forward to two things, how I will feel after physical activity to running around in the (indistinguishable) but most importantly, to my fix of Eckhart Tolle, and The Power of Now.

Prof Anna Cox 

So rather than using a physical activity app as your… as a way to motivate you for your running, you’re using digital technology in a different way:  as a way to deliver a reward, right, a positive reward to go with the running because you’re going to get to listen to the thing that you really enjoy listening to.

Dr Paulina Bondaronek 

Exactly. And that’s more of tapping into the system one, the emotions, you know, yes, yes.

Prof Anna Cox 

Okay. But that’s been so interesting. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you. So thank you very much for your time today.

Dr Paulina Bondaronek 

Thank you, Anna.  This is great. I had no idea what’s gonna happen, but I could talk to you forever.

Prof Anna Cox

Thanks so much to Dr Paulina Bondaronek. You can find her @PaulinaBond1 on Twitter. That’s Paulina bond and the digit one. You can find a link to her website and access the Show Notes for this episode on our website, eWorkLife.co.uk, where you can also find more evidence based tips on using technology to support work and well being.

I’d love to hear your feedback on this episode. You can find me on Twitter @AnnaCox_ If you enjoyed this episode, please tell your friends. And you can also leave us a star rating and review wherever you get your podcasts.  Thanks as always to our producer Clare Casson. This episode was sponsored by the EPSRC GetAMoveOn Network+.  Music by ScottHolmesMusic.com.

Episode 1 – eWorkLife Teaser

Episode title:

eWorkLife: work, life and wellbeing

Episode description:

Does technology just keep us all chained to our desks, glued to our screens and slumped on our sofas, or can we harness it to help us all to move more, do more and feel happier, more energetic, focused and creative?  eWorklife is about work, life and wellbeing: the podcast where we talk to researchers in the field about productivity, wellbeing and work-life balance. We talk to scientists and others who can help us make the most of our technology to get our work done, keep connected to others, and support our health and wellbeing.  Your host is Anna Cox, Professor of Human Computer Interaction at UCL in London. Her guests are colleagues and collaborators – all experts who are breaking new ground in fields as diverse as psychology, technology design and artificial intelligence.  Anna gets up close and personal in a series of revealing interviews in which her guests share their personal journeys as researchers, how they got to where they are, and what they’ve learned along the way, as well as the secrets of their research, and the new discoveries they’re making about how technology can help us to thrive at work and in our home lives.

Follow us on twitter @_e_worklife and @annacox_

Music credit: ScottHolmesMusic.com

Season 1 producer: Clare Casson

eWorkLife is powered by UCL Minds

Episode 1 transcript 

Hello and welcome to eWorkLife, the podcast where we talk about how technology can help us with our work and well being. Through conversations with scientists and others, we find out how we can make the most of our technology to get our work done, keep connected to others and support our physical and mental health.  

I’m your host, Anna Cox, Professor of Human Computer interaction at UCL in London. My guests on the podcast are experts who are breaking new ground in fields as diverse as psychology, technology design and artificial intelligence. They’ll be sharing their personal journeys as researchers talking about how they got to where they are, what they’ve learned along the way, as well as the secrets of their research and the new discoveries they’re making.  

In the first episode, I’ll be talking to Dr. Paulina Bondaronek about why we aren’t all fit and healthy when there are already over 300,000 Health apps available. I’ve got some other fantastic guests lined up too, including Dr Joe Newbold talking about how music can help us to sit less, move more and be more productive; and Professor Anne Blanford talking about her journey from rebellious teenager to digital health pioneer, designing technology to support people with long COVID. So if that sounds interesting, make sure you subscribe now so that you never miss an episode.