Send to

Choose Destination
JMIR Mhealth Uhealth. 2020 Jan 30;8(1):e12884. doi: 10.2196/12884.

Engaging Users in the Behavior Change Process With Digitalized Motivational Interviewing and Gamification: Development and Feasibility Testing of the Precious App.

Author information

Discipline of Social Psychology, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland.
Behavioural Science Group, Primary Care Unit, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom.
Communications and Networking Department, School of Electrical Engineering, Aalto University, Espoo, Finland.
Department of Entertainment Computing, University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria.
Center For Digital Safety And Security, Austrian Institute of Technology, Vienna, Austria.
Department of Psychiatry, University Hospital Vall d'Hebron, Vall d'Hebron Institute of Research, Barcelona, Spain.
Department of Basic Psychology, Grup de Recerca en Estrès i Salut, Autonomous University of Barcelona, Bellaterra, Spain.
Servicio de Psiquiatría, Hospital Universitari Vall d'Hebron, Departament de Psiquiatria i Medicina Legal, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain.
Centro de Investigación Biomédica en Red de Salud Mental, Instituto de Salud Carlos III, Vall d'Hebron Institut de Recerca, Barcelona, Spain.
Department of Psychology and Logopedics, Faculty of Medicine, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland.
Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland.



Most adults do not engage in sufficient physical activity to maintain good health. Smartphone apps are increasingly used to support physical activity but typically focus on tracking behaviors with no support for the complex process of behavior change. Tracking features do not engage all users, and apps could better reach their targets by engaging users in reflecting their reasons, capabilities, and opportunities to change. Motivational interviewing supports this active engagement in self-reflection and self-regulation by fostering psychological needs proposed by the self-determination theory (ie, autonomy, competence, and relatedness). However, it is unknown whether digitalized motivational interviewing in a smartphone app engages users in this process.


This study aimed to describe the theory- and evidence-based development of the Precious app and to examine how digitalized motivational interviewing using a smartphone app engages users in the behavior change process. Specifically, we aimed to determine if use of the Precious app elicits change talk in participants and how they perceive autonomy support in the app.


A multidisciplinary team built the Precious app to support engagement in the behavior change process. The Precious app targets reflective processes with motivational interviewing and spontaneous processes with gamified tools, and builds on the principles of self-determination theory and control theory by using 7 relational techniques and 12 behavior change techniques. The feasibility of the app was tested among 12 adults, who were asked to interact with the prototype and think aloud. Semistructured interviews allowed participants to extend their statements. Participants' interactions with the app were video recorded, transcribed, and analyzed with deductive thematic analysis to identify the theoretical themes related to autonomy support and change talk.


Participants valued the autonomy supportive features in the Precious app (eg, freedom to pursue personally relevant goals and receive tailored feedback). We identified the following five themes based on the theory-based theme autonomy support: valuing the chance to choose, concern about lack of autonomy, expecting controlling features, autonomous goals, and autonomy supportive feedback. The motivational interviewing features actively engaged participants in reflecting their outcome goals and reasons for activity, producing several types of change talk and very little sustain talk. The types of change talk identified were desire, need, reasons, ability, commitment, and taking steps toward change.


The Precious app takes a unique approach to engage users in the behavior change process by targeting both reflective and spontaneous processes. It allows motivational interviewing in a mobile form, supports psychological needs with relational techniques, and targets intrinsic motivation with gamified elements. The motivational interviewing approach shows promise, but the impact of its interactive features and tailored feedback needs to be studied over time. The Precious app is undergoing testing in a series of n-of-1 randomized controlled trials.


autonomous motivation; engagement; gamification; health app; human-computer interaction; intrinsic motivation; mHealth; physical activity; prevention; reflective processes; self-determination theory; service design; spontaneous processes; usability design

Free full text

Supplemental Content

Full text links

Icon for JMIR Publications
Loading ...
Support Center