A literature review published in 2016 investigated the effectiveness of applications targeting some kind of behavior change.
21 studies were deemed methodologically worthy of being analyzed. The apps targeted a wide range of problems, ranging from weight loss and smoking cessation, to adherence to medical prescriptions.
Of these 21 apps,many of them had problems with researcher bias, that are hard to adress due to the nature of applications. The being said, 17 of them reported statistically signifiant effects in terms of achieving their goals. One application targeting alcohol use disorder, actually seemed to have a negative effect on participants. One very popular commercial application called MyFitnessPal - actually had no real effect on user behavior in terms of weight loss.
14 of the studies had small sample sizes - they had few participants. In terms of generalizing their results, their results had to be taken with caution.
6 studies explicitly reported using validated psychological theories to underpin their functions. These of course seemed to work better than other apps. Interestingly, more behavior change theories, were not indicative of better results. There seemed to be a risk of having too much of everything, lending the user to having a worse experience.
Looking at the features - personalized feedback seemed to be a powerful component of getting people to change behavior. Simplicity of use and real-time feedback, also seemed to be key components.
All in all - applications seem to have potential to adress positive behavior change, but many applications have both theoretical and methodological problems. There is definitely room for improvement in the field.
Zhao J, Freeman B, Li M
Can Mobile Phone Apps Influence People’s Health Behavior Change? An Evidence Review
J Med Internet Res 2016;18(11):e287