What features do Dutch university students prefer in a smartphone application for promotion of physical activity? A qualitative approach

The transition from adolescence to early adulthood is a critical period in which there is a decline in physical activity (PA). College and university students make up a large segment of this age group. Smartphones may be used to promote and support PA. The purpose of this qualitative study was to explore Dutch students’ preferences regarding a PA application (PA app) for smartphones.
Thirty Dutch students (aged 18–25 years) used a PA app for three weeks and subsequently attended a focus group discussion (k = 5). To streamline the discussion, a discussion guide was developed covering seven main topics, including general app usage, usage and appreciation of the PA app, appreciation of and preferences for its features and the sharing of PA accomplishments through social media. The discussions were audio and video recorded, transcribed and analysed according to conventional content analysis.
The participants, aged 21 ± 2 years, were primarily female (67%). Several themes emerged: app usage, technical aspects, PA assessment, coaching aspects and sharing through social media. Participants most often used social networking apps (e.g., Facebook or Twitter), communication apps (e.g., WhatsApp) and content apps (e.g., news reports or weather forecasts). They preferred a simple and structured layout without unnecessary features. Ideally, the PA app should enable users to tailor it to their personal preferences by including the ability to hide features. Participants preferred a companion website for detailed information about their accomplishments and progress, and they liked tracking their workout using GPS. They preferred PA apps that coached and motivated them and provided tailored feedback toward personally set goals. They appreciated PA apps that enabled competition with friends by ranking or earning rewards, but only if the reward system was transparent. They were not willing to share their regular PA accomplishments through social media unless they were exceptionally positive.
Participants prefer PA apps that coach and motivate them, that provide tailored feedback toward personally set goals and that allow competition with friends.