The Fabulous App: The Science, The Experience, and Future Directions

Training for a marathon takes work, especially if you are yet to gain the stamina, and are shaky on the fundamentals of running. Fabulous likens creating sustainable behavioral change to a training regimen of an athlete: it incorporates one science-based “ritual” at a time, till each is cemented in your daily routine.

The science Behind Fabulous

Fabulous integrates evidence-based insights to “coach” you into making changes to your life. These, according to the founders, Sami Ben Hassine and Amine Laadhari, aim to be more than just a series of quick mind-hacks. The app endeavors to integrate insights from behavioral science to maintain productivity and peak performance over time. Research by the Fabulous team using a subset of the app’s users also inadvertently adds to what we know about behavioral change.

The Fabulous Team, for example, while examining the importance of rituals in increasing frequency and importance of exercise, assigned users into one of two groups. The first group had the choice of one of four rituals to increase exercise (choice condition), while the second group was assigned one of the same four rituals (either Mindful, Stretch, Counting or “Tap in – design your own ritual”, i.e., the no-choice condition). The findings pointed to rituals not just being important to motivating people to exercise more, but also to motivation being driven by a sense of choice within the ritual.  When individuals were given that choice, exercise-rituals were most effective when participants personalized the ritual through the “Tap In” option.

Novartis, a global healthcare company based in Switzerland, has funded a larger-scale study called Connect HF, examining the effect of mobile apps in the long-term care of heart failure patients. For example,  these apps may provide (much needed) support upto a year after these patients have been discharged from the hospital. Heart failure patients enrolled into the study have an equal likelihood of being assigned to to either Group 1: Fabulous app, which can for example, be tailored to create a ritual around taking medication, Group 2: HealthStar, an app focused around rewards and disincentives promoting medical adherence and Group 3, the control group: an app with information about heart failure. The results of the study are expected to be available by 2020. The study hopes to hone in on which aspects of these apps are effective in bringing about desired behavioral change, and can be incorporated into routine healthcare. This is in line with the need  for longer term studies on mobile health applications, linking the design and activities of a mobile health application to expected outcomes.

My Journey with Fabulous

Fabulous takes you on stand-alone “Journeys”, that you can start to achieve a specific goal (for e.g., Sleep Better, Focus and Concentrate More, or Pillars of Self-Esteem). The first “Journey” I embarked on, after I downloaded this approachable app with a pleasant, pink-and-purple interface, was Feel Energized (while this Journey is free, some of the other Journeys require you to pay for a monthly or annual subscription). Energy was something no amount of caffeine seemed to be giving me enough of. I received a letter that felt like it had been written by a relatable peer (an “Amber”), explaining that the first thing I would be doing to feel energized was working towards a healthy morning ritual. I was given examples of historical figures who had made morning rituals part of their lives.

My first goal towards developing a healthy morning ritual? Beginning the day by drinking water. The app had widgets informing me how to best prepare for this the night before (having a bottle of water in my line of vision would make me more likely to drink water first thing in the morning, according to the research the Fabulous team cited to support keeping water and healthy options readily available and visible). I had plugged in the time I woke up every morning into the app, which meant an alarm resounded the next day: a pop-up notification from Fabulous reminding me to drink water.

I am still knee-deep into this Journey. If I had to summarize what the app did best for me, it would be its sense of:

  • Flexibility to Individual Preferences: Fabulous, while a gentle, guiding presence, left the final choice of what concrete steps I would take towards achieving a goal to me. My second goal towards developing my morning ritual, after drinking water, was eating a healthy breakfast. I was given several examples of what a healthy breakfast looked like, as well as suggestions for a “quick” easy breakfast. I narrowed in on breakfast options that fit the five-minute window I had in  the morning to eat (stocking up on granola bars and low-sugar fruit for days when the window was even smaller, as suggested by the app).

  • Accountability: Pop-up notifications from Fabulous, and the app’s provision to check off goals as and when I completed them every day to keep the streak going, kept me accountable. Even on days when I did not have time to read any of the app’s content, my phone was still an extension of me, and so the pop-up notifications traveled with me. When the pop-ups caught my eye, it reminded me of my journey.

  • Breadcrumbs, When The Loaf Was Not Palatable: Fabulous snuck in on me, when I was caught up in the treadmill that is the work week, and slowed me down. When the app screen spotlighted my first goal to be drinking water, I, so used to overestimating the amount I could do in a day, felt shortchanged. I wanted an app that helped me make leaps and bounds, and the pace this took me in made me impatient. And yet, as the work week rolled in, I barely had the time to read through the succeeding letters to me, and tips to prepare for my next goal. The app is, thankfully, designed in a way that enables you to reap benefits from whatever little you glean from it - even if you cannot skim through all of the Fabulous content that relates to the goal. That one goal was all I could incorporate at a time! When it was time for the next goal of eating a healthy breakfast, drinking water had become as habitual as brushing my teeth, and yet, I had to consciously set time aside to prepare for and eat a healthy, nourishing breakfast.

I realized how absurdly difficult the process of carving time out for these seemingly trivial rituals I’d grown up on (i.e., finding time to eat breakfast; go for a walk, instead of waking up at 8:57am and rushing to work on an empty stomach) was. I felt the impact of this developing healthy morning ritual. All of a sudden, I was excited to get out of bed again!

Pooja Sathyanarayanan