The Most Popular Commercial Weight Management Apps in the Chinese App Store: Analysis of Quality, Features, and Behavior Change Techniques

Background: Many smartphone apps designed to assist individuals in managing their weight are accessible, but the assessment of app quality and features has predominantly taken place in Western countries. Nevertheless, there is a scarcity of research evaluating weight management apps in China, which highlights the need for further investigation in this area. Objective: This study aims to conduct a comprehensive search for the most popular commercial Chinese smartphone apps focused on weight management and assess their quality, behavior change techniques (BCTs), and content-related features using appropriate evaluation scales. Additionally, the study sought to investigate the associations between the quality of various domains within weight management apps and the number of incorporated BCTs and app features. Methods: In April 2023, data on weight management apps from the iOS and Android app stores were downloaded from the Qimai Data platform. Subsequently, a total of 35 weight management apps were subjected to screening and analysis by 2 researchers. The features and quality of the apps were independently assessed by 6 professionals specializing in nutrition management and health behavioral change using the Mobile Application Rating Scale (MARS). Two registered dietitians, who had experience in app development and coding BCTs, applied the established 26-item BCT taxonomy to verify the presence of BCTs. Mean (SD) scores and their distributions were calculated for each section and item. Spearman correlations were used to assess the relationship between an app’s quality and its technical features, as well as the number of incorporated BCTs. Results: The data set included a total of 35 apps, with 8 available in the Android Store, 10 in the Apple Store, and 17 in both. The overall quality, with a mean MARS score of 3.44 (SD 0.44), showed that functionality was the highest scoring domain (mean 4.18, SD 0.37), followed by aesthetics (mean 3.43, SD 0.42), engagement (mean 3.26, SD 0.64), and information (mean 2.91, SD 0.52), which had the lowest score. The mean number of BCTs in the analyzed apps was 9.17 (range 2-18 BCTs/app). The most common BCTs were “prompt review of behavioral goals” and “provide instruction,” present in 31 apps (89%). This was followed by “prompt self-monitoring of behavior” in 30 apps (86%), “prompt specific goal setting” in 29 apps (83%), and “provide feedback on performance” in 27 apps (77%). The most prevalent features in the analyzed apps were the need for web access (35/35, 100%), monitoring/tracking (30/35, 86%), goal setting (29/35, 83%), and sending alerts (28/35, 80%). The study also revealed strong positive correlations among the number of BCTs incorporated, app quality, and app features. This suggests that apps with a higher number of BCTs tend to have better overall quality and more features. Conclusions: The study found that the overall quality of weight management apps in China is moderate, with a particular weakness in the quality of information provided. The most prevalent BCTs in these apps were reviewing behavioral goals, providing guidance, self-monitoring of behavior, goal setting, and offering performance feedback. The most common features were the need for web access, monitoring and tracking, goal setting, and sending alerts. Notably, higher-quality weight management apps in China tended to incorporate more BCTs and features. These findings can be valuable for developers looking to improve weight management apps and enhance their potential to drive behavioral change in weight management.

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