In today's digitized and mobile culture, most people rarely leave home without their cellphone, and "crackberry" is a commonplace term in the national lexicon. Indeed, with more than 300 million smartphone units sold in the last two years alone and accompanying mobile applications surging in use, it's no surprise benefits providers are getting in on the action, creating smartphone apps to help employers encourage healthy behaviors and sound savings techniques among their workers.

"There's definitely an increased interest [in mobile apps]; it's one of the key things companies are doing to expand the engagement of their employees," explains Adam Wootton, a senior consultant at Towers Watson.

The greatest barrier for wellness initiatives is empdalloyee engagement, he continues, and mobile access and apps can help. Utilizing social media and game theory on mobile phones to promote wellness, where people compete against colleagues and friends, is very effective.e_SClBObesity, after all, is a socially transmitted disease. According to one study cited by Wootton, people who had obese friends were 57% more likely to become obese themselves in a given interval. In other words, we learn unhealthy habits from those around us, but the reverse works as well - peers can influence us to make healthful choices. Using social media to give employees virtual high-fives helps; it's "all about small amounts of encouragement," says Wootton, who advises employers to look at people's health decisions and try to influence that through their peers.

Wootton lists five criteria for successful benefits apps and smartphone-optimized websites:

1. Intuitive interface. An app that is simple to understand, requires few 'taps' and has a dashboard-style view will be dominant in the benefits space.

2. Leveraging the platform. Apps must add something to the experience and use the features of the mobile device. Simply reproducing the website on a mobile device will not make an app successful.

3. Personalized information. For a benefits app, it's not enough just to provide generic information; personalized information is key. An app that allows users to tailor its interface will be more valuable.

4. Real-time information. The beauty of a mobile-enabled world is being able to connect anytime, anywhere. This means that data delays are just not acceptable.

5. Relevant, useful and fun. For a benefits app to be successful, it must engage the user both emotionally and rationally. Emotional connection comes from being relevant to the user, adding value and being entertaining.

"I think there are three ways for employers to use [this type of technology] to their advantage," says Jennifer Benz, founder and chief strategist for Benz Communications. "The first is to make sure that they're picking wellness vendors and health care partners who get it and are investing in mobile technology and mobile apps and making sure that the user experience for interacting with those vendors is good. The second is optimizing their own resources. The third area is making people aware of what's happening on the consumer side."

Wootton, Benz and Mathew Holt, co-chairman of Health 2.0, offered their own list of the most promising apps and optimized websites related to health care and retirement benefits.

 

Health care apps

* BenefitsSync (benefitsync.com)is a new app created by broker Tom Daly as an iPhone replacement for health ID cards.

* Another consumer app, iTriage (itriagehealth.com), details symptoms and diseases for both the iPhone and Android phones.

* Limeade (limeade.com), for both the iPhone and Android, tracks daily wellness goals, allows one to compete with friends and incorporates a company goal. It's a carrot wellness app for employers. "Our goal is not to be hip or cool, but to provide a solution that's convenient and fun for our clients and our users," explains Henry Albrecht, CEO, Limeade. "My view is that all this technology is a way to make social interactions easier and to make peer support more positive and engaging. Anything that brings people together to work on something that the company also cares about is all positive."

* HealthPrize (healthprize.com/consumer/login.do) is a prescription drug compliance program built on game theory. The program uses "gaming dynamics and behavioral economics" to get people involved in making healthy decisions, with a focus on medication adherence, says Tom Kottler, CEO, HealthPrize Technologies, LLC. In the program, users get points for filling their prescriptions, accessing information on the website or mobile interface regarding their condition or medications, taking medications daily, and taking quizzes and answering survey questions. Once they have completed these activities (or not), they learn how many points they gained (or lost). There are monthly competitions and chances to win sweepstakes from an employer.

According to a New England Health Care Institute study in 2009, medical nonadherence costs $290 billion, and excludes costs related to absenteeism and presenteeism.

Kottler says their mobile program and website combat this problem and explains its success in that "people like things that are engaging and fun; why would it be any different when it comes to their health?" But he cautions that mobile apps "need to be part of a larger strategy of wellness in your employee community. The 'if you build it they will come' mentality doesn't work. Mobile apps are meant to be one more arrow in the quiver."

* StickK (stickK.com), built for consumers and employers, is a betting site that punishes individuals if they don't participate or meet weekly goals. The corporate version involves bonuses or prizes for making goals. The program works by "taking a goal and turning it into a commitment contract," explains Sam Espinosa, a customer service agent for StickK.

The consumer version works by taking money if the individual doesn't accomplish their goals. It can go to a friend or a charity that is selected by StickK. There is also an anti-charity option that lets individuals select an organization. So, a Democrat might choose to donate to the George W. Bush library if he or she doesn't accomplish their goals.

There also is a referee option that monitors users' progress. They can also pick supporters who get regular weekly emails on their progress. Users can connect on Twitter and Facebook to engage a wider support system. "In a way, it's putting your reputation on the line as well as your money," Espinosa says. "As you add these levels of accountability and incentives, the combination of those things is what dramatically increases your chances of success."

In the corporate version (stickK.com/corporate.php), the premise is more carrot than stick. Individuals receive points for actionables, such as reporting progress or inviting a referee, and those points can be redeemed for prizes.

For privacy in a corporate setting, the program doesn't attach names to data. Employers receive aggregate data: how many people are making goals, how much weight on average are they losing, and so on.

 

Retirement planning and saving apps

* TIAA-CREF (tiaa-cref.org) offers a financial, college-savings planner app that is also a savings simplifier with basic financial information. The iPhone app is mostly for consumers, but can be promoted by plan sponsors. Employers can roll out the mobile app to an employee population by integrating it in a communication campaign.

The mobile app features a quiz that helps define where users are in relation to their retirement goals. They also show them what their habits are worth - for example, how much a latte every day costs over a year and comparing that number to what they could be saving. This can be more meaningful for retirement planning than just showing market values.

The calculators help determine in a matter of minutes if a user is on track and connects them easily to financial planning advisers, especially convenient if they're accessing information on their phone.

* Mint.com is the best consumer money management site, according to Benz and Holt. However, a close runner-up is LearnVest.com, which offers great financial planning resources that are social-media focused, integrated into Facebook and target young women.

 

Best practices

In general, the most effective apps use gaming or behavioral economics, says Benz. Mobile devices are also useful in filling in the gaps of underserved demographics. For low-income workers who aren't in front of a computer all day but have a phone, benefits-related information delivery via mobile apps is ideal.

"Whether you send them a text, automated voice call, send them an email or direct them to a website, it's all the same thing. That's for everybody," affirms Holt.

However, there are caveats. "The pitfall with mobile is just like anything that's new and shiny - putting all of your eggs in one basket and thinking that a cool new mobile app is going to solve all of your benefits and wellness issues [is a mistake.] All of the mobile apps [and] websites need to be part of an integrated communication campaign and benefits strategy," says Benz, emphasizing that it's imperative to integrate apps into a comprehensive communication campaign and education program. -K.K.

 

View a slide show of the benefits mobile apps here.

 

Other HR apps

In addition to health care and retirement savings apps, other areas of HR are getting a share of the app pie.

Towers Watson recently announced the launch of its TWGlobal50 app, which provides searchable human capital data for 57 countries. Users can access and compare current and trend information in four major categories, including planned pay increases, employee engagement levels, talent mobility rates and health care benefit costs.

Federal employees, meanwhile, are able to access their annual and sick leave via their mobile devices thanks to GEICO's new federal leave mobile app, which allows users to access their most current annual leave balances, credit hours, complimentary time, as well as calculate leave accrual rates and account for sick days out of the office.

And, last year, Buck Consultants launched Benefits Genie, a mobile phone app that offers users a virtual insurance card with provider information, including copayments and deductibles.

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