Aza Raskin’s health revolution handbook

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In 1979, human-computer interface expert Jef Raskin took an unwieldy and esoteric piece of information technology – one that seemed to be the exclusive domain of guys sporting suspenders and beards – and began re-imagining it as a true consumer appliance.

Now Raskin’s son, Aza, is working to bring the same interface design revolution to health and wellness. He co-founded Massive Health in 2010 and promised “beautiful products” that would sit in users’ pockets and give them “deep insight” into their own health-determining behaviors.

Massive has, so far, only released what it refers to as a “conversation starter” – The Eatery, a mobile app that acts as a social photo food diary – while remaining conspicuously quiet about its forthcoming projects.

Raskin, however, was kind enough to share some big ideas – a hint of what he’s thinking about – with me when we talked last week. Here is my distillation of his thoughts:

  1. We should relieve the heaviest costs on the U.S. healthcare system by going after human behavior change. Hypertension, obesity, type-2 diabetes and heart disease are costly, and they’re all preventable or manageable through lifestyle modification. By arming people with appealing personal products, Massive plans to get at the way they eat, sleep, exercise, cope with stress and comply with doctors’ orders.
  2. Health is personal; interventions should be, too. “People’s lives are messy, but our approach now is somehow very clinical,” Raskin says. “These two things don’t meld.” Perhaps counter-intuitively, his theory holds, it’s the “weird things” that compound to shape long-term health: a breakup, a strained relationship with mom or dad, a stressful workday. Health and wellness products must thrive in this paradigm – not reject it.
  3. A good product doesn’t demand the desired human behavior; it compels it. We’re all wired with certain self-destructive habits. Most of us choose the instant gratification afforded by a marshmallow over the delayed gratification of better health, for example. Products or interventions that ignore such tendencies will fail, while those that overpower them will succeed. “At Massive,” Raskin says, “we think of ourselves as helping your brain cope with your brain.”
  4. Social media has given us a mandate for a new way of doing science: in context, with much bigger sample sizes. Raskin likes to talk about how James Lange mined YouTube footage to write the most comprehensive paper to date on the effects of the hallucinogen salvia divinorum. The Eatery has answered the small questions about data gathering via consumer appliance – Would people take pictures of their food? Would they annotate portions? – and the ultimate one: Does a little bit of data give you a whole bunch of understanding around how to change people’s behaviors? (Yes to all.) Massive, as a consumer company that also writes algorithms and analyzes data, is poised to do the in-context information gathering and also provide the analysis and feedback from it.
  5. It’s time to mob the healthcare innovation space with money and talent. Why is science progressing so quickly, Raskin wonders, and yet we still haven’t figured out how to work with people to help them get and stay fit? The answer, he believes, is as Dean Kamen put it: A nation gets what it celebrates. “When the smartest people from Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Mozilla are focusing on health,” Raskin says, “you better believe there’s going to be a big change.”

Raskin is well known in Silicon Valley for his rangy talent, which spans the gap between math and aesthetics. (See: Firefox tabs; free streaming web radio; modular cardboard building blocks.) For a deeper look into data from Massive’s Eatery, dive here.

We’re excited to hear more about his current pursuits when he speaks in September at Medicine X 2012.

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