Massive Health's first experiment: The Eatery app

By Brian Dolan

The Eatery 1Massive Health, a closely watched Silicon Valley-based mobile health startup, launched its first iPhone app this morning. It's called The Eatery and it's a free app only available for iOS device users. The app joins the more than 1,300 diet related apps available in Apple's AppStore.

"You don't need a logbook. You don't need a calorie counter. You don't need to scan another barcode. The Eatery is totally different [from] other apps. We don't waste your time with details that don't matter," the app's description reads.

Andrew Rosenthal, who is heading up business development for Massive Health while completing his MBA at Harvard Business School, told MobiHealthNews in an interview this morning that what makes Massive Health different from a lot of companies working in mobile health is its focus on user engagement. "We build things that people are going to love to use. Our approach has always been to focus on user engagement partly because no one else does. The more someone loves something, the more they use it, and the more opportunities we will have as a company to help them be healthy."

The Eatery app's most engaging feature is the "Fit or Fat" food rating system, which sees community members providing feedback on the photos of food other app users submit. Massive Health was partly inspired by an old Internet site, Hot or Not, which allowed users to rank the attractiveness of people who submitted photos to the site. Rosenthal said that future versions of Fit or Fat might, for example, only show pictures of food snapped by vegetarians to those following that diet, but the current version of the app tees up any random users any user's food photos for ranking. Worth noting, the current app also identifies the person who took the photo of the app if that user authorized the app to connect through their Facebook account, Rosenthal said.

While the app aims to automatically tag photos of food with locations of restaurants, bars, or coffee shops for those users who location-enable it, MobiHealthNews found that on a few occasions the app chose wrong. In a comment on one of our food photos, Massive Health CEO Sutha Kamal wrote that the app was typically right when it guessed location.

At the Hacking Medicine event at MIT last week, Massive Health's CEO Sutha Kamal told the 100 MIT engineering students in attendance to keep three things in mind: Develop quickly, think about feedback loops, and make sure you ask the right questions. Rosenthal said that many of the healthy eating apps available today fail to ask the right questions or create appropriate feedback loops.

The Eatery 5Part of what makes an app engaging is speed. Rosenthal said that it only takes 2.8 seconds to snap a photo of food and have it appear in The Eatery, which is the same amount of time it takes to take a photo and have it appear in the iPhone's native camera app, he said. "When Apple saw that we could match their native camera time, they were impressed."

"Some of the more beautifully designed food apps available today are ones that help you scan the bar codes of foods to track what you are eating," he said. "That's great -- if you eat foods with bar codes on them. If you want to encourage people to eat healthy, then encouraging them to eat things with bar codes on them is probably the wrong approach." Rosenthal said that the bar code-centered apps are examples of health app developers getting carried away by the possibilities offered by today's technology, rather than using the technology to answer the right questions.

“It’s not helpful to know that your favorite brownies have 400 or 600 calories,” Massive Health CEO Sutha Kamal stated in a press release. “What’s helpful is discovering that you’re more vulnerable to them in the late afternoon.”

Rosenthal explained that the app is not about calories or other metrics; it's about "you", because "most people are not engaged by calorie" counts, he said. "They lose track of calories after a couple of days and what's more, calories alone won't tell you whether you're eating vegetables."

Massive Health's The Eatery app is (in a literal sense) a shift away from the Quantified Self movement since it shirks the numerical data in favor of what Rosenthal calls more "actionable information." Rosenthal said that the trend to move beyond the numbers is part of a much broader discussion among nutritionists, too.

Over the summer the USDA toppled its longstanding Food Pyramid in favor of a MyPlate graphic that provides an image of a plate with a colorful, proportional breakdown of suggested foods: Vegetables, fruits, grains, proteins, and dairy. Rosenthal said that the new guidelines do not focus on specific serving numbers like the old pyramid did but rather on the plate, the colors, and the proportions.

Rosenthal was careful not to characterize the availability of The Eatery app as the startup's first product launch. Instead he called it their "first experiment." The components of the app were spun out of Massive's main product, a chronic condition management app codenamed Penguine, which is meant for users with diabetes. Rosenthal said the company received an email from someone wishing to get into the beta study for Penguine who didn't qualify for the focus group because she didn't have diabetes. That helped the team realize that they could easily spin out a separate app focused on healthy eating.

Research shows that -- collectively -- people are good at rating the healthfulness of food, Rosenthal said. They are not as precisely good as nutritionists, of course, but Massive Health decided that "good" is good enough. This first experimental app could test that theory and others. What factors contribute to unhealthy eating? Where do you eat unhealthy foods? When? How might social networks play a role to help us eat better?

The Eatery aims to help us find out.

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