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BackgroundAlthough physical activity can mitigate disease trajectories and improve and sustain mental health, many people have become less physically active during the COVID-19 pandemic. Personal information technology, such as activity trackers and chatbots, can technically converse with people and possibly enhance their autonomous motivation to engage in physical activity. The literature on behavior change techniques (BCTs) and self-determination theory (SDT) contains promising insights that can be leveraged in the design of these technologies; however, it remains unclear how this can be achieved.ObjectiveThis study aimed to evaluate the feasibility of a chatbot system that improves the user's autonomous motivation for walking based on BCTs and SDT. First, we aimed to develop and evaluate various versions of a chatbot system based on promising BCTs. Second, we aimed to evaluate whether the use of the system improves the autonomous motivation for walking and the associated factors of need satisfaction. Third, we explored the support for the theoretical mechanism and effectiveness of various BCT implementations.MethodsWe developed a chatbot system using the mobile apps Telegram (Telegram Messenger Inc) and Google Fit (Google LLC). We implemented 12 versions of this system, which differed in 3 BCTs: goal setting, experimenting, and action planning. We then conducted a feasibility study with 102 participants who used this system over the course of 3 weeks, by conversing with a chatbot and completing questionnaires, capturing their perceived app support, need satisfaction, physical activity levels, and motivation.ResultsThe use of the chatbot systems was satisfactory, and on average, its users reported increases in autonomous motivation for walking. The dropout rate was low. Although approximately half of the participants indicated that they would have preferred to interact with a human instead of the chatbot, 46.1% (47/102) of the participants stated that the chatbot helped them become more active, and 42.2% (43/102) of the participants decided to continue using the chatbot for an additional week. Furthermore, the majority thought that a more advanced chatbot could be very helpful. The motivation was associated with the satisfaction of the needs of competence and autonomy, and need satisfaction, in turn, was associated with the perceived system support, providing support for SDT underpinnings. However, no substantial differences were found across different BCT implementations.ConclusionsThe results provide evidence that chatbot systems are a feasible means to increase autonomous motivation for physical activity. We found support for SDT as a basis for the design, laying a foundation for larger studies to confirm the effectiveness of the selected BCTs within chatbot systems, explore a wider range of BCTs, and help the development of guidelines for the design of interactive technology that helps users achieve long-term health benefits.

Original publication





JMIR formative research

Publication Date





Department of Information Science, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand.