Developing internet-based health interventions: A guide for public health researchers and practitioners

Keith J. Horvath, Alexandra M. Ecklund, Shanda L. Hunt, Toben F. Nelson, Traci L. Toomey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

41 Scopus citations


Background: Researchers and practitioners interested in developing online health interventions most often rely on Web-based and print resources to guide them through the process of online intervention development. Although useful for understanding many aspects of best practices for website development, missing from these resources are concrete examples of experiences in online intervention development for health apps from the perspective of those conducting online health interventions. Objective: This study aims to serve as a series of case studies in the development of online health interventions to provide insights for researchers and practitioners who are considering technology-based interventional or programmatic approaches. Methods: A convenience sample of six study coordinators and five principal investigators at a large US-based land grant university were interviewed about the process of developing online interventions in the areas of alcohol policy, adolescent health, medication adherence and human immunodeficiency virus prevention in transgender persons and in men who have sex with men. Participants were asked questions that broadly addressed each of the four phases of the User-Centered Design Process Map from the US Department of Health and Human Services' Research-Based Web Design & Usability Guidelines. Interviews were audio recorded and transcribed. Qualitative codes were developed using line-by-line open coding for all transcripts, and all transcripts were coded independently by at least 2 authors. Differences among coders were resolved with discussion. Results: We identified the following seven themes: (1) hire a strong (or at least the right) research team, (2) take time to plan before beginning the design process, (3) recognize that vendors and researchers have differing values, objectives, and language, (4) develop a detailed contract, (5) document all decisions and development activities, (6) use a content management system, and (7) allow extra time for testing and debugging your intervention. Each of these areas is discussed in detail, with supporting quotations from principal investigators and study coordinators. Conclusions: The values held by members of each participating organization involved in the development of the online intervention or program, as well as the objectives that are trying to be met with the website, must be considered. These defined values and objectives should prompt an open and explicit discussion about the scope of work, budget, and other needs from the perspectives of each organization. Because of the complexity of developing online interventions, researchers and practitioners should become familiar with the process and how it may differ from the development and implementation of in-person interventions or programs. To assist with this, the intervention team should consider expanding the team to include experts in computer science or learning technologies, as well as taking advantage of institutional resources that will be needed for successful completion of the project. Finally, we describe the tradeoff between funds available for online intervention or program development and the complexity of the project.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)e28
JournalJournal of medical Internet research
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015


  • Development
  • Internet
  • Intervention
  • Public health


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