Panel Paper: Incorporating Behavioral Science Into a Smartphone App to Reduce Fathers’ Barriers to Participation in Fatherhood Programs

Saturday, November 4, 2017
Stetson BC (Hyatt Regency Chicago)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Rekha Balu, MDRC, Shawna Lee, University of Michigan and Tova Walsh, University of Wisconsin - Madison

In recent years, there has been a movement to introduce new program interventions that leverage technology to improve program performance. Appropriate technology-driven interventions can reduce program staff burden and scale interventions to serve more participants. This paper presents an example of how a mobile app intervention was designed to address these issues with an understudied population: low-income, urban fathers with at least one young child, which prior research demonstrates are challenging to engage in parenting programs.

Building Bridges and Bonds (B3) is a federally funded study of programs related to fatherhood and parenting. The research team diagnosed the challenge that low-income fathers who, despite intending to enroll in fatherhood programs, often did not attend or complete the fatherhood program sessions. During an extensive prototyping process, fathers reported needing affirmation of their identity as fathers as well as reminders and planning support. In addition, the team heard that staff do not have time to do consistent outreach with all fathers on their caseload.

To provide multiple behavioral interventions in a single platform, the B3 team developed DadTime, a smartphone-based mobile application that provides fathers with support during and after the parenting program. During the program, fathers receive i) automated program attendance reminders, ii) implementation intentions to plan program attendance, and iii) pre-set messages with the co-parent to coordinate time with the child, for fathers who do not reside with their child. After the program, fathers will receive affirmation of their identity as a father and program reinforcement messages to help apply lessons from their parenting program—going beyond simple nudges. All content is tailored to the living situation, child’s age and gender.

As part of a random assignment study of a fatherhood program that provides feedback on supervised play time between fathers and their children, DadTime is randomly assigned to fathers assigned to the fatherhood program. Results from the impact evaluation will be available in 2019.

In this presentation, we will describe the process of developing app content informed by behavioral science and parenting research, prototyping and revision to simplify fathers’ interactions with the app, and implications of the testing process for evaluation. We will share results from interviews and focus groups regarding the app content and structure, interviews on app prototypes, and extensive quality assurance and field testing. We will conclude with a series of implementation lessons learned regarding how to structure and deliver mobile interventions for fathers in the context of social service programs.