Self-guided Web-based interventions: Scoping review on user needs and the potential of embodied conversational agents to address them

Mark R. Scholten*, Saskia M. Kelders, Julia E.W.C. Van Gemert-Pijnen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articleAcademicpeer-review

46 Citations (Scopus)
171 Downloads (Pure)


Background: Web-based mental health interventions have evolved from innovative prototypes to evidence-based and clinically applied solutions for mental diseases such as depression and anxiety. Open-access, self-guided types of these solutions hold the promise of reaching and treating a large population at a reasonable cost. However, a considerable factor that currently hinders the effectiveness of these self-guided Web-based interventions is the high level of nonadherence. The absence of a human caregiver apparently has a negative effect on user adherence. It is unknown to what extent this human support can be handed over to the technology of the intervention to mitigate this negative effect.

Objective: The first objective of this paper was to explore what is known in literature about what support a user needs to stay motivated and engaged in an electronic health (eHealth) intervention that requires repeated use. The second objective was to explore the current potential of embodied conversational agents (ECAs) to provide this support.

Methods: This study reviews and interprets the available literature on (1) support within eHealth interventions that require repeated use and (2) the potential of ECAs by means of a scoping review. The rationale for choosing a scoping review is that the subject is broad, diverse, and largely unexplored. Themes for (1) and (2) were proposed based on grounded theory and mapped on each other to find relationships.

Results: The results of the first part of this study suggest the presence of user needs that largely remain implicit and unaddressed. These support needs can be categorized as task-related support and emotion-related support. The results of the second part of this study suggest that ECAs are capable of engaging and motivating users of information technology applications in the domains of learning and behavioral change. Longitudinal studies must be conducted to determine under what circumstances ECAs can create and maintain a productive user relationship. Mapping the user needs on the ECAs’ capabilities suggests that different kinds of ECAs may provide different solutions for improving the adherence levels.

Conclusions: Autonomous ECAs that do not respond to a user’s expressed emotion in real time but take on empathic roles may be sufficient to motivate users to some extent. It is unclear whether those types of ECAs are competent enough and create sufficient believability among users to address the user’s deeper needs for support and empathy. Responsive ECAs may offer a better solution. However, at present, most of these ECAs have difficulties to assess a user’s emotional state in real time during an open dialogue. By conducting future research with relationship theory–based ECAs, the added value of ECAs toward user needs can be better understood.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere383
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of medical internet research
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2017


  • Adherence
  • Clinical psychology
  • EHealth
  • Embodied conversational agents
  • Health behavior
  • Human computer interaction
  • Intelligent tutoring system
  • ITS
  • Review
  • Web-based intervention


Dive into the research topics of 'Self-guided Web-based interventions: Scoping review on user needs and the potential of embodied conversational agents to address them'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this