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DOI: 10.2196/43504


BACKGROUND: University students are an at-risk group for the development of eating disorders (EDs); however, many college campuses lack sufficient resources to provide ED specialty care. Students report unique reasons for not seeking ED treatment, including the desire to solve the problem on their own (eg, seeking help from friends, self-medicating, or waiting to see if their problems improve), inability to afford treatment, lack of time to participate in the treatment, fear of seeing their primary care physician, and lack of recognition of their issues as an ED. Mobile health (mHealth) apps may be a cost-effective, helpful adjunctive tool to overcome personal and systemic barriers and encourage help seeking.

OBJECTIVE: This paper describes the development, usability, and acceptability of the Building Healthy Eating and Self-Esteem Together for University Students (BEST-U) mHealth smartphone app, which is designed to fill critical gaps in access to ED treatment on college campuses.

METHODS: We undertook a 4-phase iterative development process that focused on user-centered design. The 4 phases included needs assessment based on literature reviews, prototype development and initial evaluation in a pilot trial, redesign, and further pilot-testing to assess the usability and acceptability of the final version of the mHealth app. Acceptability and user satisfaction were assessed using an ad hoc survey that ranged from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree).

RESULTS: Our needs assessment identified a lack of accessible and affordable treatments for university students. To help meet this need, the BEST-U prototype was designed as an 11-week program that provided interactive, weekly modules that focused on second- and third-wave cognitive behavioral skills. The modules focused on topics such as psychoeducation, reducing thought distortions and body checking, improving body image, interpersonal effectiveness, and behavior chain analysis. The content included interactive quizzes, short answer questions, daily and weekly logs, and surveys completed in the app. BEST-U was paired with brief 25-30 minutes of weekly telehealth coaching sessions provided by a licensed provider or supervised trainee. Pilot-testing revealed minor issues with one module of the app content, which some participants viewed as having low relevance to their experience and therapist concerns about the organization of the app content. These issues were addressed through the removal, addition, and reorganization of BEST-U modules, with the help of therapists-in-training across 2 workshops. The revised version of the BEST-U app had a grand mean acceptability rating of 5.73 out of 7. The participants completed 90.1% (694/770) of the BEST-U modules, indicating high compliance.

CONCLUSIONS: BEST-U is a new, acceptable, and user-friendly mHealth app to help therapists deliver brief, evidence-based cognitive behavioral interventions. Owing to its acceptability and user-friendly nature, BEST-U has high user compliance and holds promise for future implementation and dissemination in university mental health settings.

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JMIR Form Res



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BEST-U; Building Healthy Eating and Self-Esteem Together for University Students; EDs; acceptability; app; cognitive; cognitive behavioral therapy; college; design; development; dialectical behavioral therapy; eating disorders; guided self-help; mHealth; mental health; mobile health; mobile phone; students; testing; therapy; treatment; university; usability


This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work, first published in JMIR Formative Research, is properly cited. The complete bibliographic information, a link to the original publication on, as well as this copyright and license information must be included.

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