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The app-driven life: How smartphone apps are changing our lives

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Soon, apps emerged for practically every need in a person's day.

Productivity goosed by zombies?

Matthew Ablon uses his Android phone to keep fit. This freshman at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark., never liked running in high school. It seemed monotonous. Boring. A single app changed his mind.

This past semester, Mr. Ablon downloaded Zombies, Run! – a workout app that motivates people to run by appealing to their Darwinian desire not to get eaten by zombies. As Ablon runs, this run tracker mixes in elements of an audio adventure game. The app interrupts his normal music playlist with mission instructions – such as news that he's found (virtual) supplies that he can distribute to survivors living in a nearby (fictional) compound. But before he can return home with the provisions, he needs to pick up the pace and outrun the zombie horde.

This $8 app – quite a bit more expensive than the traditional 99-cent threshold for phone apps – is "worth every penny," says Ablon. He now runs two to three miles twice a week with imaginary zombies on his heels.

Is this a peculiar way to encourage good habits? Definitely. But is it effective? The British government thinks so. As the workout app rang up a quarter-million downloads, Britain's National Health Service commissioned the team behind Zombies to design a self-improvement app for the broader public (i.e., without the undead theme). The group plans to reveal this new project in the spring.

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