This is a research conversation from the UNC School of Media and Journalism, highlighting the work of our faculty and graduate students.
00:00:24 Dan Riffe: Hi, I'm Dan Riffe, the Richard Coleman Eminent Professor in the UNC School of Media and Journalism. And I'm here with Dr. Nori Comello, an assistant professor in our public relations specialization and the Interdisciplinary Health Communication program. Nori, thanks for joining me for a conversation about your upcoming research project – pre-testing an online tool for smoking cessation. You've previously studied efforts to prevent tobacco use. How has that work guided your new study, and what kind of gap do you hope to fill in the cessation research?
00:00:55 Nori Comello: Well, sure. Most of the research I've done in the last several years has involved messages to prevent tobacco and other substance use. For example, I've done experiments to test the effects of different messages in the lab. And I've also conducted focus groups to develop prevention messages prior to being used in campaigns. And that's part of a process called formative research. You want to make sure that the messages are based on theory and that they resonate with your audiences and don't backfire before you take them on a larger scale. So that's just a good investment of resources. And the process also tells you really cool and interesting things about how the messages are working. So that's what I propose in the seed grant project, and what my previous work has prepared me to do formative research to uncover the most effective messages for Nicotrax, which is the online cessation tool to use in their implementation.
00:01:51 Riffe: That's a new term for me. Can you tell me more about the new Nicotrax technology? What does it do? How does it work?
00:01:57 Comello: Yeah. Nicotrax is a really intriguing new technology designed by graduates of N.C. State's School of Engineering. And it's basically a hardware-software combination, the hardware being a cigarette case to kind, of course, monitor when, you know, the user takes out a cigarette. And so it collects that behavioral data. But it also collects lots of other contextual data related to smoking. So, you know, in addition to time, location and ultimately, you know, proximity to other smokers. So these are all data points that would be collected automatically by this technology. And that's the first in the field, so this is really groundbreaking technology. That data is really useful, of course, from a health communication perspective, because it can be used to help tailor messages that could be sent to the users at specific times. They can have content specific to individual users' goals and also be sent the times when the behavior is most likely to happen. So again, that's called tailored communication, and interventions that are tailored are more likely to be successful. And so that next presents the issue of, you know, how to tailor these messages to individuals most effectively.
00:03:13 Riffe: So how does your studies specifically help on the development of Nicotrax and ultimately aid in helping people try to quit smoking?
00:03:21 Comello: Well, Nicotrax right now is in late stage development, and so it's not yet ready for market. It still has to be tested in field trials for effectiveness. So my research will help get it to that stage. We're proposing a couple of rounds of focus group research. In the first round, you know, we will talk with potential target market audience members and ask them about the kinds, about their previous quit attempts and what messages they would find effective in a smoking cessation context. Then we analyze the data, give that to Nicotrax, and they would use that to help modify and improve the app. And in the second round of focus group testing, we would have the users actually use the app for a two-week period. And then that way we can discover how it fits into their day-to-day experience, what things are helpful, what things were not so helpful. And once again, Nicotrax would take that information to help improve the app for more formal testing in the field.
00:04:26 Riffe: When I know that you're nationally, internationally known as an expert in identity research and theory. What role does psychological constructs like identity and self-affirmation play in your work? What could that mean to the field?
00:04:40 Comello: Well, this is where it gets really exciting for me, Dan, because I've spent the last several years looking at identity and self-concept and the role they play in persuasive communication. So there are lots of aspects of identity that I studied that I find fascinating, but for this project, a concept I'm really interested in is called self-affirmation. And this is when we reflect on an aspect of ourselves that's really valuable to us. And in doing so, it can help soften the blow of other things that might be threatening to us, even in other domains. So the process of behavior change can be stressful and threatening. But with this technology, there's potential to craft messages that remind you things that are really affirming and send them at specific times so that you can minimize feelings of threat. So self-affirmation hasn't been studied yet in online-tailored intervention contexts. Typical tailored messages might give you, you know, information on how much progress you've made toward your goal, or maybe a tailored list of pros and cons to changing a certain behavior. But there's nothing that I've seen so far that's looked at self-affirmation and other identity constructs and really built them into, you know, into a program. And so because it's new, it would push the field and opens the door.
00:06:01 Riffe: How do you envision that working? How would someone who's trying to quit smoking and receive a self-affirming message? What might that content of that message, that self-affirming message look like?
00:06:12 Comello: Oh, well, that's a good question. Um, it'll be based, of course, on, you know, in-depth literature review and preliminary testing. But what I envision right now is that the user might be able to provide actual content, maybe messages or quotes or even images that symbolize things that they really value. So in my case, it might be, you know, my family, or my dog, or yoga. Maybe in your case it would be a view of a lake or something like that, or your victory. But the idea is that these reminders could be stored in a library and they could be sent out at specific times. And, you know, in a moment of, you know, weakness or temptation, seeing that picture of, you know, my family might help support the identity that I want to maintain. So yeah, that's kind of the basic idea, but, you know, we'll, of course, look at the literature and see what other things have been done.
00:07:13 Riffe: If the Nicotrax technology is successful, do you see potential for using similar psychological concepts and other behaviors besides smoking, in addition to smoking?
00:07:24 Comello: Oh, well, yeah, it's still kind of early in the game. But I think there might be to the extent that users can be asked to define in advance what's valuable to them and what they find personally affirming. I think that's really powerful and that there's potential to apply an identity perspective to other tailored health behavior change programs.
00:07:45 Riffe: So the developers of Nicotrax are helping support the project and you're working with the UNC School of Medicine. Who are the people with whom you're collaborating? And how do you make connections like those?
00:07:58 Comello: Oh, well, my main contact at Nicotrax is Kyle Linton. He's a CEO and co-founder of Nicotrax. He's a recent graduate of N.C. State's engineering program, and it's been really interesting to hear how this project evolved from an entrepreneurship class that he and his partners took while they were students. Through colleagues at the Interdisciplinary Health Communication program here at the IFC program, I heard that Kyle was looking for collaborators to help test their product. Kyle and his partners were working with Carol Ripley-Moffitt, who directs the Nicotine Dependence Program here at UNC. So we'll be partnering with them in terms of recruiting participants for focus groups. Within our school, I'm working with a couple of our fabulous graduate students, Jeannette Porter, who's a second-year Ph.D. here. She's going to be helping on facilitating focus groups and analysis. And also Deanna Puglia, who is a first-year master's student, will be helping with the project as well.
00:08:55 Riffe: Well, Nori, this sounds very exciting. The collaboration not only with our students, but with others in the industry and in the area. Thank you for telling me about your project and good luck as you get started.
00:09:07 Comello: Thank you, Dan. Pleasure to be here.
00:09:25 Riffe: Good morning, Americans. This is Paul Harvey.
00:09:32 Comello: Very convincing, very convincing.
00:09:33 Riffe: Stop laughing.