TOPICS: Embodied conversational agents; Health coaching

SOURCE: ScienceDirect, February 2022;

Automatic topic selection for long-term interaction with embodied conversational agents in health coaching: A micro-randomized trial

Tessa Beinema a, b, * ; Harm op den Akker a, b, c ; Marian Hurmuz a, b ; Stephanie Jansen-Kosterink a, b ; Hermie Hermens a, b 

a   eHealth Group, Roessingh Research, and Development, Enschede, the Netherlands
b   Biomedical Signals and Systems Group, University of Twente, Enschede, the Netherlands 
c   Innovation Sprint, 1200 Brussels, Belgium
* Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.


Introduction: Embodied Conversational Agents (ECAs) can be included in health coaching applications as virtual coaches. The engagement with these virtual coaches could be improved by presenting users with tailored coaching dialogues. In this article, we investigate if the suggestion of an automatically tailored topic by an ECA leads to higher engagement by the user and thus longer sessions of interaction.


Methods: A Micro-Randomized Trial (MRT) was conducted in which two types of interaction with an ECA were compared: (a) the coach suggests a relevant topic to discuss, and (b) the coach asks the user to select a topic from a set of options. Every time the user would interact with the ECA, one of those conditions would be randomly selected. Participants interacted in their daily life with the ECA that was part of a multi-agent health coaching application for 4–8 weeks.


Results: In two rounds, 82 participants interacted with the micro-randomized coach a total of 1011 times. Interactions in which the coach took the initiative were found to be of equal length as interactions in which the user was allowed to choose the topic, and the acceptance of topic suggestions was high (71.1% overall, 75.8% for coaching topics).


Conclusion: Tailoring coaching conversations with ECAs by letting the coach automatically suggest a topic that is tailored to the user is perceived as a natural variation in the flow of interaction. Future research could focus on improving the novel coaching engine component that supports the topic selection process for these suggestions or on investigating how the amount of initiative and coaching approach by the ECA could be tailored.


Keywords: Embodied conversational agents; Initiative; Tailoring; Topic selection; Dialogues; Health coaching; micro-randomized trial

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