Encouraging Attendance and Engagement in Parenting Programs: Developing a Smartphone Application with Fathers, for Fathers

Publication Date: July 19, 2018
Encouraging Attendance and Engagement in Parenting Programs: Developing a Smartphone Application with Fathers, for Fathers Cover

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  • Published: 2018


Research Questions

  1. What does it take to design mobile technology to support fatherhood programming?
  2. How did fathers help develop DadTime?
  3. How did we apply what fathers shared to improve the DadTime application?

Building Bridges and Bonds (B3), a study of Responsible Fatherhood programs, is testing a set of innovative approaches designed to help fathers advance their parenting and employment skills. One of these innovations is a new smartphone-based application called DadTime. DadTime is designed to support engagement with and attendance at a parenting program called Just Beginning, another B3 innovation.

This brief describes how MDRC collaborated with fathers — the intended users — to develop DadTime.


Although fatherhood programs invest a great deal of time and effort to encourage fathers’ attendance, many fathers do not complete all of their intended activities. Some fathers sign up for but do not attend the first session; other fathers begin but do not complete all sessions. The Just Beginning curriculum requires that fathers and children attend sessions together. This presents a particular engagement challenge for fathers who do not live with their children, because they must coordinate with the coparent to ensure that the child can join the session.

To boost participation in Just Beginning and to address the challenges that fathers face with program attendance, the B3 study team developed the DadTime smartphone application. It provides fathers with automated program attendance reminders and interactive tools to help them apply what they have learned in Just Beginning sessions to later interactions with their children.

During the pilot phase of the B3 study, the team asked fathers for feedback on the basic DadTime design. The goal was to listen to and learn from fathers, and then tailor specific wording, order, and presentation of the application’s content based on their reactions.

Key Findings and Highlights

Findings indicate that:

  • The method of quickly gathering user reactions and using it to improve a service intervention can be used in many contexts;
  • Fathers preferred to control the time of day that they received reminders, rather than leaving it up to the application, which might send reminders at times that were not useful for them;
  • Fathers of young children reacted positively to the use of icons and emojis that simplify content and reduce the reading load;
  • Fathers felt anxiety related to the upcoming Just Beginning sessions, so it was important to start application messages before a father’s first session by asking him how he felt; and
  • Many mobile applications promote earning points (so-called gamification) as a way to illustrate a user’s progress. However, fathers preferred an alternative approach with DadTime, a “relationship tree” the team developed that grows new “leaves” during the course of the program.


Fathers who were participating in the Just Beginning program weighed in on a variety of components of DadTime. To refine the content and format, the study team used a process from human-centered design called “rapid prototyping,” in which multiple iterations of a product are created based on user feedback. The team organized several sessions of individual meetings, during which fathers provided feedback on what they — the intended users — found intuitive or confusing, pleasing or troubling to them. Following each set of sessions, the study team quickly designed another iteration and improved specific features based on father feedback.


Balu, Rekha, Shawna Lee, and Samantha Steimle (2018). “Encouraging program attendance and parental engagement: Developing a smartphone application with fathers, for fathers.” OPRE Report 2018-68. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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