Matt Barnes standing by arch

Matthew Barnes, '22

February 8, 2022
Science Leadership Scholar researches and designs technology to support human flourishing

Promoting health and happiness through technology fascinates Matthew Barnes, ’22. This week, he will launch a six-week trial with approximately 50 University of Richmond students to test the efficacy of a mobile app he designed to promote regular exercise habits.

“I created the app as a delivery method for increasing exercise attendance and duration for people like me who are on the fence about exercising,” he said. “It uses notifications and positive and negative feedback combinations to motivate people to exercise.”

Barnes undertook the creation and testing of his app as part of his Jepson School senior honors thesis. His faculty advisor, Dr. Kristin Bezio, researches how video games influence society.

“In my thesis, I combine what I learned in my leadership studies major about motivating people with the technical expertise I learned in my computer science major,” the Science Leadership Scholar said. “Also, as part of my thesis, I will use principles discussed in my Leadership Ethics class to conduct an ethical analysis on behavior modification's implications for society."

He said he will analyze data from the trial to determine whether the app is successful in helping users form and sustain a regular exercise regimen. In April, he will present his findings at the Jepson Student Research Symposium.

His senior honors thesis built upon knowledge Barnes gained this past summer during his Jepson internship with Behavior Design Media, a company that develops media to help people lead happier, healthier lives. The Jepson School of Leadership Studies awarded him a Burrus Fellowship to support his internship. 

The budding computer scientist worked on a Behavior Design Media team charged with developing Sunny, a mobile app created to build positive social interactions and decrease loneliness. The app encourages users to engage in small, everyday actions that bring people together to inspire and support one another.

“For example, Sunny has a surprise category that prompts users to leave a nice note in a library book or hide a gift in someone’s house for them to find later,” he said. “Another category focuses on strengthening the community by suggesting actions like thanking a public servant or helping out at a food pantry.”  

As an intern, Barnes researched similar well-being apps to see what they did and didn’t do. He helped set up an early version of Sunny’s wiki as a resource for his team to manage content. He also helped populate the database from which the app pulls. During winter break, he returned to his internship to assist with testing the app on Figma, a collaborative design platform.

“It was really cool to see the parallels between testing Sunny’s Figma prototype and my computer science class Human and Computer Interaction, where we used Figma,” he said. “As an intern, I also drew on what I learned about human behavior in my leadership studies class Experimental and Behavioral Economics. Our class discussions on social psychologist Robert Cialdini’s principles of influence were particularly relevant to my work.”

Now the senior from Springfield, Pa., is looking for a post-graduation job where he can work collaboratively, problem-solve, and promote human flourishing through the use of innovative technology. He believes his University of Richmond education has prepared him well.

“My liberal arts education gave me a well-rounded set of knowledge,” he said. “I took a social science approach to my studies. I’d go from talking about philosophy in a leadership class to talking about the inner workings of a computer in a computer science class. The balance kept me on my toes.”