Wearable Technology: Does Making the Invisible, Visible Shape the Way We Think About Ourselves?
January 23, 2014
by Lydia Gau, Research Associate, Sachs Insights
2014 is poised to be the year that wearable technology makes some serious inroads, as early versions are refined and competition increases exponentially. While getting to know the “Newly Mobile Senior Set,” we were surprised to find how savvy the earliest Baby Boomers were with their smart devices and managing their health—one woman even explained how she recorded her own EKG readings with electrodes connected to her iPhone. The device most prevalently being used by Boomers – and delighting them – is Fitbit.
To understand this phenomenon, we decided to explore a Fitbit Flex firsthand. (For the uninitiated: a Fitbit Flex is a fitness tracker worn on a wrist to measure daily steps, calories burned, distance traveled, active minutes, hours slept, and quality of sleep.) I will be posting my experiences from my first week, first month, a few months in, and beyond.
James Park, CEO and co-founder of Fitbit, has explained that the purpose of a Fitbit is to increase visibility of what was previously invisible. Once people are able to quantify these formerly “invisible” stats, much like a Google Analytics dashboard, we can treat our health and wellness with the same intent to strategize and optimize.
Although in theory this sounds ideal, how does this play out in daily life? Those who choose to purchase a Fitbit are a self-selected group of individuals who are already inclined to keep track of their health; it is unclear if having a Fitbit will motivate them to do the same.
For quite some time, I’ve been fascinated with understanding my daily activity and sleep efficiency--downloading apps like Sleep Cycle. I’m not a tri-athlete, though I am healthy and stay somewhat active. I enjoy taking workout classes and I’ve always enjoyed walking a lot – and in New York, I can walk everywhere.
In the first week I’ve used Fitbit to provide a baseline understanding of what my daily routine looks like. My goal is to gather information on my current activity level and use these numbers as benchmarks to understand how I can improve my exercise regimen. These numbers will confirm or deny if my self-prescription of more exercise is valid. This way, I can quantify what I need to do (e.g. walk more).
Will Fitbit help take me to this next level?
And as wearable technology evolves (and competes for our attention), what lessons can be learned from the success of Fitbit – and what can Fitbit learn as they inevitably evolve?
Rise of self-tracking devices
It’s no surprise that interest in the Quantified Self movement is spreading alongside popularity of healthcare tech innovations. In the past, most health-related trackers (e.g. pedometer) were considered ‘un-cool’ as most were big and bulky.
Today, people are using more and more technology—as devices become available – to learn about and optimize daily movements. It’s a feedback loop between technology and our human biology.
Founded in 2007 by James Park and Eric Friedman, Fitbit set its mission to improve the health of America by making people more aware of how they move. Fitbit has become a popular choice amongst other wearable tech contenders (other self-tracking devices include the Jawbone Up and Nike Fuelband) Unlike its competitors, some of Fitbit’s products use an altimeter that can track how many stairs a user climbs. Fitbit’s product has also positioned itself as best in class because of its accelerometer estimation that has been optimized through regression tests with other medical devices.
The package comes with a small and large wristband. I’m a fairly petite woman at 5’3”, so the small band fastened at the tightest notch fits me quite well.
The tracker piece looks like a small bean-shaped battery.
It fits snugly into the band and displays up to five white LED indicator lights. The Flex allows me to set a goal and use these lights to see how much of the goal I’ve completed.
You can imagine each light signifying one-fifth of a pre-determined goal, e.g. a specific number of steps each day. For example, if my goal is 10,000 steps and I’ve taken between 0 to 2,000 steps, I will have 1 blinking light. If I’ve taken between 2,000 to 4,000 steps, I will have 2 blinking lights, and so on. (More on goals later.)
The tracker needs to be charged once a week through a USB port. To do this, I remove the tracker from the band and fit it into the charging dock--also included in the package--and plug the USB end into my laptop.
Additionally, a dongle is provided to sync the data that has been collected on my tracker. The tracker records my calorie burn and sleep data for up to 7 days, while daily steps, calories, and distance data is saved for up to 30 days. The dongle must be connected to a USB port while it wirelessly connects my tracker to my online profile. I can also sync my data to my smartphone via Bluetooth.
Lastly, in the package, there are a set of extremely short instructions that direct me to visit www.fitbit.com/setup.
I like that they’ve removed lengthy instructions, but I’m interested to know if this has confused anyone who prefers fully fleshed-out instructions.
Setting it up
The entire set-up was extremely straightforward and easy to follow. I typed the URL into my browser and the website took me through, step-by-step, how to set up my Fitbit Flex and my profile. The profile is necessary for the tracker’s estimations to be accurate. The website asked for my height, weight, gender, age, and time zone. Also for estimation purposes, I indicated that I would be wearing the device on my non-dominant hand (recommended because of lesser movement).
Next, I was prompted to choose my goal. I decided to use the preset goal of 10,000 steps. Since it was Fitbit’s preset goal, I thought it would be easy to reach. I can find out if this number would be a challenge, or if, I’m already reaching this everyday without extra effort. Other goal choices include setting a particular distance, aiming for a certain number of calories burned daily, or designating a specific number of active minutes.
I like that Fitbit elevates one specific metric to importance as a measure. Having multiple numbers, for me, makes it complicated to decide which figure to optimize first, or tell which one is most important. For now, the steps metric is the most tangible for me to understand and evaluate my activeness.
My daily progress restarts everyday at midnight. In order to view my progress, I double tap the device to reveal the blinking lights; otherwise, the tracker remains blank to preserve its battery. When I reach my goal, the tracker buzzes on my wrist. To view my specific stats, I need to log into the Fitbit website or my iPhone app.
I can wear the device in the shower since it’s water-resistant—nice to not worry about damaging it on those mornings I’m half asleep. But, I’ve found that it doesn’t dry too well, so I often find myself removing the tracker from my band during the day to wipe off any accumulated water. If I remember to, I generally take off the band before I jump into the shower.
The silent alarm feature is definitely an added plus--the device shakes at a certain time. It has been working better than any other alarm for me in the morning because I’m always fully woken up when something is physically moving me—and, I’m less likely to need to press my snooze button. Also, my roommates appreciate not having to hear my loud alarm clock on days I need to wake up earlier than them. I just have to make sure the tracker is fully charged and isn’t going to run out during the night.
Some other nice features:
- Doesn’t bother me when I’m typing
- Doesn’t snag on clothes
- Ability to change the color of the band--e.g. pink, gray, mint, etc. for purchase--if I want to match my outfit. (Recently, Fitbit announced their partnership with Tory Burch for a line of accessories specific for the Flex!)
Wearing it feels like wearing a watch or bracelet—I barely notice it. Because it has become a seamless attachment to my life, I occasionally put it out of my mind. But, when I start walking again, I remember to check my progress.
I have a strong itch to want to check my specific numbers throughout the day since I am extremely tied to my smartphone. I usually access my smartphone to check some kind of status throughout the day, whether it’s my friends on Instagram, the balance on my Mint, or the weather.
Although being able to sync the info to a smartphone through Bluetooth would suggest low maintenance, at first I was having a lot of difficulty syncing to my iPhone 5. (There were multiple user reviews with the same issue when the Flex first launched in May, resulting in them losing interest in the product and recommending others to do the same.) Because of this, I’ve been using the dongle to sync to my laptop every few days.
Syncing to my iPhone was proving to be a point of frustration especially since I was just seeing data up to a few days old. I see each day as a fresh opportunity to achieve my daily goal. To me, old data on my phone does not motivate me to reach my present goal because I think about each day independently from each other. Thus, I’ve been less inclined to open up my app. But, because I am interested in seeing how I’m doing overall, I use my online profile accessed through my laptop, to look at my data on a larger screen. I feel that it is easier to access the overall comparisons through my laptop than my phone.
Shortly before I made this post, Fitbit provided an app update that makes syncing to my iPhone 5 extremely easy now. As a result of this, I access my app multiple times a day to check how I’m doing. Though, if I have my Flex linked to Bluetooth all the time, I’m afraid it will drain my phone’s battery. And thus, I’m not inclined to sync my tracker to my phone all of the time—only when I want to see my stats.
With product releases nowadays, critics are able to provide feedback almost immediately after someone gets their hands on the first item sold. Not knowing what Fitbit’s reasons were for launching the Flex before making sure every experience pathway was seamless, this QA issue could have been avoided through further testing. Whether it was pressure to release a wrist-version of the fitness tracker to contend with their competitors, Fitbit is now making releases post launch that may win back discouraged users. In Market Research, we aim to find snags in the user’s experience prior to a product launch to prevent such reactionary feedback that may deter users from continuing to use the product.
Fitbit amplifies my efforts on ‘good’ days, but…
When I plan in advance to do more walking for the day, Fitbit increases my motivation. The numbers act as a reward system for me, providing a positive feedback loop that fuels my competitiveness about meeting my 5-lights requirement. On those days, I continuously check how close I am to 5 blinking dots.
On days I’m not as active, however, I don’t check my progress too often since I am consciously avoiding a sense of failure for the day. The negative reinforcement isn’t strong enough to guilt me into exercising more. I’ve realized I need to get over a hump – about 50% – before I motivate myself to continue. If I haven’t achieved this by evening, I’m more likely to curl up with a book rather than trying to finish the remaining 50% -- knowing that it will reset at midnight and offer another chance to reach my daily goal.
I’ve connected my Fitbit account to find Facebook friends to compete against because there is a large area on my profile that persuades me to fill with information.
Most of my Facebook friends either don’t have a Fitbit, or have one but have not recently been active. (It’s difficult to say if their inactivity is due to lack of syncing or because they have stopped wearing their Fitbit.) Thus, I have one friend who I can check my stats against, but I am not motivated to outrun him because I know he is much more active than I am and not a true ‘competitor.’ He doesn’t motivate or demotivate me to reach my goal.
I’d prefer to find a buddy that is on my level to keep me accountable. Having someone I know who has a similar goal and someone I would have fun cheering on would keep me more engaged with my stats. Though, as with other competitions that I engage in with my friends (e.g. Duolingo) it is only motivating and fun at first to get me started, but soon falls by the wayside because the initial rush of competition doesn’t sustain my interest. What keeps me going is what I’m getting out of it—like learning French—instead of the competition itself.
In the meantime, I’ve joined Fitbit’s New Year’s resolution group, “Fitbit 2014 Challenge,” because I recently got an email notification about it. It sounds like an interesting way to engage Fitbit users; so far there are 12,476 members as of 1/23/14. Each week, Fitbit provides a different challenge for the individuals in the group to take on. I think being part of such a big group of people to work with (or against) won’t motivate me because I don’t know who these people are. I have no emotional connection with any, and thus I don’t feel like we are a true cohesive assembly. Nor do I feel competitive to any individuals in the group because I don’t know what their backgrounds are (e.g. the person in first place may be a marathon runner).
Fitbit gets many things right. It’s a seamless addition to my life. It gives me one main goal to track, while tracking other stats that I may be interested in. It also cues me into what I should be focused on related to my health (i.e. I need to get moving!). The act of checking has made me more cognizant of the things I should care about.
The biggest ‘miss’ is that Fitbit did not prepare me for how involved I would need to be in the tracking. I first thought that everything was automated, but it turns out that activities not requiring steps need to be logged by the user. In essence, a Fitbit is still a pedometer, and thus I need to actively parse out activities that don’t require steps (e.g. cycling and swimming). Having realized this, sleep is the only marker I diligently track each day because, I have a personal interest in how efficient my sleep is. There’s good news though, because third party developers have created add-on apps to minimize the number of clicks to log something, such as FitTap (currently only available to Android users).
I’m disappointed that I’ve forgotten a few specific activities to track in the past week, which reduces my ability to analyze my data to the fullest extent. I’m able to log these activities after they have occurred through my profile, but I have not been able to remember to track them all. Also, since tracking activities and dietary intake (for the caloric burn estimation purposes) requires so much time, I’ve been less inclined to accurately track these specifically. Knowing that my data isn’t fully accurate sometimes gives me an excuse to abandon my daily goal, and it’s easy to fall into that pattern. I have to actively remind myself to only focus on my daily steps.
Finding my optimum
So does making the invisible visible make a difference for me? I can definitely glean some initial learnings about myself. E.g. On average from home to work, I usually walk 6,000 steps--if I don’t go out of my way to reach my goal. But, I will reflect on this question—of how this data affects my behavior-- as I wear my Fitbit Flex over the next few months.
I want this device to help increase my “healthiness” and find my personal optimum – i.e. what is the optimal number of hours for me to sleep? How many steps do I need to walk a day to make up for my caloric intake?
Will Fitbit help me become more inclined to make fitness part of my daily habit? Or will it fade as it has for many of my friends? Next time I will examine how much (or little) Fitbit has become part of my lifestyle – and what could help integrate it more, including my thoughts on the dashboard on Fitbit’s website and the Fitbit app.