Why I’ll Abandon My Fitbit (Eventually)

Startup incubator RockHealth (which, incidentally, I think is an incredible organization) recently published a report on wearable sensors that’s grabbed a lot of attention in the health-tech community. The report contrasts the current state of wearables–a market focused only on certain aspects of trackable data, with three major players dominating 97% of the market, and many users becoming disengaged within months of purchasing a tracker–with a bullish future, as judged by the huge financial and human capital investments in the space.

RockHealth identifies three areas where wearable sensors need to improve before they will achieve their potential:

  • Functionality–being useful to the user
  • Reliability–measures data in an accurate and consistent way
  • Convenience–is easy to use and beautifully designed

Of the three, I think functionality is the biggest issue from a user perspective. Specifically, I don’t believe that any trackers today offer useful insights in an ongoing fashion to keep a user engaged and changing behaviors over time. Offering feedback that evolves over time in sync with user growth is how a tracker can support the fundamental human need of competence, one of the key ingredients of motivation.

Take the FitBit. I started using a FitBit One at the end of February, both as research for work and to help myself be mindful about my activity levels. I’ve been pretty consistent about wearing it, and I’ve learned a few useful things about my general state of activity:

  • I am pretty active and often get close to, if not beyond, the 10,000 step goal without having to put in extra effort. It probably helps that I live in a walkable area and do not own a car.
  • When I take the T to work, I get several thousand steps. If I walk, I get even more.
  • When I am in the office, I tend to stand and pace a lot, which helps me accumulate steps over the course of the day.
  • Unless I make a conscious effort to do so, I rarely walk stairs.
  • On days when I travel, it’s harder to get 10,000 steps, and rare that I get many more than that.

Now that I’ve gleaned these insights from my FitBit reports, I can use them to make adjustments to my behavior without using the device itself. If I’ve worked from home and missed my active commute, I know I should probably run some errands on foot. I’ve become cognizant that I should try to take the stairs more often, and I’ve actually already found myself less short of breath when I do it. And when I travel, I try to do some airport reconnaissance on foot instead of using the terminal map to squeeze in extra steps. In essence, I don’t need my FitBit anymore, because it’s given me about all the information I wanted from it.

If a given wearable wants to remain part of a user’s arsenal over a long period of time, it needs to be able to provide adaptive feedback that is continuously valuable. If the FitBit were able to evolve its feedback to help me keep learning about my activity levels, I’d be far more upset on days I forget to slip it into my pocket. Imagine if the FitBit could:

  • Gently vibrate when it senses I’ve been sitting for 90-120 minutes without getting up, to prompt me to move
  • Overlay its time-of-day activity data with information from other sources like my Outlook Calendar to help me see more patterns
  • Tap into my heart rate or respiration to help me see how not just my number of steps, but also my physiological response to movement is changing over time
  • Reflect seasonal variations in my movement, which might show not just more activity in times of the year with moderate weather, but also changes in the time of day I move or type of movement I get
  • Show me number of steps within a period of time, to better distinguish when I walk from when I run and give me feedback on my stride and pace

Each of these types of feedback would give me new information that I could apply to tweak my daily routines and maximize movement.

Looking at this short list, I realize that I can probably manually create some of these insights with the data FitBit feeds back at me. But I probably won’t. And if I, someone who works with health technology and is motivated to be fit, won’t do it myself, who will? There is a huge opportunity for FitBit and other wearables companies to add sophisticated analytics and dashboards on their backend to provide continuous utility to users.

If FitBit ever launches such a dashboard, you can bet I’ll pull the One out of the drawer and slide it back into my pocket.