Exploring Activity-Focused Wearables

This summer at Fuzzy Math, we are exploring the impact and interactions of wearable technology as each member of our team participates in a three-month-long project to explore the ins and outs of these devices. This endeavor will be broken down into three phases: 1) first impressions and getting to know one’s wearable device, 2) empirical evidence and applications for it, and 3) design principles for each category of devices. This summer-long study is comprised of three separate category groups for the sake of tracking and analyzing data and findings. These groups are activity, awareness, and sleep. For more information, read our introductory post on this project and follow @fuzzymath on twitter, hashtag: #fmwearable.

Goals of the Activity Group

For the past few months, the Activity group has been hard at work tracking our steps, runs, and bike rides all in the name of better, more effective experiences. After a few months of using our devices, we all sat down to reflect on our journeys so far. Through our discussions and recollections, we turned a keen eye towards identifying just what has made our time so far either ‘outstanding!’ or ‘not so great.’

You can read more about what each of our initial impressions were in our first set of posts. To sum up why we chose the devices we did, Julia decided she’d like to become more active with her Withings Activité Pop, while Elise found the Fitbit Zip after looking for a wearable that was unobtrusive and accurate. Carl’s Misfit Shine fit the bill for something that didn’t require a wrist, and Caitlin was torn between two options, but eventually landed on the Fitbit Charge HR because of the instant feedback it provides. Ben rounded out the activity group with the Fitbit Surge and was looking for a wearable that would show his baseline level of activity over time. He was especially interested in the 24-hour heart rate monitoring feature.

Talking through all of the elements that might contribute to a great experience, we started to develop an initial set of design principles. While our goal was to craft activity-specific principles, we noticed that many of the principles we came up with originally felt a bit more general than we had hoped. After the initial wave of confusion passed, we dove in a bit deeper and realized that perhaps we were on the right track after all.

 

Why so general?

Most activity trackers today have been on the market for some time, with the exception of Withings, which was released after Fitbit and Misfit first appeared in the wearable devices market. Coupled with the fact that most “activity” trackers available today track more than just steps, it started to become clear that maybe our design principles felt general because activity trackers are general by design. For instance, among the wearable devices covered by solely the activity-focused group during this experiment, the activity data that one could track included: steps, distance based on estimated stride length (plus the Fitbit Surge has GPS), resting versus active heart rates (Fitbit Charge HR and Fitbit Surge), floors climbed, and even food ingested. This lack of specificity tells us that people who seek out a wearable device for activity-tracking might not want a device that only falls into one niche; they want to see the whole picture of their activity.

 

Culture/Activity

In a culture that sometimes seems overly obsessed with losing weight, exercising, and dieting, activity tracking wearables are relevant to our own health goals. They are effective tools because they fulfill a desire for something that will track users’ fitness efforts and positively reinforce their successful health decisions. These fitness efforts are tracked using fundamental measures such as steps and distance, but a wearable can be used to collect even more data about its user. Integrating capabilities to measure things like heart rate, O2, sleep, and calories transforms the wearable beyond a simple pedometer into a fully fledged health and fitness monitor. While the “extra” measurements such as sleep monitoring and calorie intake/burn are perks of using certain wearables, the fundamental desire to track activity is ultimately the selling point that has gotten us hooked on these tools and has played a big part in the surge of brands like Fitbit, Garmin, and Jawbone.

 

Fitness Intentions

The difference between holding ourselves accountable and the illusion of holding ourselves accountable can be a fine line.

For some gyms, the ideal member is someone who buys a membership but never actually shows up (NPR, 2014). Are fitness wearables the new gym membership?

In recent years, increased awareness to our health and fitness has undoubtedly spiked a renewed interest in one of the earliest commercially available wearables the step counter (in reality, a motion tracker).

Buying new gear is usually an enjoyable first step that begins building momentum toward a sense of change. Moreover, this feeling of dedication is especially prevalent in activity wearables. We are depending on a piece of potentially expensive technology, to provide us with new and accurate insights into our daily active lives.

The fact of the matter is that most people move more than they think during the day. Activities such as getting dressed, walking to the bathroom, and brushing one’s teeth are not only counted as steps, but often over-counted by activity tracking wearables. Seeing these daily movements appear as high numbers of “steps” can provide someone with a false sense of accomplishment. “Couch potatoes” might be privy to such data for the very first time and fall into the temptation to justify putting in less effort due to the higher-than-previously-thought level of activity being reported by the device. Even simply wearing an activity tracker can create positive encouragement from friends and family (i.e. “Oh you got a Fitbit! Good for you — glad to see you’re being healthy!”). These harmless comments can provide a user with premature positive reinforcement, which can hinder the more arduous next steps: actual lifestyle change.

With this said, not everyone who purchases a wearable wears it mindlessly, just like not everyone who buys a gym membership stays at home. It is important to be aware that seeing data is not the same as making a meaningful change, it’s just one step closer.

 

Conclusion

After realizing that the nature of our activity wearables extends beyond the simplicity of a step-counter, we sought to create a list of design principles that reflected the fundamentals of a well-designed, multi-functional activity wearable. One main pillar of our design principles covers the topic of durability and can be previewed below:

Withstand the Elements    

Humans are physically capable of many things. As an extension of the human body, wearables need to withstand physical demands beyond most other hardware. Consider both the context of wear Will it be worn on the wrist? …Thrown in a pocket? …Stuffed in an armband?) and the context of use (Will users wear this while running? …While tossing and turning in bed? …While diving in the ocean?). While sweat and friction may be heightened concerns for activity trackers, a more passive ride in a hot subway car might generate similar physical concerns.

Teaser Principle:

Durability

The activity group was in charge of all things active. Most of the activity-related discussions or debates were formed between the similar wearables themselves (such as Fitbit users discussing the devices’ similarities and differences within Fitbit products), rather than spread across our different devices. Ultimately the spirit of the activity trackers was personal fulfillment through social interaction.
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