Do Life Tracker Apps Work?

29 April 2014

Some of my friends recently got a cool new gadget, the Jawbone Up. They've been trying to convince me to get one too to join in on their self-tracking journey, but I'm hesitating. I've tried a couple of life-tracking tools in the past, but have never managed to become a long-term user.

I want to consider for a moment this category of products and why they've been hard for me to adopt. Under this umbrella of life-tracking tools, I'm including all those products that help you measure or quantify your daily habits, whether it be diet (e.g. MyFitnessPal or other calorie counters), sleep (e.g. SleepBot), or physical activity (e.g. FitBit, Jawbone, etc.).

These kinds of products are all the rage nowadays, but do they actually work? To clarify, I'm confident that these apps can in fact track my caloric intake or measure the number of steps I take. But, I question whether these products actually go beyond that and achieve the underlying (but not always clearly stated) goal of helping users improve their lifestyles. I think that the answer is a "not yet".

The first battle: collecting the data

When trying to think critically about existing life-tracking tools, it's only fair to first acknowledge a huge product design difficulty they face: how do you collect lifestyle data from users? This is a challenge, but existing apps are starting to do this fairly well.

On one side of the spectrum, there are products like FitBit which try to reduce the burden for the user as much as possible: just wear a little gadget, and it'll try to estimate the number of steps you take, or how many reps of an exercise you've done. These kinds of activities can now be measured fairly well by very small gadgets, and products in this space obviously make an effort to reduce the burden on the user as much as possible (through automatic and wireless syncing, for example).

However, the range of data that can be collected passively is limited. Some kinds of data like diet or the beginning and end of sleep require a user's intervention. MyFitnessPal, for example, has users input everything they eat in a day. This kind of information can be both more granular and more useful, but comes at a heavy cost in terms of time and effort. There is also sometimes a need to learn how to enter data (a non-trivial example: users learning how to estimate the number of calories in a home-cooked meal). Users reasonably expect a proportionally higher benefit in order to justify the continued use of such products.

The bigger battle: I have the data, but now what?

Data collection aside, I would argue that the bigger problem that life-tracking tools have yet to crack is a much more fundamental one: how can using a life-tracking tool help me actually improve my life? My goal might be as general as that, or it might be more specific, such as improving my physical fitness or eating habits.

So far, life-tracking tools have seemingly fixated on just that - tracking. This is the biggest reason why I haven't become a long-term user of any of these products - I don't simply want to collect and have data, but I want to leverage that data to be healthier. I already roughly know how active I am in a given day, so having a step counter is only a small marginal benefit for me.

To become better products, these trackers need to go a step beyond just tracking and provide a service that better addresses users' underlying demand: the desire to improve their lifestyles with data.

One way to achieve this is to approach the problem from a different angle: offer rewards to incentivize the user to change on his own. An easy kind of reward to give comes from gamifying the entire experience - make a competition out of taking a lot of steps in a day, or include rewards for eating healthy. Many products have already done this, allowing users to compare themselves to their friends and awarding users with badges or accomplishments when they hit goals or a new personal record. Creating a competition with a user's friends is one way to motivate them all. But, this effect is hindered by the fact that there are so many different trackers out there, so your friends might be spread across a few of them.

A step farther down this road would be to provide financial incentives. Pact does this by allowing users to earn money for every time they go to the gym - the cost of these rewards is covered by users who didn't meet their gym visiting goals that week.

The next step, which I don't think is being done yet, would be to link up lifestyle trackers to a user's health insurance policy, which is a very real financial cost that users have. Imagine what a powerful incentive it would be to offer users a reasonable amount of money off of their health insurance plans if they met their recommended exercise amounts.

Rewards aside, how else can lifestyle trackers address the underlying goal? Another answer lies in harnessing the power of collected data to offer (or 'push' to the user) actionable, appealing, and personalized suggestions.

Imagine the following: I have a lunch on my calendar for Saturday, and it's just far enough from my apartment that I would probably default to taking the subway there. In reality, it would only take me 10 minutes longer to walk there. What if there were an app that could detect this and, a couple of hours before lunch, suggest to me that it's a nice day out (because it can access weather data as well!) and I could leave 10 minutes earlier to take a nice walk to lunch?

Or, what if there was an app that knew about my daily habits and, when I started slipping on my treadmill workouts, suggested new workout regiments to try, or even looked up new kinds of fitness classes nearby that have free trials?

Or, what if there was an app that could see that I've just checked into a restaurant, and then point out to me the healthiest options on the menu? Or, it could recognize that my dinner at a burger restaurant is a lost cause, and instead casually suggest setting an alarm for earlier the next morning to go for a jog.

There are a lot of fun ideas that these products could try if they can get enough data about a person's habits. This is a big if, no doubt, but many of these apps already link up to other life-tracking apps to allow users to aggregate their stats in one place. To take it to the next level, these apps will want to link themselves to new data sources like users' emails or calendars. In fact, this idea is not too far from what Google Now strives to do, and some partnership (or acquisition...?) between Google Now and one of these fitness apps could prove to be a game-changer.

I've always found the first few days or weeks with a new life-tracking tool to be exciting and motivating. But after that honeymoon period, learning about how many calories I ate or how many steps I've taken has always become less useful. I wish these apps would use the information I give them to be more proactively helpful - giving me a few gentle nudges or suggestions at just the right time, or even pulling a couple of psychological tricks on me. I haven't made a final decision on the Jawbone yet, but perhaps I'll give it a try - the technology is advancing quickly, and perhaps someday soon all that collected data will suddenly become much more useful.

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