Not too long ago, I started using the Fitbit One. I’d been toying with the idea of buying one for a few months, and then a friend of mine purchased one. He told me all about the neat little features (minus the need to constantly sport a bracelet), and not long after, I too was basking in the glory of having my each and every step counted. Not only that, but I got to see how I measured up to my fellow Fitbitters, nearly step by step. I even started tracking my weight, diet and sleep habits, just to see how my diet, steps and sleep impacted my weight. In fact, I am wearing it right now. It’s beautiful having all of this data tracked.
But what is it really doing for me?
Some call this sort of digital fitness tracker a “glorified pedometer,” and in many ways, they are right. Aside from its ability to track my sleeping patterns (when expressly commanded to do so1), I could technically just wear an old-fashioned pedometer, then track my steps at the end of each day in an Excel spreadsheet. I could just use an iPhone app to track my sleeping patterns. I could even share this information with my friends, as annoying as that would be. Yet, the difference is that I wouldn’t. The convenience of this little device means that data gets tracked and I barely have to lift a finger. However, now that I have that data, I am left wanting more.
No, Fitbit, I am not blaming you; it’s not your fault. Quite the contrary — it’s my fault. As a consumer, I have essentially stated, “I need a sleek, out-of-the-way device that tracks my every move,” and then stopped there. What I should be saying is, “I need a convenient device that tracks me well and provides meaningful suggestions for me.”
Yes, just as I could wear an old-fashioned pedometer, I very well could just read the data that my wonderful device gives me and correlate it myself in order to extract some sort of useful information. Again, the difference is that I won’t. Why would I do something that could be done for me? The data is there, after all. Why not put it to work? For example, why can’t it tell me whether I sleep enough to be considered healthy, or when I should go to sleep based on my previous sleeping patterns if I want to get enough rest, or whether my step pattern indicates I’m not getting up from my seated position enough times per day. That’s useful information that could help me do my job better, develop fewer health issues and generally feel less stressed. I’m not asking for miracles here; I’m asking for information in the form of suggestions.
To me, there’s a difference between data and information. Data is unstructured facts and numbers; in essence, simply a log. On the other hand, information tells me what the data means, hopefully in the context of something I can understand. This is an extremely important distinction.
Looking at the Fitbit website, there are a number of items (data) I am currently able to log: Food, Activities, Weight, Sleep, Journal, Heart, BP (Blood Pressure) and Glucose. Out of those eight, one is technically automatic, and the other (sleep) is nearly automatic. The rest require external input. I’m not saying they should have packed all these features in as automatic; I understand the importance of doing a few things really well as opposed to doing many things not so well. However, I also understand incremental (read: slow and steady) changes for the benefit of a product.
Take the “Journal” feature, for example. On the Fitbit website, this screen asks me what my mood is, whether I’m suffering from allergies and asks me to write a nice little entry. In the blog entry they wrote on the subject, they highlight its usefulness:
Now you can track your mood, allergy level and generally record your daily observations with the new fitbit journal feature. And use the information you record to identify trends and correlate your sleep and mood with other factors that may be affecting your activity level.
Notice they don’t mention anything about their service correlating sleep, mood and other factors. They’re talking about me doing the work. Me. The guy who won’t even bother tracking my steps in an Excel spreadsheet. Again, I am understanding here. After all, how are they to get that sort of data out of the existing device? Unless it has a heart rate monitor built in that I don’t know about, I’d imagine the task next to impossible. Yet, I have seen small devices that track heart rate, so why am I hearing nothing about plans for this feature?
I’m not saying you can directly derive mood from heart rate2, but since the Fitbit is already talking to my iPhone, why not detect sharp changes in heart rate and then prompt me for my current mood? And sure, I can write a journal entry later if I feel like it. What’s important is that, at my discretion, mood can now be linked to heart rate, along with my sleeping and step patterns. Now, on top of the other examples given earlier, I can receive even better information: how my sleep patterns correlate to instances of anxiety or stress in a given day, how sleep length impacts happiness, how my level of activity impacts happiness, etc. I could go on with these examples. Why leave the correlating up to me? Sure, give us access to the data; I’m sure some people could come up with charts and graphs of their own to provide themselves with meaningful information, but not me.
And, of course, I know Fitbit works with the Aria Scale to track weight. I haven’t used it yet, so I don’t know whether it yields the kind of information I’m after, but given the rest of the Fitbit experience, I’d bet not.
If I’m not limiting myself to the real world, there is a magical device that tracks me, runs algorithms to determine optimal progress, then interacts with me non-judgmentally to work toward goals. If that means automatically tracking my daily activities, moods, heart rate, blood pressure, sleep patterns, glucose and cortisol levels3, so be it. That’s the future I want to live in, even if it takes a few device iterations to get there.
On the other hand, Fitbit, what’s stopping you from crunching some numbers in the mean time? While I’m waiting for the next tracking feature on your amazing little device, why not work on the information you’re providing to us through your service? I mean, the data is there for the taking. In my case, you’ve got three months work with.
But maybe I’m oversimplifying things. To me, it seems like you could do what Google does with search data to my fitness data. Why not run my seemingly simple information through a number of different algorithms to give me meaningful, tailored suggestions? It seems like the next logical step. And while I am still loyal to Fitbit, someone is bound to come along and do this even if you don’t. In fact, there’s really nothing stopping another company from using the data provided by Fitbit to grant my digital wishes.
Now there’s an idea.
- In order to put my Fitbit One in Sleep Tracker Mode, I must wear a special wrist band and, when I am about to sleep, press its little button for ~2 seconds to signal sleep readiness. Once I wake up, I hold the same button for ~2 seconds to signal the fact that I am now awake.
- In a study titled The Relationship Between Heart Rate and Mood in Real Life conducted by Derek W. Johnston and Pavlos Anastasiades, it was stated that, “Heart rate related to emotional state in very few subjects when time-series statistical methods, which take into account the autocorrelated nature of the data, were used.” To me, that says you can’t consistently determine mood from heart rate. Just saying.
- Have you heard of Cue? “Cue is a revolutionary new device that connects you to your health at the molecular level. Simply load a cartridge and add a sample to access deep information about your body, on demand and on your schedule. Discover every day how activity, food, and sleep shape your body’s story. And achieve meaningful, daily improvments to tell a new one.” Now that’s what I’m talking about.