I’ve always been a gold-star person. Highly competitive and visually motivated, it’s not enough to hear that I’m doing well. I want the medal, trophy, and embossed certificate to prove it. And gold stars? The shinier the better, if you please.
It’s only natural then, that I joined the ranks of the wearable folk pretty early on. From a primitive Nike tracker, to a pretty Jawbone bracelet, to the Apple Watch Series 2 that just arrived as a replacement for my worn-out faithful Fitbit—all meant to monitor my steps, workouts, food, calories, heart rate, and sleep.
When technology and human biology collide
The first thing I do each morning is reach over and check an app to see how well (or poorly) my Apple Watch says I slept the night before. Later in the day, I’ll verify through a different app that all my activities are calculating correctly. And if I’m in a particularly obnoxious phase, I’ll open yet another app to log every bite and sip I’ve consumed throughout the day. I diligently ensure that every one of my sins has been accounted for.
Accenture reports that in the two years leading up to 2016, the number of Americans wearing health wearables increased from 9 percent to 21 percent. (PricewaterhouseCoopers claims it’s more like one in five people.) In that same period, the use of mobile health apps doubled to 33 percent. And let’s be (sapphire) crystal clear, these numbers don’t accurately take into account the rapidly growing smartwatch industry. (What’s on my wrist?) Gartner believes the smartwatch—thanks to Apple—will see its biggest year yet in 2017. And then there is the burgeoning AI and virtual reality wearable industry that is still in its infancy.
The future of wearables is difficult to anticipate admits Dan Ledger, a principal at Endeavour Partners in an “Inside Wearables” whitepaper series. Why? The unknown intersection of technology and human physiology and biology. “This an area that, A, very few people really understand well and B, is evolving in several interesting directions. It’s not necessarily obvious to most what is and what is not in the realm of possibilities as we look towards the future.”
The realm of possibilities—just one reason why an estimated 40 percent of consumers plan to buy a wearable fitness monitor within the next five years. It’s the excitement of the unknown, married with the motivation of the known, that inspire many of us to put on a wearable every day.
Breathe. Breathe again. Stand up. Go for a walk. Sleep.
Did I mention that my new Apple Watch beeps at me when it’s time to breathe?
It sounds a little silly, but this is the evolution of the tracker. The wearable concept started as a motivation game—gamifying everyday behaviors—like walking with a pedometer or scanning food labels and counting calories. But that’s no longer enough for the self-minded and health-conscious consumer.
The team from TrendWatching notes in “Benchmarked Life” that consumers have grown impatient with the simple tracking metrics of yore. Demanding wearers of wearables want more holistic self-tracking that incorporates mood, well-being, and very specific health and fitness measurements.
Demanding wearers of wearables want more holistic self-tracking that incorporates mood, well-being, and very specific health and fitness measurements.
“It’s more than just getting in our 10,000 steps a day,” said Chi Bahk, a director with Epidemico, during a panel at SXSW earlier this year. “There are so many other things that people don’t think about that affects their physical and mental health—social media usage, stress, GPS, or our calendar. Your GPS knows if you went out to dinner or ate at home. It sees if you were in back-to-back meetings. All this impacts your stress, your physical and mental states.”
Today’s newer apps and devices —rings, headsets, tattoos, and goggles—monitor everything from sun exposure, to hydration levels, stress and recovery, fertility, productivity, and even our level of bad breath, all in real-time.
“Data is so much more powerful in real-time versus in retrospect,” said Young Bang a VP with Booz Allen Hamilton, while at SXSW. His colleague, Yohan Lee, Senior Data Scientist, agreed. “You don’t always have the symptoms when you walk into a doctor’s office. You have them when you are at home sitting on the couch, or interacting with your spouse. I can’t replicate the feeling I have when my spouse and I are fighting—when I’m paying the $500 penalty for the $50 crime. But my wearable knows, and my wearable remembers.”
”I can’t replicate the feeling I have when my spouse and I are fighting—when I’m paying the $500 penalty for the $50 crime. But my wearable knows, and my wearable remembers.” - Yohan Lee
So knowing all this stuff can only be good, right? It is until the number starts meaning more than the experience or the purpose. I once didn’t take my dog on a walk because my device was charging and my steps wouldn’t count. And another time I stopped talking to a friend because she didn’t invite me to our recurring Fitbit challenge the week she knew I was running a race. (She almost always beats me.)
Wearable, you are wearing me down
Ask anyone with a tracking device about their experience and they are likely to claim confliction.
Accenture’s study shows that of current users, 24 percent feel their device is too complicated and 21 percent don’t think their device works as advertised. Research from Endeavour Partners shows that one-third of Americans who own a wearable stop using it within six months.
Users cite everything from data overload, to stress, to detachment from the actual activity, to an over-reliance on the tracker, to full-on addiction to the data.
Others find the activity tracking to be invasive. Lee blames this on the structure of most devices. “The watch-form factor is flawed, because not everyone is used to wearing a watch. It actually changes their behavior.” One online writer named Sarah asks, “Can’t we just enjoy our exercise and daily activities without having to micromanage and examine every aspect about them under a microscope?”
“I really thought it would be life-changing,” said Elin Staves, a writer who works from home. “I tend to get sedentary and thought it would get me eating better, moving more, and just being better. I was excited about something telling me what to do and when to do it. Yes, I made sure I got my steps in, but I ended up being more guilted into it than motivated.”
Why am I even wearing this thing?
In an interview with Knowledge@Wharton, Mitesh Patel, an assistant professor of medicine and health care management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School, states, “These devices alone often are not enough to actually take people who have low motivations and get them to change their behavior.”
But, says Patel, if you pair the device, the smartphone, or the app with an engagement strategy—a corporate wellness program, financial reward, a competition, or a social incentive—people are much more likely to follow through with their goals. “We find that people who do things with their spouses or their partners or their friends and family tend to stick with it more than people who do it by themselves.” It seems the relationship with the wearable improves if it includes relationships with other people.
If you pair the device, the smartphone, or the app with an engagement strategy—a corporate wellness program, financial reward, a competition, or a social incentive—people are much more likely to follow through with their goals.
That brings us back to the gamification concept. Even as we are evolving the wearable, the basic premise of “making it fun, social, and easy” still has a place. And this becomes very apparent with Millennials. Known for craving feedback, and wanting rewards for good behavior, 37 percent of Millennials say they’d be strongly motivated to use a wearable if it “rewarded those who frequently use it with loyalty points,” found the PwC study. That number rose to 52 percent if the rewards were cash-based. Money may not be able to buy love, but it can buy better health tracking.
Making sense of it all
No matter which wearable ends up on your body, it’s important to know why you bought it in the first place. Knowing your goal— weight loss, better sleep, or a reduction in stress—will help direct your behavior.
Next, think about how the wearable will help achieve your goal. This is where you may need to do research or consult with your healthcare provider. If weight loss is the primary purpose of your device, then a correlated behavior of walking more steps, or working out 30 minutes a day makes sense. And if you need stress relief? Then yes, being reminded (and subsequently scored and praised) when to stand, breathe, and meditate will likely pay off.
If you need some support or a little healthy competition, then share your stats with those who bring out your best behavior. Almost all wearable apps have gamification features, so you can boast discreetly.
Then, what should you do with all the data? How can you properly analyze and cross-reference all the numbers? For starters, stop stressing about it. (Your device knows when you are stressed!) Every wearable comes with its own app and there are many third-party ones that provide supplemental or additive information. In many cases, it comes down to personal preference—dashboards, alerts, or downloads.
The big thing to keep in mind? The data, is at this point, rudimentary.
While Netflix is able to recommend a movie based on my prior behavior, my Apple Watch isn’t yet predicting my future physiological state or truly helping me to make better decisions based off complex algorithms of all my (and everyone else’s) collected data. In other words, your smartwatch is not ready to replace your trusted physician and a series of pin-pricks and diagnostic tests.
In other words, your smartwatch is not ready to replace your trusted physician and a series of pin-pricks and diagnostic tests.
“There will be a time,” said Tony Merlo, Chief Knowledge Officer at Agile Edge Technologies, “that your device data will go directly to your healthcare provider.” This approach takes the onus solely off the wearer and creates informed and joint decision-making. You and your doc will decide what data to collect and what to do about it. But there are some hurdles to overcome before that becomes the norm. There’s privacy to consider, the regulatory challenges—wearables aren’t regulated by the FDA, as they are “trackers” and not health care—and ethics.
Staves concedes that her wearable did give her valuable health data, but she never shared her numbers with her doctor. “I was actually embarrassed to bring it up. Would he really think my silly bracelet data was worth knowing?”
The answer is: that depends. Your doctor isn’t interested in you showing up to your next physical with pages of excel calculations cobbled together from Fitbit and Jawbone data. Your doctor does care about abnormalities that you see in your trend data—like a sudden change in your sleep quality, or an unexplainable spike in your average heart rate. And if you do diligently track your food and exercise? Your doctor will indeed be interested in hearing actual figures over, “I try to exercise about 2-4 times a week, and I think I only eat dairy, maybe, I think about six times a month. Usually.”
Finally, there needs to be action.
If you wear it, wear it well
Even with the naysayers, studies show that being more conscious and self-aware (thanks to an activity tracking wearable or a smartwatch) can help you: exercise more regularly, lead a healthier lifestyle, be more efficient and productive, lose weight, and adopt a healthier diet. Undeniably, wearables are creating a better connection to people and their health.
It comes down to this: if you are wearing a wearable, you owe yourself some action. Be it walking, working out, or waking up at the same time each day. But seriously, stop stressing about it—your wearable knows.
Every day—likely every second—my data gets mixed up, mingled, and judged next to the stats of everyone else with a wearable device. I envision that somewhere there’s a giant leaderboard with my health, love, and life ranking on it, and I like it. I only hope there’s a gold star or two next to my name.
Sarah Stealey Reed is the editor of Relate. When she's not wandering the world, she's a loud writer of customer experiences, contact centers, and optimistic relationships. Find her on Twitter: @stealeyreed.