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Will wearables actually change user behavior?

By Brian S Hall / December 16, 2013


Will wearables actually change user behavior?

I just got a brand new smartwatch! It links to my iPhone and lets me track my steps, how long I sleep, how many calories I consumed at lunch and how much weight I’ve lost this past month. I can monitor and chart my progress on my desktop computer and share my successes instantly with my social network. Will I actually do any of these things? Of course! But will I still be doing them in the months and years to come? As my Magic 8-Ball would say, “Outlook Unclear.”

There is a wearables revolution emerging — born of constant connectivity, micro-computing innovation, amazingly small sensors, touchscreen UIs and integration with our smartphones — but there remains that overarching question: will wearables actually change user behavior? The industry certainly believes so. As GigaOm noted:

A computer on your wrist can track your steps, your heart rate and even your mood, and it can do this all day long. This gives it the ability to spot patterns, and to tailor its feedback accordingly. And because the wrist-mounted one occupies a constantly visible place on your body, it gains the ability to put information in front of you instantly, at almost any time.

Wearing fitness and behavior trackers on our sleeves may be just what we need to stick with our personal goals well beyond January 2nd. After all, there’s a multi-billion dollar industry betting on it.

The world of wearables

Wearable technologies represent the next major phase in personal computing. Wearables track our activity, sleep and work habits. They monitor our heart rate, location and know how long we sit at our desks. There are few limits to their goal-setting potential.

I’ve challenged myself to walk 10,000 steps every day and lose 1.25 pounds every week until I reach my desired weight. My watch also encourages me to get more sleep, and that’s just the beginning of their capabilities.

Wearables offer immediate help and have the potential to make us healthier, happier, more productive and even live a longer life. My grandmother could certainly benefit from a dedicated wearable that tracks her blood sugar and reminds her when to take her medications.

Wearables include such devices as smartwatches, dedicated pedometers, sleep trackers, Google Glass, Jawbone, Nike FuelBand and numerous others. They span multiple form factors and use cases, tracking all manner of human movements, outputs and activities. There’s an electronic headband — Melon — that claims to use EEG technologies to help people improve their mental focus.

The Bite Counter wristband, for example, tells us if we are eating too fast. Despite the plethora of wearable devices, there is no guarantee that their data tracking, real-time feedback or reminders will actually alter user behavior over the long-term. For that to occur, the industry needs to understand that daily motivators typically work better than long-term goals, and that people come in a wide variety of body shapes and personalities.

Human 2.0 meets daily obligations

According to Business Insider, “collecting data about our habits, from what we eat to where we go to lunch, will let us learn about our daily patterns and change behaviors to improve our lives.” Fitbit, maker of several consumer wearable technologies, truly believes in bettering their customers’ lives. For example, its Fitbit Force will help users:

Stay motivated to keep moving with real-time stats right on your wrist. Track steps taken, distance traveled, calories burned, stairs climbed and active minutes throughout the day. At night, track your sleep and wake up silently with a vibrating alarm.

This promise is absolutely achievable, but there are caveats. A year-long University of Michigan study of women and exercise examined the chronic disconnect between longer-term goals, such as losing weight or living longer, and daily actions. Key conclusions of the exercise study and user behavior include:

  1. “Interventions” (e.g. reminders, education, doctor’s recommendation) help individuals start exercise programs, but don’t lead to sustained changes in behavior.
  2. Long-term goals, such as living longer and healthy aging, are much less useful as motivators than goals connected to enhancing daily quality of life.
  3. Rebranding exercise as a means of enhancing the quality of an individual’s daily life is a more effective “hook” for promoting sustainable participation.
  4. If users feel pressured to “comply” with a specific program of action, these pressures will ultimately “undermine” the sustainability of their goals.

One other finding that deserves special merit, and should be memorized by everyone in the wearables industry, is the following:

The participants who did not adhere to the daily program were exercising in order to “lose weight.” In contrast, those who did adhere exercised specifically to “enhance their daily life.

Instead of focusing on longer-term goals, show how a proposed behavior change (e.g. walking 10,000 steps) can positively impact the user’s daily life. The goal then becomes far less about living longer and more about enhancing focus at work, reducing daily stress and improving creative output.

Nike FuelBand

Making wearables work

I spoke with mobile expert Jen Quinlan, who recently attended the 2013 Wearable Tech Expo. She noted that the “abandonment rate for some health apps and wearables can be as high as 75%.” For wearables to deliver a sustained, positive impact, Quinlan offered the following advice:

  1. Wearables must offer “actionable feedback.”
  2. Wearables must provide accurate data. Being stylish or innovative is not enough.
  3. Products should be small, lightweight and have a very long-lasting battery, and they need to feel almost “invisible” to the wearer.
  4. People are different. Body types are different. Too many wearables today are designed for a mythical “perfect body” and are not appropriately designed to meet the needs of a wide range of users and user behaviors.

The potential of wearables is undoubtedly there. Monitoring, feedback and timely notifications can all lead to improved fitness and good habits, and possibly even promote more personal interactions and increased productivity.

That said, the industry needs to do more than simply create a device to monitor a specific activity. To ensure positive, sustainable user behavior, the wearable technologies market must understand what motivates people, day after day, just as they must understand that everyone is a little bit different.

See how mobile devices can alter user behavior for the better at wearabletechhealth.com.