Notch Launches to Make Healthy Living (and Data Nerds) Sexy

By Sarah Lacy , written on May 9, 2012

From The News Desk

Do you live in the Venn diagram between data nerds, design nerds, and health nerds? Then I'm about to tell you about your new favorite site. Notch is a project that takes all your Fitbit data and turns it into a very cool-looking infographic all about what you did today.

Notch is a simple app, and you could call it a little bit of a gimmick. But there's something sort of rock star about a gorgeously designed infographic created about something so personal and banal as how many steps you took today. And Notch's creator Eli Holder hopes that it makes you smile enough that you walk a little further, eat a little better, and eventually get more healthy.

"Data isn't sexy," he says. "At least not by itself. And that's a problem, because for data to have an impact, people have to actually interact with it. Dashboards and Analytics are great, if you're running a company or tracking a website. But consumers have more interesting things to do. If we're going to make this data impactful for everyday life, it's got to be presented in a simpler, more engaging way."

Notch has a totally different approach to health: It's not about guilting, shaming, or scaring you into getting healthy. It's about flattering, delighting, and luring you into it. "We want to shift the conversation from big serious health problems to something fun," he says. "We're almost more of a content play than anything. It's sort of a cool way to disguise a humblebrag."

This is a personal passion for Holder, who considers himself squarely in that Venn diagram I described above. He sold his first company Unblab to AOL in 2010. It created machine learning software to identify important emails, similar to Gmail's Priority Inbox. I asked how it went at AOL, and he smiled and said, "About as well as it went for you." He'd never worked inside a big company, and if nothing else, it was a great year to understand how big companies work -- and possibly, why he'd rather not be at one.

But there was one huge benefit: His life was so much less intense that he focused on getting in really good shape. He wants more people like him to get in shape and had a hunch that one could appeal to people through cool, highly personalized design.

If you call Notch a company, Eli Holder will quickly correct you. "It's a project. It's me and a designer and a consultant," he says. "We're an experiment, not a startup." If people like it, he has a lot more he wants to build. But he wants to make sure people like it first.

The measured approach isn't a bad move. There's a long line of cool, health-related companies that have never quite taken off. I've always been of the belief that you have to build sites for the way people are, not the way they wish they were. This is the same reason a lot of budgeting sites don't take off. We all love the idea of eating well and balancing a checkbook, but life tends to get in the way, and then that site makes us feel like we failed.

Holder has thought a lot about that fine line between aspiration and reality, between being supportive and "kicking someone's ass a little." The key, he says, is making the data accessible and fun. Notch makes the fact that you walked a million steps whimsical and funny -- it doesn't lecture you about obesity and heart disease.

As the product develops -- assuming people flock to it -- he wants to make sure people are thinking about the long term impacts of small little decisions every day. The long term impact of taking a break from work and going on a ten minute walk. The long term impact of that cheeseburger you are eating. "Our brains are wired for surviving the savannah, not thinking about long term health decisions," he says. If you're going to get people healthy they have to start thinking that way and if you're going to force people to think that way, why not do it through humor and design?

My concern with Notch is that it's limited to the Fitbit right now. That really limits the market. I bet there are thousands of people reading this now who would love to check it out but can't. That's the exact reaction I had, when I first heard about Notch. I don't even know where to get a Fitbit.

But if you actually have a Fitbit, could you do me a favor? Could you go sign up for Notch? I want it to become popular enough that Holder sticks with it. I think he's onto something, and I'm interested to see where he takes it.