My doomed three month love affair with activity trackers

By James Robinson , written on July 28, 2014

From The News Desk

There’s a tan line on my wrist where a Jawbone UP band was once fastened. On the other side of my desk I see my discarded Fitbit. There’s dust on the strap. “We had some good times, you and I,” I think. But I feel no compulsion to put it on. That’s not who I am anymore.

It started gloriously. I found myself enthralled at the end of April, walking around the Pando office with a sleek black Fitbit on and the app open in front of me. I was watching it watch me! Walking from my desk to the other side of the office and back used to only be my reflex go-to for when I needed to stretch and refocus. But, it took on new meaning when I could see that I’d walked 114 steps in the process.

Fitbit’s app will vibrate warmly to congratulate you each day you reach the 10,000 step mark. I passed this feat on day two of my Fitbit adventure. My heart soared, like I was getting praised warmly by some respected authority figure. I had no reluctance in double-tapping my new wristband each night to set it to measuring my sleep. Any thoughts of how goofy this action might look were set aside with the reward waiting for me in the morning. Sleep took a new degree of fascination and interest when I could go to bed at 11:30 p.m. and wake up at 7 a.m. and have Fitbit tell me, hey, you slept for seven and a half hours!

Before this, I had been left, like a sucker, to remember on my own about when I went to sleep. And it wasn’t just that. I now knew how long I take to get to sleep on average (eight minutes!). I could open the app and get a precise timestamp for every time I got up in the night. Like a DVR for my own life.

It was an invitation for OCD, but I was infatuated. I soon became irked for every day I did not reach my 10,000 step goal, like I had failed the Gods of Fitbit. In Los Angeles for a weekend, my wife and I walked for a series of hours, sightseeing and shopping. My phone battery died and I had no way to measure my steps. Returning to our hotel, Fitbit told me I’d walked 23,000 steps. A new record! I found myself with the Fitbit app open, staring at these lofty numbers adoringly.

By the month mark I was waiting for people to bring my Fitbit up in conversation and then waxing poetic about the quantified self. Coming down from this high now, I admit with some shame that on one evening, stuck 300 steps short of my day’s goal, I paced around my apartment until the Fitbit vibrated its approval to me, signaling that I could go to bed.

I can’t pinpoint when it was exactly, but the magic faded. There were a couple of days where it was hectic at work and I only touched base with the app at the end of the day. Eventually, I’d feel the band vibrate to point out the 10,000 step mark and want to snap back, “Yes, I get it, I’ve been walking a lot today. I was there, remember?”

I stopped double-tapping my band before bed. I didn’t really care anymore for getting told how long I’d slept. You know, considering it was information I basically knew anyway, in my memory.

Less than two months into my once exultant relationship with my Fitbit, it was pretty much over. I hadn’t looked at it in days. The UP band seemed like the perfect rebound. There were trade offs, immediately. As a piece of hardware, the Fitbit is simpler, less intrusive, and waterproof. The UP band is peppier though. The app is a burst of color. The band is more engaging. It reaches out, sets you challenges, wants to talk.

Ultimately, as I took my UP band off within a couple of weeks, I reflected that its quick death on my wrist was more about me than the product.

I was finished with activity trackers. It was a sweet high, for a second.

A lot is made of the high abandonment rates for activity trackers. Inside Fitbit and Jawbone, there is an attempt to dismiss this as a byproduct of playing in the health and wellness space. We don’t doom gyms because people sign up with the best of intentions but don’t follow through.

Having played around with these toys, falling in and out of love pretty quickly, this equivocation doesn’t quite cut it for me. The problem with the quantified self to me is that it is only temporarily satisfying. You spend four hours in your day walking around town for various reasons, it’s interesting to have an app quantify just how far you’ve walked. But the satisfaction is diminishing. More or less, you know how active you’ve been. You know how long you slept.

What Jawbone, Fitbit and their kin are missing is a third dimension of engagement with your life, to grow beyond a passing fascination. For instance, Xiaomi’s planned $13 activity tracker wants to monitor your steps and sleep but also serve as a personal ID to unlock your door and phone for you. If either the Fitbit or the UP Band had had another level of functionality like this, I might never have taken them off. Data itself isn’t enough.

Jawbone is growing out its data science capabilities, probably surpassing Fitbit in this aspect, and integrating with other companies, like toys for your car and pet, or a company like SmartThings to help it become a living component of the smart home. Fitbit is caught a little flat footed here, despite having a large market share edge in terms of raw sales. It needs to help you be more healthy, not just tell you what you've done.

There’s one spot on our wrist and a lot of hype from companies who want to fill it. But there have been a lot of commercial missteps and half-baked products to boot in wearables too. Fitbit and Jawbone are two of the best to get to market, so far, sure, but the competition won’t always be so clunky. A hypothetical smart watch that people actually want to buy in mass, one that could match an activity tracker's function while performing some of the duties of the smartphone, would be perilous to these companies. It's not hard to argue that activity trackers might soon end up as a technological relic of a pre-smart watch era.

My tan line fades a little more each day. Standalone activity trackers are going to have to improve massively to avoid a similar fate.