THE PSY­CHOL­OGY BE­HIND WEAR­ABLES

Wearable track­ers might be a new fad, but ul­ti­mately it takes more than data to get users mo­ti­vated

DQ Channels - - Channel Pulse - Writ­ten by MON­ICA ROZEN­FELD, IEEE Mem­ber

Wearable track­ers might be a new fad, but ul­ti­mately it takes more than data to get users mo­ti­vated

If you’re like me, you’ve prob­a­bly bought a wearable that tracks your steps in hopes it will in­spire you to walk more. And if you’re also like me, you learned quickly what it takes to reach your daily goal and started leav­ing your gad­get col­lect­ing dust in a drawer.

This is not a unique sce­nario. Ac­cord­ing to En­deavor Part­ners, a mar­ket re­searcher, while at least 1 in 10 Amer­i­cans over the age of 18 owns a track­ing de­vice like the Fit­bit or Nike Fuelband, more than a third of those who get them aban­don them within a few months. The rea­sons given in­clude mean­ing­less stats, poor de­sign, and loss of in­ter­est.

El­iz­a­beth Churchill, a spe­cial­ist in user ex­pe­ri­ence with a back­ground in ex­per­i­men­tal psy­chol­ogy, is study­ing how to go be­yond the data wear­ables gather to mo­ti­vate peo­ple on a sub­con­scious level to take charge of their health. She is coau­thor of “Wellth Cre­ation: Us­ing Com­puter Science to Sup­port Proac­tive Health,” pub­lished last Novem­ber in IEEE’s Com­puter mag­a­zine, which can be down­loaded from the IEEE Xplore Dig­i­tal Li­brary.

“Hu­mans have com­plex mo­ti­va­tional sys­tems,” she says. “If de­sign­ers of wear­ables

Some peo­ple will an­nounce a per­sonal health or fit­ness goal on Face­book. These so­cial plat­forms—whether they’re made up of strangers striv­ing for the same ob­jec­tive or friends and fam­ily—help make peo­ple feel ac­count­able

don’t un­der­stand peo­ple on a holis­tic level, then they cre­ate de­vices that won’t work over the long term for the ma­jor­ity of users.”

MIS­LEAD­ING MO­TI­VA­TION

The pop­u­lar­ity of wearable track­ers in the past few years is partly due to out­side in­cen­tives: for ex­am­ple, em­ploy­ers pro­vid­ing a dis­count on med­i­cal in­sur­ance premi­ums or com­peti- tion among col­leagues for a prize. “These are ex­am­ples of co­er­cion in the best sense of the word,” Churchill says. But once the in­cen­tive is gone, it’s dif­fi­cult for users to keep up the same level of en­gage­ment.

“If I go run­ning, I’m do­ing so be­cause I want to be fit and healthy. I run be­cause I want to feel good, fit into a smaller dress size again, breathe fresh air, and see my neigh­bor­hood,” she says. “There are many lev­els of mo­ti­va­tion that are not about how many steps I took or if I get a dis­count.” Be­cause wear­ables sim­ply present a num­ber, the data alone is of­ten not mean­ing­ful enough to keep peo­ple de­voted to their de­vices.

MAK­ING FIT­NESS FUN

To learn what ac­tu­ally makes peo­ple tick, Churchill and other re­searchers are tak­ing cues from gam­ing and so­cial media.

Take the Zom­bies, Run! app. A team that in­cluded a science fic­tion writer, a game devel­oper, and a per­sonal trainer de­signed it to mo­ti­vate peo­ple to “run for their lives.” Its more than 800,000 users plug in their head­phones and lis­ten to a nar­ra­tive that warns them when zom­bies are hid­ing be­hind trees or trail­ing them. It then in­structs the run­ners to pick up speed or slow down and even tells them how to col­lect vir­tual medicine or weapons as they run. When the run is over, users can view a map on their de­vices of the route they took and see where the zom­bies were. They can then use the sup­plies they col­lected to play a vir­tual game. “Gyms try to do some­thing sim­i­lar by in­stalling TVs in front of the tread­mills or play­ing mu­sic as an at­tempt to turn some­thing that doesn’t feel plea­sur­able into some­thing that is at least tol­er­a­ble,” Churchill says. Wear­ables may try to do this by re­ward­ing users with badges for their hard work, but peo­ple tire of this tac­tic fairly quickly, she says.

While not ev­ery­one is a gamer, she points out, Zom­bies, Run! and apps such as Ingress, which uses GPS co­or­di­nates to in­spire peo­ple to move around their neigh­bor­hoods in a game they can play on their smart­phones, can pro­vide in­valu­able lessons. “Hu­mans are nat­u­ral sto­ry­tellers, and these apps makes them part of the story,” she says. “They’re im­mer­sive. You want to keep go­ing.” They not only track what users have al­ready ac­com­plished—they also help them grad­u­ally im­prove by en­cour­ag­ing them to take on a more dif­fi­cult path or run longer or faster.

This isn’t hap­pen­ing with wearable track­ers, whose users tend to stop be­ing ac­tive once they reach their orig­i­nal goals. Some feel us­ing their track­ers is a chore, Churchill says, while oth­ers say they feel en­slaved by them.

PEER PRES­SURE

While gam­ing can have a big im­pact on en­gage­ment lev­els, so can so­cial media. One way is by tap­ping into niche online com­mu­ni­ties, such as those for work­ing moth­ers or peo­ple train­ing for a 5K race. Some peo­ple will an­nounce a per­sonal health or fit­ness goal on Face­book. These so­cial plat­forms—whether they’re made up of strangers striv­ing for the same ob­jec­tive or friends and fam­ily—help make peo­ple feel ac­count­able.

More­over, col­lect­ing in­for­ma­tion from these sites’ events cal­en­dars, which may in­clude the date of an up­com­ing lo­cal race or a high school re­union, can add an ex­tra layer of mo­ti­va­tion by re­mind­ing users of what they are striv­ing to ac­com­plish and how much time they have left to do it.

“Peo­ple make com­mit­ments, to them­selves and oth­ers, and wear­ables can be bet­ter de­signed to help them stick to their goals,” Churchill says.

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