Quantified Something

nina alter
Oct 11, 2016 · 7 min read

When Withings’ scales came out, I was delighted. Until last year (I’m almost 43), my metabolism had been unbearably fast. I’ve also had a lifelong allergy to dairy products. Together, the two created a lifelong weight quandary for me that makes most people laugh when I first tell them about it — but for me, it was a real problem.

For many years I had to closely monitor my weight day by day, vigilantly on the lookout to ensure I didn’t slip into the “Karen Carpenter Zone” threshold of <110lbs, that would render me too underweight to safely experience a sustained heart-rate increase without putting myself at an increased risk for a heart attack.

Not being able to ride my bike to work because I’d been too busy to regularly eat my super-fatty ground-pork pasta dishes late at night, or having to cancel a snowboarding trip because I’d been too excited about a project to want to bother taking proper lunch breaks for a few weeks, sucked. Then this Quantified Self thing rolled-around, and I delighted in the opportunity to use an app to help me sustain a healthy weight — except, none of them do that. For people like me, anyway.

For those of us whose needs don’t fit within popular culture’s expectations of sought “fitness” (read: pick one dress size out of three, and suffer to keep from plumping-up beyond that), fitness and the myriad of ways to quantify our unique fitness stories with daily feedback from one of a handful of sensor-embedded wearable gizmos, is an exciting opportunity. It’s an opportunity the industry has let everyone down on, though—and I can’t say I was surprised to recently learn through the Portland gossip-grapevine that Nike had scrapped it’s entire digital program—including Nike+ Running—to pick-up and start-over from scratch.

I interviewed with the design team at FitBit a few years ago, and was sincerely shocked and put-off when their design director mansplained to me how women’s health factors are too “edge-case” for FitBit products.

More simply, that using data-points all humans share in common and getting the most from those, was FitBit’s goal. That factors unique to women’s health are too statistically marginal to bother working them into the stories their app tells users about their total fitness. I noted that without period tracking, women with menstrual functions are still having to re-figure the analysis FitBit does for us, to normalize our monthly weight fluctuations that otherwise appear incorrectly. That only annoyed him.

Even just finding one app online to simply help me gain weight, versus todays available apps that won’t let me establish weight goals ABOVE how much I currently weigh, would be a huge improvement.

Yes, I accept that my metabolism issues are uniquely edge-case—but now being told that my lady-functions were also statistically marginal to a product team, so completely took the cake.

User Centricity is the philosophy that drives my work, professionally. An article I found on Usability First that outlines user centric principals for product development, sums it up very well:

Too often, systems are designed with a focus on business goals, fancy features, and the technological capabilities of hardware or software tools. All of these approaches to system design omit the most important part of the process — the end user. User-Centered Design (UCD) is the process of designing a tool, such as a website’s or application’s user interface, from the perspective of how it will be understood and used by a human user. Rather than requiring users to adapt their attitudes and behaviors in order to learn and use a system, a system can be designed to support its intended users’ existing beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors as they relate to the tasks that the system is being designed to support. The result of employing UCD to a system design is a product that offers a more efficient, satisfying, and user-friendly experience for the user, which is likely to increase sales and customer loyalty.

It really doesn’t seem that hard to me, to enable an application to factor-into its data and algorithms a user’s menstrual health fluctuations, how a pregnancy or breastfeeding will impact a woman’s health as-expressed by sensor-observed numbers for a period of up to five years, or the other myriad of issues danah boyd beautifully laid-forth in her article Quanitfying Girlness—that the same design director also praised (while then citing that danah had workshopped with his team to help FitBit learn how they can serve women users—just before shutting me down with the ladyness-as-edge-case bit).

If anything, a rigorous study of true users needs & then adapting the product to fit those true needs and desires, seems like the most user-centric thing to do. Factoring into an app whether or not a user has an illness that is causing unusual weight loss, is prone to severe depression that weight fluctuations can be a symptom of, or is taking hormone medications in elder years or through a gender transition, or hell, period tracking, all seem like no-brainers in adding tremendous value to quantified self apps. Even simply recognizing that unplanned weight loss may be a health flag — not a by-default congratulatory event. What the above article on User Centricity outlines though, seems like the antithesis of what the Quantified Self space has turned into. Really—did anyone care how many steps they’d taken per-day, before Nike+? Segue to praise the woman behind this website, on an aside.

I totally get that new, bleeding-edge products cannot do any of the above. But Quantified Self things have been around way too long in 2016, for that excuse to still hold muster.

The branded FitBit device, for practical purposes, is purely a pedometer—but it’s far more exciting (and hey, growth-hacker-y!) to market such a device as much more. The Nike products, for the most part were the same. I trained to reach my (cough, fantasy) goals as an elite athlete in my early 20s, and through that experience, combined with my lifelong metabolism/dietary challenges, learned a tremendous amount about exactly which and the kind of quantifiable feedback we need to listen to in tracking the complete picture of our physical fitness. How many steps one takes per day, is trivial in that equation—but GPS and accelerometer sensors are cheap, so the mythos around those data-points devoid of context, began.

Later on, after the pedometers, scales, and thermometers had entered the quantified-self products ecosystem—that’s when things really got silly. Iffy BMI data and heart-rate data can also be drawn from the higher-end scales, and the myriad of “This Is Your Fitness!” storytelling from quantified self apps was unleashed—except, without factoring in small pieces of data a user could input into the app to provide a clearer picture of what makes our bodies unique, it wasn’t. Context matters.

As danah says in her article, data *is* fascinating.

It’s frustrating as shit being told that as 50% of the population, I’m too edge-case-y for businesses to thoughtfully include super relevant data to my body in the “My” narratives it purports to spit-out.

This frustration coming both from marketplace observations, and then literally, in a job interview. It is frustrating, but it’s also just stupid business. It’s the antithesis of real innovation, from companies that boast themselves as leaders of innovation (tech’s #1 most over-used term that also makes me gag just a little bit every time I hear). Remember Apple not including the tracking of menstrual data when they launched Apple Health?

In a Twitter thread I came across this evening, folks were responding to a friend kvetching about his Withings app (below).

One thing I’ve observed with my own Withings scale, is that it notices when it’s my bare-feet on the glass, versus my fella’s. Not sure how, but it can tell the difference between the two of us as unique users—and when I open the app on my phone, it shows me his weight data and prompts me to create a second user profile. When I input the name, height, and birthdate of that second user into my Withings app, I can’t be the only person seeing it as hugely short-sighted to use the birthday for engagement tracking, but not to categorize the user by life-phase. Family households have little pairs of bare feet running wild (and I know the aforementioned design director at Fitbit had at least one pair of little feet in his own home).

In the vain of Joe Camel themed market growth planning, it seems like an obvious opportunity to me to recognize a child stepping-up onto a parent’s scale, and to adjust how feedback is communicated to this small individual GAINING weight in their unique phase of life. More obvious though, would be facilitating the simple no-extra-data-needed option for a user to track their weight gain (and not just loss).

Withings shoves weight LOSS down the user’s throat, as a forced metric. As does the gist of most quantified-self apps, in the Apple app store.

So, I gotta ask: Quantified Health industry, what gives?

Why the ultra-narrow spectrum of designed-for personas, years in to this niche market… while so many more of us exist, out here? Women, adults without stellar health stories, children excited to emulate their parent’s activities and just as eager to hop onto the addictive bandwagon of weight-tracking as they are the addictive bandwagon of smoking. Elder adults, so many unique humans!

A friend at lunch the other day noted how brilliantly Nike has cornered the market on running, by really grokking the runner as a product user and as a target of their marketing. Yet they fall so gravely short in skateboarding, golf, and ice hockey (and thankfully opted to drop out of 2 or all 3 of those markets, recently). I get that it costs more to include more user-type stories in data algorithms. But like, really, tech—you’re being shamefully lazy, and it’s time to snap out of it.

Special thanks to Dan Hon for late-night proofreading & suggestions, and to Sara Wachter-Boettcher for addtl proofreading and support. And, for kicking off the conversation, tonight! :)

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