Wearables are with us to stay

Enrique Dans
Dec 15, 2014 · 5 min read

I recently had the opportunity to try of some of the new devices created by Fitbit, the brand that introduced me to so-called fitness wearables in May 2012, while today I came across an interesting article in The Next Web called “How fitness apps and wearables can impact your performance at work”, which has inspired me to discuss some of the conclusions I have reached over the last 36 months of almost uninterrupted use. If to this we add the rigorous reports prepared by Endeavor Partners in January and July of this year that I regularly use in my classes, along with my own experience as a user, I think we have enough information to be able to shed some light on this relatively new trend.

The fitness wearables category is anything but calm. This is a market in a permanent state of evolution, with all types of companies entering and leaving, producing innovations that are affecting our preferences and that are constantly redefining our options. The first devices of this type were created by Fitbit in 2008, followed by companies like Jawbone and Nike. The latter has just announced that it’s abandoning the category with the launch of the Apple Watch, which would seem to indicate a merging of trackers and smartwatches that could give rise to big changes in the wearables segment. In reality, the Fitbit is a smartwatch in all but name, while Apple’s has all types of options to measure exercise and physical activity that are a key part of its value proposition.

The use of devices to quantify our physical activity fascinates me: the effect on people of being able to accurately measure how much we exercise, or how our weight changes, what our body mass index is, along with the incentive of social gamification, is able to bring about changes in the way we behave, assuming of course that we want to change. Of course, simply putting a device on your wrist is not going to do anything by itself (a third of these devices are bought as presents), nor will it if your employer has gifted it to you (6 percent of cases in the United States), but when there is a real desire to bring about change, wearing one of these devices can really make a difference.

That said, around a third of users of these quantifying devices stop wearing them after around six months. It’s still not clear whether this is because people lose hope of achieving their goals, feel that the devices aren’t helping, or that they simply get bored, but this is an issue worth studying. In my case, I stopped using my tracker for a few months between August and November 2014, and found it much more difficult to maintain focus on my objectives, reflected in my weight going up and down.

When it comes down to it, this issue is about a balance between use and objectives: while initially I followed the Fitbit app’s instructions to the letter, I stopped putting in information about my diet in late 2012 as soon as I got my weight down to a reasonable level and held it there.

It just didn’t seem worthwhile spending so much time putting the information in. The decision to stop using the device in August the following year, prompted by breaking my arm, made it hard to keep up the exercise regime. But my weight remained reasonably stable due to the use of the brand’s other device, the scales, which introduced some discipline. In the end, the key is clearly in the way we develop our habits: changing the way you look and your physical condition means changing some of your habits. Otherwise, all you’re going to be doing is slimming down periodically, only to regain weight again pretty quickly once you stop.

If using these devices efficiently largely depends on our own motivation, then perhaps the person most likely to use one properly is somebody who has already taken the decision to lose weight and get fit independently. But a growing number of companies seem to be providing them for employees, presumably in a bid to create a fitter, more productive workforce.

In some cases the incentive is getting access to better rates in company medical insurance. But introducing gamification in the workplace requires some subtlety. On the one hand, explain the use of the issue badly and the workforce is going to see the company as a kind of Big Brother watching over it, rather than as a business that genuinely has the best interests of its employees in mind.

In any event, it looks as though we’re going to be seeing a lot of people wearing wearables in the coming years, if only for reasons of fashion: these are attractive and well designed items, meant to be shown off, as can be seen from Apple’s pure techno-porn ad.

The more discreet devices that are clipped inside a pocket, or attached to a belt, or simply stored in the form of an app in a smartphone, such as Moves, are not proving as popular as those worn on the wrist, and increasingly so as people get hip to the idea of the smartwatch. I think it is very interesting that Apple has been to redefine this category without even having to put its product on the market. Given the brand’s emphasis in its advertising, it now seems that all smartwatches and wearables worth the name must now include heart rate monitoring.

Taking the different trends into account, it seems clear that many of us are interested in quantifying our activities: in September 2013, one in 10 Americans over the age of 18, actively used some kind of quantifying device, a figure that will doubtlessly increase significantly with the arrival of the smartwatch. This is a device that is particularly popular among the 25 to 34 age group, but which can easily be increased: in the future, we will see children concerned about the physical condition of their older parents giving them these kinds of devices, while more and more companies providing them either as part of a human resource policy, or linked to medical insurance.

The data derived from physical activity and health is now shifting from being something we need to protect to something we use to feel better, to be more competitive, to negotiate a better health insurance policy, etc. Obviously, we will have to keep a close eye on what is done with this data: we’ll want to know who has access to it, if it is being used to monitor our movements or to garner information about us, or to target us with advertising at moments when our endorphins are through the roof after a particularly intense work out.

In any event, we are talking about the use of a technology that now seems to be with us to stay.

(En español, aquí)

    Enrique Dans

    Written by

    Professor of Innovation at IE Business School and blogger at enriquedans.com

    Enrique Dans

    On the effects of technology innovation on people, companies and society (writing in Spanish at enriquedans.com since 2003)

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