Fixing Fitness Apps
I’m taking a one-post break from org design to talk about behavior science instead.
About a months ago, Nir Eyal wrote a rather depressing on the ineffectiveness of fitness apps in helping people become more fit:
I think Nir is absolutely right that fitness apps don’t drive the long term behavior change necessary to become physically fit; And that gamification, the only behavioral tactics used by many of these apps, is insufficient to driving such change.
I was disappointed, however, to see him making the bold, contrarian hypothesis that fitness apps are in fact making people fatter without supporting it with data. But the truth of the matter is that this doesn’t matter much. What matters is how we can fix them.
Nir looks at Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and the iPhone as products that were successful in changing user behavior. Specifically, enabling the users to form habits around using the apps by making the usage experience fun. He then draws the conclusion that fixing fitness apps will require them to make physical activity fun. I disagree with the conclusion since the analogy is far from perfect: If I’m using Facebook more, it does not mean that I have deeper social relationships. Using my fitness app more is not an indication that I’m getting more fit. Driving outcomes in the real-world is much more challenging, and measurement is not as straight forward. But it’s doable. Omada seems to be on the right track to getting it right.
Nonetheless, there is a lesson, that fitness apps should adopt from the various social networks — creating a real network effect in their business model. Chris Dixon put it beautifully in “come for the tool, stay for the network“. The few fitness apps that made some attempt to create such an effect, like MapMyRun, seem to have fared better than the rest.
Finally, the kind of behavior change we’re talking about here is much more complex. Getting healthier has an intrinsic level of discomfort: feeling hungry is unpleasant. So does physical strain. Making a phone call and tweeting, in comparison, are rather innocuous. We need to dig deeper into our behavior science trove in order to build up the necessary motivation needed to voluntarily undertake such experiences.