Life mapping vs. health tracking

When I tell (and show) people what I’m working on with Pictal Health, a way to visualize and map out patients’ health histories, I see their mental wheels start to turn. They consider how this might help them or someone they know communicate more effectively about their health story, and many start wondering aloud if they could use this to track what’s happening with their health.

That is the moment where I wince a little and say that I’m not focusing on daily health tracking, but instead on helping people map out their entire health story.

Why the wince? What’s the big diff?

First let me define what I mean by health tracking and life mapping.

Health Tracking

This is what my own tracking spreadsheet kind of looks like. A painstaking labour of…work.

Health tracking is passive (using devices or sensors) or active (via manual input) data collection about your health. Tracking your health might involve wearing a device like a Fitbit or Apple watch, having a continuous glucose monitor, logging your symptoms in a journal or app, using connected devices like scales or blood pressure monitors, and more. Health tracking tends to happen in real time, on a daily or weekly basis.

I know a bit about health tracking. I’ve spent the last 5 years tracking my own health each day (in my spreadsheet from hell.) I do it, and I don’t like it, but it helps me stay on top of my symptoms as I make medication and supplement changes. Professionally, I’ve also worked with organizations dedicated to digital health data collection and have kept up with developments in symptom tracking and digital health apps.

Life Mapping

This is a map of a patient’s health history, the kind we are doing with Pictal Health.

Life mapping (as a term) has many definitions, but I am focused on health mapping. To me, this means creating a longitudinal representation of your health so that you can understand what happened and communicate about it to others. Health maps might include injuries, diagnoses, symptoms, procedures, treatments you’ve tried, key life events that had an impact on your health, and more. This is where I’ve focused my work with Pictal Health.

Here’s my stance: health tracking comes with its own unique design challenges, so I’m focusing instead on life mapping in the form of visual health histories.

Why Pictal Health is not focusing on health tracking (right now)

  1. Behavior change is a beast.
    It’s very hard to get people to start doing anything on a daily basis, much less something as tedious and unpleasant as tracking minutiae about your health. People have to want to do it, be able to do it, and be reminded to do it — in the words of BJ Fogg’s behavior model, they need to have the sufficient motivation, aptitude, and prompt. Even the more passive data collection that comes with ‘wearables’ takes effort — people have to remember to wear the device. Establishing a new behavior of health tracking is its own unique design problem; much different from helping people assemble and visualize their health history. It also takes a lot more time — weeks to months — to get value and insight from health tracking; with life mapping, you can get an insights in just a couple of hours.
  2. Tracking involves different goals than life mapping.
    I track so that I can see how my symptoms change on a micro scale, from day to day and week to week, as I make other tweaks to my various medications and supplements. Seeing my data at this small scale, and trying to discern trends and correlations between things like symptoms and medication changes, helps me manage my own health on a daily and weekly basis. This is much different from the purpose of Pictal Health — to see my whole history at-a-glance, understand it better, and communicate about it more effectively.
  3. Many companies are already working on tracking; very few on visual health mapping.
    A number of companies have created digital health and symptom tracking technologies. Gyroscope (tagline ‘The new OS for the human body’) is a great example of a service that is pulling together data from different sources to help you create a digital profile. Apple Health is also working in this space. Symple, Flaredown, and many other apps are working on symptom tracking. And there are too many remote health monitoring companies to count. But no one is really working on visual health histories. Which is a good and bad thing — good, because we get to introduce this novel idea into the world, and bad, because there is no established, successful business model for this type of service.
  4. I’m in love with the problem of doctor-patient communication, where life mapping and visual communication can make a big impact.
    Enough said. While health tracking is interesting and helpful, I’m more passionate about helping people understand and communicate about their whole health history. So that’s what I’m working on.

All that said…people will need some way to update their stories when things change, so I will be thinking through how that happens. And I’m totally open to one day incorporating health tracking data into Pictal. I can see the value. It’s just not where I want to start out.