Fitbit’s challenge: turning data into action

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South African’s are, by and… umm… large, giving Americans a run for their money when it comes to tipping the scales in the wrong direction. Two thirds of adults in the US are overweight or obese, and in South Africa, that figure is 61% and growing. Companies like Fitbit are trying to change that, by harnessing our self-centredness, our urge to compete, our need for approval and, if all else fails, our guilt.

Eric Friedman, CTO and cofounder of Fitbit, speaking at the Discovery Vitality Summit in Johannesburg on Thursday, says the inspiration for Fitbit’s devices came from an odd source: the Nintendo Wii. Friedman and Fitbit cofounder and CEO James Park bought a Wii when it was released and were enthralled by it’s ability to “get you up and moving” and how it “transformed gaming into something that appealed to multiple age groups and both genders”.Eric-Friedman-FitbitIt’s this desire to appeal as broad a demographic as possible and meet differing needs that has seen Fitbit’s range of devices grow from one wearable at launch to six wearables and a scale today. “We realised we needed to offer products for different lifestyles, different fashion preferences and that different people want to measure different things,” Friedman says. “Some people just want to get off the couch and be a little more active, others are serious athletes who want to improve their performance.”

One of the challenges in building any fitness tracking product, Friedman says, is overcoming people’s “innate laziness”. He says Fitbit realised early on that data from devices had to sync with the accompanying apps with as little effort on the user’s part as possible.

Further, Friedman says while it’s tempting to put every sensor possible into a device, unless that data can be made “actionable” and provide motivation to make actual changes there’s no point in doing so. “If you put more sensors in [a device]but it doesn’t last as long or makes it bigger or overwhelms people with data it’s worthless,” he says.

Friedman says Fitbit aims to create a “virtuous cycle” where data is collected from a device, “ambiently synced”, and used to motivate the user to generate more data, and so on. “Through data we can empower users and inspire them to move more.”

Another powerful motivator is the social aspect of Fitbit’s products, according to Friedman. “We’ve found users add 400 more steps a day for each friend they add, up to seven or eight friends where it levels off.” This Friedman attributes to instinctual need for approval.

Much of Fitbit’s success (and that of other fitness tracking products) comes from simply making people aware of their habits. “Sleep is more challenging to track and turn into real-world changes than activity in some ways,” Friedman says. “It’s hard to sleep competitively. But people are often profoundly shocked by how little sleep they’re getting.”Shapshak and FriedmanHe says presenting people with data about things like sleep is often all it takes for them to make small changes to improve things. “That’s the most fascinating data insight we’ve gleaned over the years: how little it takes to change people’s behaviour.” For example, a wearer might find they’re habitually disturbed at a specific time. “Why am I waking at midnight? Oh, that’s the dog jumping on the bed, maybe I should keep the dog out of the room.”

What’s next for fitness trackers and wearables? “People are going to want to know more about themselves so they can tweak their behaviour and try to make small, sustainable changes. Whether that’s more info about what they’re doing, what they’re eating or their environment.”

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