Why fitness trackers fail

by Jack Josephy on 19 May 2017

The popularity of fitness trackers continues to rise, with 110 million wearable sensors sold worldwide in 2016 (IDC forecasts). Despite this growth, there's lots of evidence to show that many people find it hard to maintain fitness using their devices and often they just end up in a drawer. According to Gartner, 30% abandon their devices in the first few months.

On the face of it you'd expect fitness trackers to get better use. People are motivated to get fit and do exercise for various reasons: losing weight, feeling good, improving performance, sleeping better. A fitness tracking device promises the tools, data and insights to keep you on track.

So why do they fail?

Hooked model

If we take Nir Eyal's 'Hooked model' for building habit-making products, again it seems like fitness trackers should work. The model suggests that the most addictive products work by getting people into hooked loops.

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Applied to fitness trackers it could work like this:

  1. Trigger - I want to get fit
  2. Action - I'll buy a fitness tracker and start running
  3. Reward - I can see I'm getting better
  4. Investment - The longer I use the system the more insight I have (which hooks me in)
  5. Trigger and back into the cycle - I can see progress and continue my habit

Why then do so many people give up despite this?

Triggers

Triggers can be internal (I feel over-weight and want to exercise) and external (app prompts a message telling me to exercise). Not many fitness devices or apps do a good job of triggering users at the right time to move back into the hooked life-cycle. How useful is that reminder to move every 20 minutes?

Variable reward

One problem is the way reward is delivered. If you take a successful habit forming product like Facebook, you can see that reward is often variable; a key element of a successful 'Hooked Model'. We are triggered to check our feed by the 'big red' notification bubble at the top of the screen. Most of the time the update is uninteresting, but it's that 10% nugget that keeps users coming back to check their feed time and time again. Variable reward is a well studied psychological phenomena and is one of the reason's gambling is so addictive.

With fitness trackers there are very little variable rewards. Typically users just finish their session and then optionally review session stats on a device. There aren't really any gold nuggets. We just see some performance stats and if we don't see an improvement over time this becomes boring pretty quickly. It also often takes time to see improvements in fitness performance including weight loss, which people don't have the patience for.

Platform investment

The other way most fitness apps fail is that investing lots of time to develop your fitness data doesn't really give much value unless you are a serious athlete. How many average users are doing anything useful with the data they have collected? Most of the apps don't give you any insights to help you improve further. The data soon becomes a bit gimmicky.

Compare this to Facebook, where users have years of photos and social connections in one place. Fear of missing out is a real thing and this is why users get hooked on platforms like Facebook. That same pressure doesn't really happen with fitness trackers. It's too easy to psychologically extract yourself from the platform.

It’s too easy to psychologically extract yourself from a fitness tracker

How to make fitness trackers more addictive

  1. Personalised goal setting
    If you can encourage users to set actual goal targets then they will get more from their data. But users rarely know what realistic fitness goals should be. Goal setting needs to be personalised and adjust to the user's increase or decrease in performance over time. That way users get actual useful feedback on their progress.

    In principle, with enough big data, platforms should be able to use predictive algorithms to match goal targets based on what they know about the user (weight, age, height, diet, exercise pattern, bleep test result). This would make for a much more useful tracking device, with goal targets being realistic and achievable, so the user can achieve their own mastery.
  2. Intelligent triggers
    Whilst some fitness apps do allow you to set reminders, often they are not intelligent. Once again if the platforms were able to work out when the user is more likely to exercise (based on their historic data), as well as checking their calendar, they could trigger messages at times when it would be good to do a session.
  3. Better rewards
    If people aren't massively motivated by the fitness data, why not give them something that does give a real sense of reward. Several apps, such as Achievement Mint, now give monetary-type rewards when users complete their fitness goals. In principle, this means users can align their fitness motivations with something else important in their life (like saving for a holiday).

    Fitness platform developers can help users to gamify their own lives for the benefit of their health and receive a nice reward at the end of it. Adding an element of variable reward could also make fitness all the more addictive.
  4. Social proofing
    Apps that have a social element introduce opportunities to either create competition or encourage collaboration. Strava users have access to a whole cycling community, making it easy to view others' routes, take part in challenges, and try and beat others' times.

    We've seen this ourselves at Webcredible -  there's a healthy competition going on where everyone has committed to doing more steps using their Fitbit. Doing exercise with a fitness tracker is just a lot more fun when other people are involved and it's easier to motivate one another.

    Interestingly in one of our recent surveys, which studied the differences in fitness motivation between age groups, we found the older you get the more important that social element becomes. We are currently working with Age UK to understand what this could mean for their audiences.

    Linking back to the hooked mode, including a social element invites randomness which increases the variable reward factor. Fitness tracker developers should work harder to make their apps more social.
  5. Gamify the experience
    Apps like Zombie Run and Build an Empire turn fitness activity into a game. In Zombie Run, users run around the city chased by zombies and the experience is augmented through audio inputs through the user's headphones.
    In Build an Empire players collaborate to run and capture territories as a team. This makes both experiences more naturally rewarding and addictive even if users don't like the actual running bit that much. This isn't for everyone but for the right type of user this can be really powerful. There is wide scope here for getting kids into good exercise habits at a younger age.

The bottom line is that fitness trackers fail for different reasons, but it's often linked to the fact people can't form and keep the right habits. Platforms that take advantage of human psychology and make fitness more fun and addictive will likely be more successful.

At Webcredible we are currently exploring what motivates people to use technology for fitness. Get in touch to find out more.

Platforms that take advantage of human psychology and make fitness more fun and addictive will likely be more successful.

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