The Quantified Self: They may help you diet, but why aren’t they lean?

By Kelvin Kwong

Articles pouring out from SXSW have officially anointed the Quantified Self (QS) movement to be one of the new ‘hottest trends’. You might have heard of the FitBit One, the Nike Fuelband or the Jawbone Up, but have you heard of the Basis, the Misfit Shine, the Fitbug Orb, the LG Smart Activity Tracker, the Mio Alpha, or the Amiigo? (Just to name a few)

These products are all after a similar goal: to arm consumers with data about themselves so that they can live healthier lives. Or as Time Magazine cleverly phrased it as ‘the push from Big data to My Data’. It’s an honorable goal and I am excited by this movement. But I get nervous when I think about what the customer value proposition is for all of these products. Have any of these products found product-market fit?

Conceptually, these activity sensor-focused products are intended to help users become more active in some sustainable way. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that they are doing that today. The Fitbit One and the Nike Fuelband are rumored to have an average usage of 3 weeks. After 3 weeks, people either get bored or find it to be too much of a hassle to wear (or not lose, in Fitbit’s case) the device. This leads me to believe that even the two market leaders in this space do not fulfill Sean Ellis’ 40% rule. That is, many of the users choose to stop using the devices in 3 weeks or less and thus, we can assume they are not disappointed to do so.

My view is that the QS movement is characterized by two main problems. First is the device side of the problem. Figuring out how to create wearable products that will accurately collect data on our activity and physiology is difficult. But lots of incredibly smart and talented people are working on this problem today. The Basis and Mio Alpha have pushed the technological envelope in this respect using electro-optical technology to detect a heartbeat of a moving subject in the ‘wild’ so to say.  I’m incredibly excited about the progress that has been made on the device side.

The second part of the problem is the behavioral modification side of the problem. Today, all these watches, bands, and…err widgets… are collecting data and giving the user beautiful graphs in a broad range of aesthetics. To me, that’s pretty exciting. I love looking at these things and figuring out how I can improve my health using them. Unfortunately, most people don’t love data. And they will not spend the time to do the research to understand what the data means. When Ben Foster, VP of Product Management of Opower, recently spoke at HBS, his number one message was this: “Don’t give people data; give them insights! And tell them what to do with it!” While great talent has been building these arguably ‘product obsessed’ companies creating beautiful devices, I haven’t seen as many being ‘customer obsessed’ ventures focused on user outcomes. This observation is striking because the characteristics of this second half of the equation seem even more attractive. Instead of building a physical device, the behavioral modification piece is low capital intensity and benefits from fast feedback loops (ala mobile development). While lean methodology can be challenging to execute in device companies, it is conducive to experimenting with different tactics to influence users. The QS movement is missing this piece of the solution – an Opower of QS.

Several companies have realized this and developed apps to experiment with ways to influence users. Finnish designers created the Moves app which replicates some of the functionality of the Nike Fuelband. Massive Health, built its Eatery app trying to help users make more healthful eating decisions without actually worrying about quantifying caloric intake. Jawbone recently acquired Massive Health which gives me hope that this side of the problem is starting to get more attention. However, I do wonder if this problem would be more effectively attacked by bifurcating the effort. Clay Christensen’s Integality/Modularity theory suggests that this puzzle may be best solved by allowing each piece of the value chain to innovate independently before we look for efficiencies in integrating the two parts – in other words an open versus closed ecosystem debate.

Nonetheless, while the QS movement is a space that students of lean methodology might have strayed away from previously, I strongly believe that the doors for experimentation, rapid iterations, and new customer insights are wide open. Now that we have some usable data, let’s figure out what to do with it. Substantial venture dollars have flowed into the QS movement recently like Fitbit’s $30 million raise from earlier this month for example. And that might be necessary for an integrated solution. But if we break this problem down, the QS movement might finally be able to shed some fat and get lean.


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