Albert Sun, a young journalist at the New York Times, recently authored an article entitled “The Monitored Man” chronicling his experience using a multitude of health fitness trackers over the last few months. I wanted to ask him about his fitness tracking adventure and gain further insight into this booming sector from a “super user” who at times was simultaneously wearing up to four fitness tracking devices.
Tom Fowler, Medgadget: Albert, tell me about why you decided to put fitness tracking devices to the test.
Albert Sun: I think it started with a really simple graphic that my colleague Alastair put together last year listing a few interesting wearable health monitors and what things they measured. For that he put together this google spreadsheet and we sort of tried to keep it up to date with all the different gadgets as we heard about them. I was constantly adding things to it and at a point felt that if I was having this much trouble keeping track of all of them that probably other people were as well. My original idea was actually to put them all to the test in accuracy and be able to chart which ones were the most accurate. I had plans to reverse engineer their drivers and access the raw data they were recording. But once I actually started wearing them I realized that, yes there was a lot of data, but it was actually this idea of motivation and behavior change and how you understand the data that was much more interesting.
Medgadget: You mentioned that many trackers were lacking in detecting exertion and activities like biking and fidgeting. Are the device makers missing the point, or are these merely due to current technical limitations?
Albert Sun: It’s definitely due to current technical limitations. If companies could make devices that could track everything perfectly, I think they absolutely would. And I think a lot of people see that kind of tracking as a kind of holy grail and are trying very hard to make it to that goal. I’m not so sure that’s a good idea. No tracker is going to be able to fully track everything about you and we’ve all already got a perfectly good “tracker” that’s wired in to every part of our body: our brain. My colleague Gretchen Reynolds writes about that in her article on why she decides to remain a “tech nudie.”
Yes an objective measure of your activity level is useful, but it’s just one view, and it has to be integrated into the broader subjective view of how you feel.
Medgadget: If every fitness tracking device producing company CEO was reading this interview, what tips would you like to give them?
Albert Sun: I think many of these CEO’s are already thinking about the things and experiences I wrote about. From talking to their users they know what experiences people are having and they’re definitely improving rapidly. Just in the time I’ve been using them they’ve improved a lot.
There are two things that I think they could do that would improve people’s experiences though. First is they could be a little more upfront in their marketing of these devices about what they can and can’t do instead of presenting them as magic.
The other thing that I think would be really helpful would be for them to put some error bars on the data they show and indicate that they are estimates and the true values lie somewhere in a range. I think that would go a long way towards helping people interpret their data in the proper context.
I might be sounding overly pessimistic about activity tracking, but I actually really like these devices and think they’re very cool and useful. But to be very cool and useful I think people have to approach them the right way and that means having realistic expectations of how they work. Otherwise people will be disappointed.
Medgadget: Would you say your conclusion “I don’t need a monitor anymore. I’m tracking me.” is a reflection of a large part of the market, in that many will initially use but then no longer have a need for trackers?
Albert Sun: Yes, absolutely. It’s maybe not a permanent thing, but it could be a now and again thing. I mean, are we really expecting people to start now and wear something that tracks their movement continually until they’re in the grave?
The goal here is to be healthier and happier — to live well — not to be perfectly quantified. Once an activity tracker has helped you do that it should ideally fade to the background to the point where you can almost forget about it. I obviously haven’t been able to do that while I’ve been working on this story, I’ve been juggling a lot of different gadgets and apps and chargers trying to keep everything straight. It’s quite taxing and it takes a toll on all the other things that life is about.