Two and a half years with wearables

What it’s like to have a tiny health-focused computer on your wrist in the early 2010s.

Almost everyone I know that's owned a wearable device has stopped using it within six months.

Is it that they're not well designed, or bad at doing what they're meant to do? That's rarely the case - they're mostly accurate at measuring step count or notifying when an email is received... but they're not a necessity. They're not adding meaningful long term value, so it's no big loss when the battery dies and a charger isn't nearby. It's put in a drawer and slowly forgotten.

I've persisted with mine. Since receiving one of the first Jawbone Up bands to get to the UK back in March 2013, I've had some form of activity tracker on my wrist. 

It's not that I've made better choices of device than others. The difference is a nerdy love of data: the constant drip feed of stats about when I'm moving, when I've had a good day, when I've had a bad day, and when I've done nothing at all has been genuinely motivating. I'm a terribly lazy and unfit person - not overweight, but not the bastion of health I could be - and having little prompts telling me how far away I am from a particular goal has been really motivating.

But these devices aren't perfect. In the past twenty months, I've had four different units. I'm about to move to my fifth. Here are some thoughts about what has worked and what's caused the move to the next device.

Device one: Jawbone Up (March 2013 - May 2014)

The Up hooked me right away. It did a lot of things really well - a discreet vibration motor let me know when I'd been too idle, it's sleep tracking was second-to-none, and the built-in battery lasted well over a week before needing to be charged, and even then it was less than an hour before it was fully charged. It was such a great looking unit - far better than the Fitbit - and the app looked fantastic.

And it's the app that really made the experience as great as it was. The UI is very intuitive, but it's the deeper underlying insights it discovered and brought to the surface quickly that made it so engaging and delightful. The automatic recognition that I slow down on Thursdays? Weekly emails telling me how my stats have differed from the previous week? The suggestion that as I had a poor night's sleep I should go to bed earlier the next night? Yes, yes, and yes! It's so well designed that the wristband itself is almost inconsequential - the band has a single light and a vibration motor, but that's as much interaction as it can give. Having an excellent companion app has been key to having a great wearable experience.

If it was so good, what could have possibly caused me to change to a different unit?

Device two: er, the Jawbone Up. Again (May 2014 - December 2014)

The launch of the Up in the UK was six months later than it should've been. It had launched in the US six or seven months beforehand but had been almost instantly recalled. It transpires that a wristband that's worn every day and is designed to be flexible doesn't necessarily make for a reliable unit, and it was slightly redesigned before international launch.

I had a taste of this myself. After almost a year, my trusty blue Up stopped working one day. A few attempts at resetting it proved fruitless. An email to support was duly sent and, incredibly, a new unit was received. Hooray for customer service!

But boo to failing units. Less than a year later, the replacement device completely failed again with precisely the same issue. This time, customer support weren't interested at all. 

And, troublingly, problems started appearing in the app. Some data wouldn't sync, and support forums showed that many others were experiencing the same issue. It took weeks for that to be sorted without much help from Jawbone at all.

December 2014

I tried not having a wristband for a bit. I wasn't sure that I could justify a replacement: sure, I'd been running and walking much more than I thought I had before, but it was just a game. Why couldn't I live without it?

...because, it seems, I'm very goal-driven. Without having metrics, I had no idea how well I'd been doing and, as a result, I felt absolutely no motivation to run, to walk, even to move. It was listless and gluttonous and awful.

Device three: Jawbone Up 24 (December 2014 - May 2015)

Fully engrossed in Jawbone's platform, I opted to continue using the Up band, this time going for the Bluetooth-enabled 24. The original Up needed to be constantly plugged into a smartphone to download the data, a tedious procedure that meant that insights were rarely timely. The Up 24 improved this, meaning that my phone constantly pinged with new updates, applauding me when I'd had a long run and poking me when I'd been slouching. 

The Up 24 was definitely an improvement...

...but the app kept experiencing problems. Data would occasionally not sync, or if it did the graphs wouldn't reflect the actual stats. Emails became sporadic.

It became an exercise in frustration. The band itself was great, the app (when it worked) was wonderful, but the constant outages and seeming silence from Jawbone itself was terrible. It felt that software and hardware were becoming increasingly different: one great, one not so much.

As the problems became more annoying, I started looking for alternatives. The Apple Watch seemed immature, an attempt to do everything and doing it all with compromises. There were few other alternatives, but there was one that seemed like it would meet all my needs.

Device four: Withings Activité Pop (May 2015 - September 2015)

I love this device. It looks like a normal Swatch-like watch, with analogue hands and a glass dome. Cleverly, it has a secondary dial which shows the percentage of steps the wearer has walked so far each day, meaning that a glance at the wrist shows the time and how active you've been. Allegedly it has eight months of battery life and runs on cell batteries that are cheap and quick to replace. 

As a device, it's brilliant. 

But the app is very poor. Insights come a day late, sleep tracking feels patchy and inaccurate, and there's little motivation to make little improvements throughout the day. Instead, an alert will occasionally pop up giving an award for having walked a certain distance since ownership: the circumference of Lake Tahoe, say. It's utterly meaningless - it's a long distance to have walked, sure, but it doesn't mean that I've done well today, this week, or (frankly) ever. And while I can set my own step count, I've not been able to set my own sleep target until very recently. 

And that's been so frustrating. I've lapsed into the same motivation issues: I get the gamified satisfaction from reaching 100% of my target while looking at the watch, but I'm not poked and prodded throughout the day to do a little bit more at the right time. The device is so right but the experience of using the software is so wrong.

Device five: ...

Which puts me back in the same  quandary. If the Activité Pop isn't working very well, what do I move to? What's important to me is the experience: being pushed at moments when I'm sagging, giving insights that are really useful at the right time, and presenting that in a fun to analyse way.

As much as it pains me to say it, I've gone back on my decision on the Apple Watch. The more I read about how it performs activity tracking, the more I think it's probably the best fit for me. It's measuring steps, sure, but that's not the main metric: it's capturing active burn, a stat that's much more difficult to calculate effectively throughout the day. But it's also prodding the user to move about throughout the day, to engage in thirty minutes of exercise throughout the day and uses these three things to keep you going, constantly suggesting how targets could be adjusted and how goals can be met. And it's capturing a whole load of other information in the background: flights climbed, heartrate, resting calorie burn, number of workouts, and so forth. 

But it's hiding all that additional information behind software. It's only showing what it believes is the right amount of data for you at any one time. You can dig deeper, but it's showing you what it believes it should. 

And unlike the Lake Tahoe achievement, the awards it gives are based on daily achievement: pushing yourself as much as possible gets you an extra gratifying jolt.

So I'm going for it. Over the next week, I'm proving to myself that making the investment in an Apple Watch is worthwhile by getting myself to exceed my step goal every day on my existing Activité Pop. If I can prove to myself that I can meet this goal, my reward is a new device. That, surely, is what I've learned from this whole experience: I am motivated by meeting and exceeding goals.