The way of the wearable

Wearable self-tracking devices are quite likely the top health and wellness trend of 2014.  There is growing hype for wristbands, clothing, patches, and even ingestible pills measuring physical activity, sleep quality, and other physiological measures.  Their popularity is part of the larger Quantified Self Movement, the motto of which is “self-knowledge through numbers”.  But does self-knowledge necessarily lead to self-improvement?

Consumers are buying products like Fitbit and Jawbone UP with the hope that tracking health-related data will give them the insights and motivation needed to accomplish health goals.  However, according to a survey earlier this year, one-third of people who buy such a product stop using it quickly - within the first six months. 

Consumers quickly ditched the Nike+ FuelBand, finding the FuelPoints system confusing and inaccurate. Nearly one-third of Samsung Galaxy Gears purchased at Best Buy were returned after widespread complaints about its clunkiness, compatibility problems, and lack of useful features.

Because people are (somewhat) rational, the benefit of wearing the device must outweigh its inconvenience.  Wearables are beginning to improve ease of use, with more compact and sleek designs and more automated versus manual data collection.  But improving practicality and adding new measurement features will not be enough to boost long-term user engagement.  Providing health data alone is not likely to outweigh discomfort or the burden of remembering to wear, charge, and sync the device.  The wearable device must both provide and help improve the data.  When a wearable fails to help accomplish a user’s health goals, the user will not feel motivated to continue wearing the device.

Successful wearable design should optimize not only data collection capability, but also incorporate methods from behavior change science.  For example, according to Social Cognitive Theory, the social context has substantial influence on behavior.  Applying this theory, wearables could incorporate peer-to-peer feedback and encouragement.  When users see themselves or others making improvements and receiving praise, they will feel motivated to sustain their improved behavior and wear the device.

We can look to behavior change science to ensure future wearables go the way of the smartphone (an everyday necessity) and not the way of the calculator watch and flip camera (the junk drawer).

Sean Young PhD

UCLA Center for Digital Behavior, Medical Plaza, Los Angeles, CA, 90024, United States

Sean Young, PhD, MS is the Executive Director of the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior. I'm a scientist, innovator, and UCLA medical school professor. I study the science behind human digital behavior (see digitalbehavior.ucla.edu for more info about this field of research).I also assemble technology teams and solutions to improve UCLA Family Medicine patient care. For more info or to contact me: www.SeanYoungPhD.com