Wearable companies are trying to figure out how to motivate you

Motivation and coaching, the things every wearable company wants to crack
Why motivating people isn't easy

We're almost there.

That's been the prevailing feeling at the Wearable Tech in Sport Summit this week, where big names like Google, Fitbit, Motorola and more met with trainers and analytics folks from sports teams like the Sacramento Kings, New York Knicks and Golden State Warriors.

Despite the likes of Intel dropping out of wearables, and TomTom strongly considering it, all of these companies seem to be holding back waves of doubt over the industry, convinced that if you just hold on, there's something big around the corner.

Read next: TomTom's wearable exit is of its own making

Until then, when continuous glucose tracking and accurate hydration tracking can give us real-time snapshots of how healthy we are at any given moment, most of these companies seem totally consumed with one thing: Keeping you motivated, and finding ways to tell you how to improve your life rather than serving data point after data point.

It was behind the veneer of every presentation. How do you get people to keep coming back to these wearables? How do you keep them motivated and engaged?

The established players all have their own methods. Mary Liz McCurdy, global head of fitness for Google Play, believes engagement increases if wearable companion apps are connected to a good platform. That makes sense – why would you want to open up a whole bunch of different apps with your data in them when one place would be much more convenient? We're seeing more fitness companies move towards coachable guidance and away from blandly dumping data on you, and McCurdy even admitted that coaching app Lark does a much better job of this than Google Fit right now.

Wearable companies are trying to figure out how to motivate you

Speaking of coaching, LifeBEAM and Pear both came with different approaches to how to keep you working out. LifeBEAM has its Vi coaching assistant, which uses a human touch to help keep you motivated. Pear, on the other hand, partners up with TRX to put a real athlete in your ear, letting them coach you with advice and personal anecdotes about their own training. Having a cold, dead machine command you on how to be a better human is less interesting, and arguably less motivating, than having a real human who has done it before coach you. Regardless of approach, both companies are trying to do the same thing: keep that engagement going.

Motivation and coaching, of course, are all part of the wearable effort to personalise your experience. That's what Fitbit data scientist Rajiv Bhan pointed out in his talk. He explained that there are three types of Fitbit users. There are hardcore Fitbit users, moderate users, and the kind of user that gets a Fitbit as a gift. The hardcore and casual users are people Fitbit doesn't really have to worry about. It's the moderate user that Fitbit wants to keep motivated, and it's tried to do so with both its own social network and by utilizing Fitstar, which builds personalised workout routines based on your activity. Those two things together keep Fitbit users engaged longer, with Bhan saying that users who don't add friends in the Fitbit app within three days are less likely to stay engaged in the long term.

However, Bhan also pointed out that sometimes motivation ebbs and flows. Sleep, for instance, is a big motivation for why people buy and use Fitbit devices, but the impetus lessens during the weekday when people have schedules to keep. It increases during the weekend, when people are done getting up early for work and picking up the kids from school. On top of that, different people have different motivations for changing their behaviour. For example, someone with a family history of heart disease may have extra motivation to keep fit than someone who doesn't. For some people, having a goal is all the motivation they need; others need more persistent prodding.

Wearable companies are trying to figure out how to motivate you

Figuring out how the real world affects your motivation, and powering past that, is one of the things these companies are trying to figure out. How do they keep you motivated when they can't control the nuances of your life? LEVL has one way: instant feedback of your diet. Its breathalyser senses the acetone levels in your breath, and can tell you whether you're burning the right kind of fat or not. So if you eat too much cake or pasta, you'll see yourself burning that sugar-y fat rather than the fat already stored in your body, which is the kind of fat burning that leads to losing weight and getting healthier. Rather than building out a plan and hoping you stick to it, it motivates by telling you you're doing things wrong (or right).

Like LEVL's acetone-analyzing tech, there are some measurements and data that can give people a good look at their fitness and serve as a push at the same time. One of these is VO2 Max, which was one of the buzzed-about things at the conference, and something we've seen creeping into more wearables. Because VO2 Max measures your fitness level, and companies like Fitbit can easily show you how you stack up against other people your age and gender, it's a stat that both educates and encourages you at the same time. You see that your fitness level is bad, you see where your peers are and you know what you need to do to fix it.

Essential reading: If you're not designing for women, get out of wearables

And while these companies are leaning on machine learning to build you coaching methods based on your data, they also need to realise that half the population has different needs. McCurdy pointed out that half of the wearable market is women, and their health needs are different from men's. It's a market that both needs more attention and is growing at a fast clip – 50% year on year, according to McCurdy, and is a $1 billion market all by itself. Those specific needs can't be met with unisex apps, they need to be specific and personal.

We're far past the point where throwing out data at a user is unique or interesting. That novelty has become stale, and it usually ends up ineffective. People want to know what to do with all of that information, and if companies can't tell them then they'll see no point in continuing to put a device on their wrist, or their head, or their bed. This we've argued before, and companies are starting to get a better grip on it. Eventually, the more advanced wearable tech sensors will be ready for everyone and they'll be able to give us more instant, in-depth feedback. Until then, companies will concentrate on finding ways to keep you motivated while also telling you how to use the trove of data they can create for you. We're almost there.


Shop for recommended fitness trackers on Amazon

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