Step Up and Flex Those Behavior Change Muscles

Fitbit, Jawbone, Basis, Misfit, Withings, Lark, Nike.. the list of activity tracking devices continues to grow. Which to choose? There are plenty of opinions – but most of the discussion comparing them tends to focus on hardware specific features such as comfort, accuracy, and ease of data synchronization and I have also read many comments simply claiming: “I would never buy one, this is nothing but an expensive pedometer”.


Business Insider: Jawbone Up VS. Fitbit Flex: Which Is The Best Fitness Band?

While I agree that getting the device right is a critical element of success, I believe that the real goal here is to facilitate behavior change – to create new habits – and in the process establish a new healthy/active identity. If we simply think of these devices through the lense of a fancy pedometer, then they are destined to end up in the junk drawer after a few months of use. The choice should be based on which one is more effective at facilitating lasting behavior change as oposed to which one holds a charge longer.

In this post I am going to suggest a few quick ideas for how these apps could distinguish themselves as behavior change agents.

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonderchange machine

I’ve been wearing a Jawbone UP for 5 months and am also now experimenting with the Fitbit Flex. The behavior modification potential of these devices really sunk in for me recently when some unexpected travel resulted in a week without my UP. I was surprised at how much I missed having the UP on my wrist. It had really become a daily companion for me, helping me on my quest to consciously establish some new healthy habits in my life.

Examples of UP features that have helped me on this path are the daily step count goal and it’s simple intuitive graphics showing my progress; the daily personalized “Insights” messages; the gentle alarms that nudge me into moving when I’ve been sitting for too long; and even the style/fashion that makes me want to wear it as functional “jewlrey”.

The Fitbit, on the other hand has more powerful feedback mechanisms including the status lights and automated progress notifications enabled by background wireless syncing. And, although the Fitbit app’s user interface is not as engaging as UP’s, there is much more data available including weekly and monthly statistics and graphics that show how your numbers compare to the larger community. In addition, Fitbit has done a better job of the ‘extrinsic reward substitution’ aspect of establishing a new behavior by sending out congratulatory notifications and badges when big milestones are reached.

A Long Way to Go

Behavior change to me means establishing new habits that lead to a new identity. Our habits define who we are. When going to the gym becomes a habit, there is no daily struggle to talk yourself into doing it, it just is what you do. I don’t mean techniques to help you lose 20 pounds before the family reunion in August, what I’m talking about is changing your self-identity into a fit, healthy, active person – forever.

Are these devices actually working to create long lasting behavior change? On this topic, there does tend to be general agreement: there is a long way to go.

So instead of going into a shoot out comparing the UP and Flex, (the 2 devices I have direct experience with) I thought I would talk more generally about a few basic behavior science concepts and offer some random ideas for how they might translate to app features.

Triggers, Rewards and the Cravings That Bind

 Habits are routines transferred from the higher level cognitive areas of the brain to the lower level basal ganglia. A habit has 3 parts, a cue or trigger, the routine and a reward. It takes all 3 to turn a behavior into a habit but once there, the thinking areas of the brain stops fully participating and the behavior just happens. The familiar ping of an incoming text – the trigger – is followed by checking your phone and hopefully, getting some new juicy gossip – the reward. Over time the trigger and reward translate to a craving. Turning a behavior into a habit therefore requires a trigger and a reward. A wearable device that can nudge the user with a gentle vibration is in a unique position to be a trigger and because they can take input via the accellerometer via taps or movement, they are also in the unique position of recognizing that the designed behavior was completed and doling out a reward. I have a written before about habits and behavior change here.

Here’s a couple of ideas for how this could be implemented:

In the app, configure a trigger, for example, a  vibrating nudge when I have been sitting still for more than an hour; configure a behavior associated with that trigger that I want to turn into a habit – get up and move at least 100 steps within 5 minutes of the trigger; and send out a congratulatory text with a random inspirational quote when I do it.

This interaction of course would require wireless background syncing with the app,which the UP does not currently support. The UP does have the trigger, a configurable alarm that will vibrate for me when I’ve been inactive. The Flex has the reward, a notification when I meet a daily goal. Maybe that is why I am currently wearing an UP and a Flex? 😉

In both the Flex and UP, multiple alarms can be configured to cause the band to vibrate at specific times during the day. I use these alarms to trigger various daily habits. For example, at 3:30pm an alarm reminds me to stop and spend a few minutes remembering 3 things I am grateful for. At which point I launch a different app – Lift – to log having done it. Instead of calling it an alarm, allow me to set up new habits I am trying to instill and let me log it so I can track progress over time.

I’m using the UP/Flex this way because I’ve done the research into habits and behavior design – but to really help people with sustained behavior change, I believe the device/app experience should have more direct support for creating custom triggers, routines and rewards. I wrote in my Behavior Change is (maybe not so) Hard post how frustrated I am that it took so long for me to figure out the difference between a habit and motivation in my own life, these apps can help.

Community and peer pressure

Peer pressure is probably the single most potent behavior change agent, we often think of it as a negative but it works both ways. Peer pressure comes from communities and the relationships that they generate and any successful attempt at generating lasting behavior change will absolutely have to leverage it.

When I bought an UP, I opted in to a community of people who just like me paid more than a hundred bucks to ‘join’ and are taking the socially risky step of wearing this funky device – hoping it will help carve out new healthy habits. Exercising is not normal, the CDC says that 80% of adults don’t do it, so by wearing this device we are all admittiing out loud that we don’t want to be normal – that’s my kind of community!

But, where is everybody? In the UP app, I can add my friends to my ‘Team’… but my friends don’t have an UP, they’re in the normal 80%. Obviously I need to find some new friends 😉 So help me meet new people in this community, and don’t just let me see their data, but instead provide architected experiences to help us work together to succeed.

Here’s one example of how a community experience could leverage peer pressure to create lasting engagement and behavior change – Team Quests.

A Team Quest is a small group event where team members work together to meet team goals over a defined period of time. As you complete more quests, your individual ‘level’ or standing in the community continues to rise. This idea can start very simply with a Step Quest and then expand into other quests such as Weight Loss Quests or Meditation Quests.

Anybody can start a Walk Quest. Quest teams are a minimum of 2 people and have a configurable maximum that defaults to 10 people. Each Quest has a starting date and lasts anywhere from 1 to 10 weeks. In a Walk Quest, when you sign up, each team member pledges to walk a certain number of steps every day for the duration of the Quest, which results in a team grand total. The goal is for the team to meet the total so that all members can level up in the community for successfully completing a quest. Each team member will sign a pledge to fully participate which includes engaging with the team using the Quest discussion thread to get and provide encouragement and advice. Quests can either be open for anybody to join, or they can be private and limited to just your current social network. If one team member is down with a cold for a few days, other team members will have to work harder to make up the difference.

There is no way you are going to forget to put your UP or Flex on when you leave the house each day if you’ve got 5 team members counting on you and sending you reminder messages; and there is no way you are not going to get out after work and walk those last 1000 steps to meet your daily goal before you pour yourself that glass of wine. Over time, as you complete more public team Quests, your private social network will naturally grow – this is how communities work – relationships are formed, weak ties become strong ties, people become accountable to each other, they stay engaged, and behavior change happens!

Make It Meaningful

“Meaning is the primary motivational force in man” ( Victor Frankl). Everywhere I turn on my journey to learning more about the behavior science fundamentals applicable to making healthy lifestyle choices I encounter this basic notion. People are motivated by participating in something bigger than themselves.  So the question then becomes, how can a personal tracking device leverage this fundamental driver in people?

In an earlier post I explored this topic more completely and describe an idea that I called the “Step Up To Give” program – a concept that ties continued daily achievement of step count goals to donations made to prosocial causes. Not long after I wrote that post, Jawbone did release a new “Limited Edition” Orange colored UP where every purchase of the orange UP was accompanied by Jawbone making a $20 donation to Alliance For a Healthier Generation. And while that was a step in the right direction, it does not incentivize ongoing engagement.

We can expand the Step Up To Give idea presented in my earlier post now by combining it with the Walk Quest idea I introduced above. A Walk Quest could relatively easily include the ability for friends and families to pledge funds to a Quest, even if they are not directly participating. Now the Quest is for more than bragging rights, if you meet the goal, the money gets collected and donated, if not it doesn’t. Combining the power of peer pressure in small groups with the motivation of helping other team members meet their goals and participating in a larger prosocial good – that’s meaningful.

Goal Priming

 As a culture we are being manipulated to death – literally – to consume for short-term pleasure and usually in direct conflict with our long-term well being. Self-control is a muscle-like depletable resource and when it is at it’s strongest we can consciously stop and remember our long-term goals. But we usually don’t expend the energy required to do this, especially when worn out by a hard day and surrounded by cues to act in the interest of immediate pleasure.

The good news: research has shown that subtle cues that consciously or even subconsciously activate a mental representation of a long-term goal can help.

This is known as goal priming. And an app designed to help facilitate healthy behavior change is an obvious and ideal place to leverage it.

One idea for how this might work: Why Clips.

A Why Clip is a 3 second video that you create to help remember why you are trying to live a healthier life. An example might be a ‘future’ video of yourself celebrating having reached a weight goal or a video of your 3 month old daughter smiling along with your voice stating “I am going to be there for you”. Taking the time and creativity to distill your “why” into a few 3 second videos will be a valuable exercise. You record up to 5 Why Clips and one will be selected at random and played when tapping the “Why” button in the app. But even more powerful than on-demand replay, a Why Clip will also play at unexpected and unpredictable moments such as when the app is launched or when performing a device sync. A pleasant surprise to look forward to but not expect every time.

Don’t count on McDonalds or Phillip Morris to help you remember why you want to live a healthy lifestyle – but maybe Jawbone or Fitbit can.

Loss Aversion

 “Loss aversion refers to people’s tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. Some studies suggest that losses are twice as powerful, psychologically, as gains” (Wikipedia). Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, describes loss aversion as the most important contribution that the field of psychology has made to behavior economics.Obviously any application that is trying to take advantage of behavior science research to help people change should consider how to leverage loss aversion.

How many days in a row have I met my goal? Keep reminding me how well I”m doing because I’ll go way out of my way to keep from breaking the streak, much further than I’d go to start a new streak. Where do I stand in relation to the rest of the community on total step count and consistency in meeting my daily goal? What do I have to do to keep from dropping further down the list? And Instead of making me earn my way to a level or standing in the app, let me chose the level that I want to perform at and then let me prove that I can do it – in this way I risk losing my preferred status instead of having to earn it.

Wrapping it up… finally 😉

These are just a few quick ideas that leverage behavior science principles. None of these companies are going to emerge from this activity tracking gadget race in front based simply on the features of the physical device. It will be the full shared experience of the app and it’s ability to keep people engaged that will effect the real change in health and wellness that our society desperately needs.

About Mark Feinholz

Digital Health Product Manager. Inspired by technology to help us live happier and healthier lives.
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