Wearing Thin: The Declining Usefulness of Wearables

Kelly Moran Principal Experience Researcher projekt202

Kelly Moran
Principal Experience Researcher

Earlier this year, I reviewed the Leaf health tracker by Bellabeat. It’s currently billed as “a sleep, activity and reproductive health monitor that helps you cope with stress.”

At the time of my review, I described the Leaf as a pretty face falling short on its promises. I appreciated the appealing and clever design that let me wear the device five different ways on either my wrist, waistband, collar or around my neck, and was forgiving of the small inaccuracies it reported. I was intrigued by the (unfulfilled) potential to link activity, sleep, meditation and even my monthly cycle into trends and correlations that would (someday, somehow) help make me a healthier, more balanced person. The Leaf was, and admittedly is, still very new and surely it would improve with time.

Time Changes … Not All the Things

 Now that I’ve had the Leaf a good six months, I’ve only become more disenchanted. Promised updates didn’t come, support never got back to me on the activity monitor bug, and it just got too irksome to go through the eight – yes, eight – clicks it took every morning to change the placement of the Leaf in the app settings to match the day’s placement on my body.

I also noticed it was taking a toll on my phone battery, accounting for as much as 20% of my battery usage in a given day, according to the power usage report on my Android.

Somehow, all that wasn’t enough to make me totally unhappy. I still had an interesting conversation piece and a decently attractive accessory. And, at the end of the day, I could check in with the app and see where I was trending with my daily step count; not that the Leaf would do anything helpful like put my daily activity into any sort of graph or other comprehensive format, but I could swipe back to previous days and make a mental comparison.

No, my real displeasure with the Leaf came when I decided to come back to wearing it after a week’s break.

Here sits the essential problem with wearables today: They do not understand human weakness.

Gaps in Usage

I stopped wearing my Leaf on a daily basis in the fall. One day, I just didn’t feel like I had a good place to wear it. It was going to be a long-sitting day anyway and I didn’t need the nagging of the activity monitor interrupting me, so, after unwinding the headband I use to secure the Leaf to my wrist during sleep (an easy hack I discovered shortly after deciding I didn’t like sleeping with it clipped to my pajama top), I put the whole package into a drawer in my nightstand and left it there for the day. Out-of-sight, out-of-mind, I simply forgot to wear it that night for sleep.

I put the Leaf back on the next day. I had a moment where I doubted where I’d worn it two days prior – it’s important to tell the app where you have the Leaf on your body or the step count won’t be accurate at all. I had a memory of it clunking around against my desk (the metal face scratches easily), so I told myself I must have worn it as a bracelet.

Strapping it to my wrist, I set out. A busy, much more active day, I returned later than I’d expected. I removed the Leaf bracelet and tossed it on the nightstand – too tired to wrap it back up in the headband. This was two nights and one day of the week without wearing the Leaf.

With the pattern of use broken, I neglected to wear the Leaf again the rest of the week.

Feeling like I needed some inspiration to get back into the habit of monitoring my activity on a daily basis, I logged in to see how many steps I’d taken on that busy day right between my first day and my first night of non-use. And that is where I decided the Leaf was too much trouble for too little benefit.

The Penalty of Coming Back

The first thing I noticed when logging into the app and syncing the Leaf was that it was apparently very confused by my total lack of sleep for the past three days. The app practically demanded I manually enter all my back data before I could effectively view my activity from several days earlier. I couldn’t remember my real sleep and wake times, so I made them all up. Then it highlighted how low my activity had been (zero steps detected), so I made up some fake runs and other activities.

I now had several days of completely useless data. Finally swiping back to that busy day earlier in the week, I saw an unexpectedly low number of steps. I clicked (eight times) into the settings to check the Leaf placement and saw the app was set for necklace placement, not wrist. I’d incorrectly remembered where I’d worn the Leaf last and didn’t update the Leaf accurately.

With no way to retroactively update the placement, the step count was completely wrong. I was effectively missing a solid week of data. I was penalized for interrupting usage and trying to come back.

Wearables for Humans

Here sits the essential problem with wearables today: They do not understand human weakness.

People make mistakes and people change their minds. Sometimes we mark the wrong box. Sometimes we forget. Sometimes we just don’t feel like it. We get knocked off track and have a tendency to start and stop. If wearables are going to be great motivators of health and mindfulness, they need to account for these weaknesses.

Wearables today are not coaches; they are drill sergeants.

They expect total adherence to their rules and they don’t accept excuses. Let us leave and come back; in fact, encourage our return. Let us correct the mistake we made, even if we made it last week.

Wearables need to account for two very human attributes: error and caprice.  

Until wearables can understand the human behaviors they aspire to guide, they will be destined to end up in drawers and nightstands.

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