The rise of the quantified self – eight examples of life logging

Here’s a post I wrote for The Real Adventure blog recently.

UX quantified self and life logging apps

One of the big trends this year is the concept of the ‘quantified self’; a movement where wearable technology and smart phone apps combine to give people detailed insight into their everyday lives. This ‘life logging’ creates a unique opportunity for brands to keep a constant presence in their customer’s lives, by providing them with real value and helping them to improve their well being. This potential has been highlighted by the recent success of the Nike+ Fuelband, which has turned a loss making division of Nike into a highly lucrative business. Read on to learn about the potential of the quantified self movement, its moral dilemmas, and how it is changing the world around us.

Allez Wiggo!

I recently bought a heart rate sensor. It was the latest step in a steady creep towards logging almost every aspect of my cycling performance.

Now when I go out for a ride I can see my speed, cadence, power output and heart rate to confirm what I knew already: I’m not a professional athlete.

Although it’s a shame that I’m not going to be the next Sir Bradley, by logging the details of my ride and analysing it with software like Strava, I can quantify my progress in increasingly detailed ways and feel motivated by my small successes and continued self-improvement. It’s completely changed my approach to exercise and encourages me to do more of it, which can only be a good thing.

This kind of personalised data collection and analysis was once the domain of people with niche needs and large budgets, like professional athletes (or The Terminator), but in recent years it’s gone mainstream. This is mainly thanks to the proliferation of smart phones and the emergence of cheap, wearable technology such as smart wrist bands. This trend has been dubbed ‘The Quantified Self Movement‘.


What is the quantified self?

Firstly it’s important to note that the concept of ‘the quantified self’ is not restricted to tracking and analysing your exercise regime (although this is an aspect that many of us will have come across). In fact the quantified self is a movement to collect any aspect of a person’s daily life using technology (‘life logging’), and then subsequently present that data back to the user in a useful way.

At this very moment people are logging calories consumed, cholesterol intake, steps walked, locations visited, people met, sleep patterns, heart rate, mood, tasks completed, and more. Once this data has been collected, it’s up to the software to analyse it and present it back in useful ways, for example, answering questions like: “Did I consume less calories this week than last week?” “Where was I last Sunday at midday?” and “Have I met my monthly exercise target?” Often an aspect of ‘Gamification‘ is added so that you can compete with your piers – for some people bringing out their competitive side is the key to motivation.

By processing the finer details of our lives there’s an opportunity for technology to help us become healthier and happier people – to become more organised and feel more in control of our lives. In showing us the patterns of our lives, the quantified self is self-awareness through numbers.


There’s an app for that

Here are eight striking examples of services that contribute to the quantified self movement.

1. Memoto

Although a lot of the motivation to quantify your life is health related, you may equally be collecting data for different reasons – perhaps to collect memories and not miss what’s going on around you. For example the Kickstarter-funded Memoto is a tiny, wearable camera that automatically takes two photos per minute of your day, that are GPS tagged and time stamped. Memoto’s tagline is ‘Remember every moment’: what you see – it sees, creating a continuous life log for the wearer. The accompanying Memoto app organises the photos into a timeline, grouped by date and searchable by location and time. It’s an interesting project that raises tricky new questions about privacy – something that Google Glass has got people talking about recently. But this clearly wasn’t a concern to its 2,871 Kickstarter backers, and the thousands of pre-orders that Memoto has since received.

2. Lift

Lift is a smartphone app backed by two Twitter co-founders, that encourages users to change their habits. According to its creators, ‘Lift is a simple way to achieve any goal, track your progress, and get the support of your friends’. Break those bad habits and adopt more positive behaviours instead: turn those pie in the sky New Year resolutions into something trackable and quantifiable. Motivation comes in the form of positive feedback from the app – a big tick and green colours make it feel good when you complete a task. This is combined with social motivation; friends can give you ‘props’ along the way, a Facebook ‘Like’ style thumbs-up – an encouraging pat on the back.

What I like about Lift is that it allows you to track very small things that can make a big difference to your life, things like flossing your teeth, reading a book or drinking more water. Like most people, I’m guilty of having the best of intentions, but the busyness of life tends to get in the way – perhaps an app like this is the motivation I need to make sure it happens. Seeing so clearly that I only flossed twice this month, and not everyday like I hoped to, might be the trigger for improving my habits.

3. HAPIfork

The surprise talking point of this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas was an intelligent piece of cutlery. HAPIfork contains sensors that enable it to track how you eat, and alert you if you are eating too fast. It also measures how long it took to eat your meal, the amount of ‘fork servings’ taken per minute, and intervals between ‘fork servings’. It also comes with an app and coaching program to help improve eating behaviour. It’s a strange concept that’s unlikely to catch on, but it shows how sensors can be incorporated into anything, enabling us to collect data for whatever we want.

4. Jawbone UP

Jawbone make a couple of interesting products including the rather nifty Jambox wireless speaker. Jawbone UP meanwhile, is their attempt at creating a holistic life logging and self-quantification solution, using a smart wristband and accompanying app.

At night the wristband tracks your sleep, the app waking you up at the perfect point in your sleep cycle. By day, UP tracks your movement, distance walked, calories burned, mood, and food and drink consumed. An ‘idle alert’ reminds you to move around if you’ve been inactive too long, and the ‘insight engine’ visualises your information so you can understand the meaning behind the numbers and discover hidden connections in the way you live. UP gives you messages of encouragement when you meet your goals, positively reinforcing good behaviour. In the words of the manufacturers; “Over time, insights lead to new behaviors and new behaviors become new, healthier habits.”

So if you believe the hype, it’s a one stop solution to improving your life. But as automated and intelligent as it is, there’s still a decent amount of data entry and admin involved. You need to tell it what you ate, set up the right alarms, and read and act upon its recommendations. It might improve your life, but it doesn’t simplify it – I wonder if, in reality, it creates another thing to manage and keep on top of: a new burden that can create stress and friction. Is this out-weighed by the benefits of feeling in control?

5. FitBit

Fitbit started as an exercise-tracking device, but seems to be evolving into a more holistic life logging solution similar to Jawbone UP. It currently enables you to monitor your exercise, diet and sleep, and manage your weight. The latter is achieved using an additional product – the Aria smart scale, a WI-FI enabled scale that assess your weight, body fat % and BMI. Like all their devices, it then wirelessly syncs your stats with an online graph and mobile tools to show you how you are tracking. The software then allows you to mark your progress, set goals, earn badges and compete with your friends.

FitBit Zip, their original exercise monitoring device, has a friendly, organic form factor, bright colours, and a cheeky face. It doesn’t have that cold, masculine or futuristic feel which a lot of this technology suffers from – it might appeal to middle aged mum who does Weight Watchers – surely a smart move in helping the device go mainstream.

6. Nike+ Fuelband

The Nike+ FuelBand, by contrast, is a testosterone-fuelled design soaked overnight in a pit of endorphins, and feels much more ‘high performance’. If the Fitbit appeals to those giving a bit of gentle jogging a go, FuelBand may look like it came out of the props department of the Tron movie. The device is a wristband with a built-in accelerometer and beaming LED display, which tracks how much you move and gives you an ongoing numerical score for this activity. You can compete with friends and set goals to beat. When you do beat one, it sends a fireball whizzing around the interface, setting the screen on fire.

The ads read, ‘Life is a sport. Make it count’. So housework, walking, and dancing in a nightclub all count towards your daily score. It feels a bit dumbed down compared to the other devices, and squarely aimed at the mass market. It’s a fashion item with youth appeal, and although lots of fun, I doubt will appeal to those with a more serious interest in fitness or sport. In fact I wonder if it’s actually preventing some people from doing proper exercise, by rewarding them for doing the things they were doing anyway. Users have even reported that a bumpy car journey increases their Fuel Score.

On the other hand – if you were wondering when all this self quantification stuff was going to hit the mainstream – this is it! It’s simple enough for anyone to understand, fun, and not elitist about what it considers ‘exercise’. The sales figures speak volumes: it sold out four hours before it was launched, and Nike Inc.’s Equipment division saw an 18% rise in profits after they introduced the Nike+ FuelBand, in comparison to a -1% loss the previous year.

7. S Health

Further proof, if needed, that self-quantification is going mainstream was the recent announcement of the Samsung Galaxy S4, likely to become the biggest selling Android phone of 2013. The launch was the usual smartphone stat-off – ‘it’s x nanometers thinner…faster than a CERN supercomputer…has a pointlessly high screen pixel density’ and so on. What caught my eye though, was how Samsung were referring to the phone as a ‘life companion’, and that it was shipping with powerful life logging features via an app called S Health. It can track your mood, food intake, sleep patterns, exercise, and even your weight, blood pressure and blood glucose via some peripheral devices – which makes it sound a bit like having a GP in your pocket. It’s a surprisingly detailed self quantification app, and will no doubt get used by millions of people.

Perhaps a future version of iOS will feature something similar, which seems likely considering Apple CEO Tim Cook is on the board of directors at Nike, who make the FuelBand.

8. Reporter

Quite possibly the king of the ‘quantified self’ is info-addict Nicholas Felton, most famous as designer of the Facebook Timeline. Feltron has long been admired by graphic designers for his ‘Annual Report’ work, in which he attempts to log every tedious detail of his life and then present it as a highly detailed series of infographics. Each year he attempts to record more information about his life than the previous one, and last year he commissioned an app, ‘Reporter’, to help further regiment his data collection. The app prompts him for information every 90 minutes, automatically logging his GPS position and asking him to answer the same questions each time: ‘Where are you?’ ‘Who are you with?’ ‘What are you doing?’ ‘How productive were you today (on a scale of 1-5)?’. And so on.

The fruits of this obsessive life logging are his 2012 Annual Report, which shows almost every detail of his life, including the fact that he drank 1,484 glasses of water and one ginger beer last year. The point of this? Apart from being a great piece of graphic design, it’s a social experiment, life as art, a visualisation of all those little things that we don’t notice happening. It’s banal detail and honesty are an interesting counterpoint to the more carefully curated information that people add to Facebook.


What next? Brain implants?

We live in a brave new world. While the idea of recording every aspect of your life used to be considered an Orwellian nightmare, we are now signing up in droves just to be part of it. But what happens to all the data that you collect, where is it held? Is it sold to third parties? What if it got hacked? There’s talk of the ‘end of privacy‘, a new dawn where everyone is recording and sharing every aspect of their lives and there’s no longer a legitimate concept of privacy to hide behind. Google co-founder Larry Page has even mentioned a not so far-off age where we all have brain implants, to make it all that much easier. To the new generation, public sharing is the norm, privacy perhaps more of a worry to an older generation who remember a pre-Facebook world.

But is this really what we want? Each technological step we take forward seems to give us more, but at the price of sacrificing something else.

Self quantification is ultimately a trade off between knowledge and empowerment and the perceived benefits, versus time invested and privacy removal. I really do believe it can have benefits, I’ve witnessed them myself with my cycling activities, and I’m thinking of trying out Lift to track macro-behaviours that I’d like to improve (note to self: remember to floss tonight). The big question I have though, is do these apps free us, or create more stress and burden in our lives?

They tell us more about ourselves, but could ignorance actually be bliss? In sweating the detail of our lives we unearth new problems to worry about, have to manage more, and ultimately become a slave to numbers. The key is motivation – if someone really has a desire to change their behaviour, then these apps can help them achieve it by showing their progress in a tangible manner.

The challenge for us software designers is in creating an experience where we get the trade off right : make it quick and easy, reward good behaviour, don’t nag, allow for erratic behavior (skipping days etc.) – make the software fit into the user’s life, not the other way around.

Time will tell if this is really the future as, in the long run, people will only adopt technology if it’s actually of benefit to them.


Do you think life logging and the quantified self movement could be the future? Let us know in the comments below.

This entry was posted in Futurology, mobile, social media, technology, UI, UX, wearable. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *