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From Data to Decisions: The Path to a Meaningful Quantified Self

  Is there a way to leverage the Quantified Self into something meaningful and relevant to a broader population? How can the products and services we design take advantage of the growing number of self-tracking and data analysis technologies on the market to help improve people’s lives in the long-term?  

By: Matthew Jordan and Nikki Pfarr, Artefact

Thanks, in part, to the miniaturization of sensors and related technologies, almost everything is now capable of producing its own data. The “Quantified Self” movement has benefitted from – and is perhaps partially responsible for – the increasing popularity of wearable activity trackers, produced by companies like Fitbit, BodyMedia, Jawbone, and Nike. For some people, having access to a new world of data satisfies a natural self-curiosity. Armed with records of their own food intake, activity levels, health metrics, and even sleep patterns, they see self tracking as a means to deeper self-knowledge.

For others the idea of self-tracking, and the deluge of data that comes with it, is a novelty at best and, at worst, completely overwhelming. As technology continues to advance, however, the reality is that data is increasingly being generated and collected on everyone’s behalf, whether we like it or not. This begs the question: Is there a way to leverage the Quantified Self into something meaningful and relevant to a broader population? How can the products and services we design take advantage of the growing number of self-tracking and data analysis technologies on the market to help improve people’s lives in the long-term?
Artefact’s Modwells is a concept for a wearable technology platform that collects and assesses health data, and provides feedback and alerts for health management or sharing with healthcare professionals.
Beyond the First Degree of Meaning
To its credit, the Quantified Self movement isn’t without success stories – a few, very dedicated people have used self-tracking to help uncover and manage disease, or lose significant amounts of weight. But for most people, strapping on a wearable activity monitor seems to have led to a lot of personal insights along the lines of, “Huh, that’s interesting” (as in, “Huh, that’s interesting, I walked 5402 steps today”). There’s a novelty to self-tracking, for sure, and for a while it may be enough to get some people to change their behavior. But it’s unclear whether simply tracking and reviewing one’s data will have a more meaningful impact in the long run.
As individuals we make hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions on a daily basis. Studies suggest that the average person makes over 200 decisions each day related to food alone.The more we make responsible choices throughout the day, resisting temptation, the more we can become fatigued and begin to exhibit less self control and perseverance in later choices we make and activities we engage in.2
We can think of novelty, and helping people see patterns in their past behaviors, as the first degree of meaning for the Quantified Self. However, we’re now starting to see new tools and services emerge that take the Quantified Self a step further, hinting at a promising second degree of meaning for the movement: using data and self-tracking to motivate people to make healthy lifestyle changes.
The Second Degree of Meaning: What Will Success Look Like?
In 2013, Walgreens launched Steps, an addition to its Balance Rewards loyalty program. With Steps, customers can link popular activity trackers and digital scales, from companies like Fitbit and Withings, to their Walgreens loyalty accounts and receive points for activities like exercising and daily weigh-ins. The points translate into cash discounts on future Walgreens purchases, essentially rewarding customers for healthy behavior. So far the program has been quite successful: according to the Walgreens Web site, there are currently 884,035 active users who have logged 26,397,198 miles.
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As more companies follow in Walgreen’s footsteps, their success will depend on the extent to which they can help people do three things: recognize which behaviors they need to change, set achievable goals, and stick with the change over time. And to help people make meaningful, long-term changes, solutions will need to move beyond surface-level gamification strategies that are the backbone of many products and companion apps on the market today.
While badges, points systems, interactive characters, and even small cash rewards tend to be helpful at getting people to initially try a behavior or tool, the novelty of these incentives can wear off over time. It’s true that many companies have successfully increased engagement by adding basic game mechanics to their offerings, (NextJump, a loyalty program provider, added points and team competition to its company’s initiative to get more employees into the gym, and saw the percent of employees hitting the gym rise from 5-10% to 80%) but when it comes to sustaining long-term change, strategies for deeper engagement will likely be necessary – such as helping people develop social relationships and communities, and incorporating more immersive storytelling. Apps like “Zombies, Run!” are particularly intriguing with regard to the latter strategy, putting the user at the center of a story that unfolds every time she goes for a run. It pairs the stickiness of a serial storytelling with the current pop culture obsession with all things undead.
Setting Achievable Goals and Planning for Setbacks
To set people up for longer-term success, products and services can take a more active role in the planning part of the process. Research on behavior change, particularly in the realm of health and wellness, has suggested that planning is a predictor of eventual behavior. This includes helping people set achievable goals, and ensuring they feel confident in their ability to actually achieve those goals. It’s also important to help people make plans to cope with setbacks that are destined to occur along the way, so they are prepared to easily get back on track instead of falling off the wagon.
The Walgreens Steps program, for example, already encourages customers to set goals – and provides suggestions for people who are unsure about what type of goal to choose. But imagine if, when setting up a goal for the first time, Steps helped a user narrow in on a specific step target that was a great fit for their skill level, and that the user felt confident they could achieve. Steps could then walk the user through the process of making a plan for exactly how to achieve that goal, including how to deal with obstacles that may arise. It’s one thing to commit to walking 7500 steps each day, but it’s another thing to think through how and when you’re going to fit those steps into a busy schedule.
Focusing on internal, rather than external, motivators
Apart from planning, it’s also important to shift the focus away from external motivators (like cash rewards or social recognition) and toward internal motivators (like truly enjoying the experience in and of itself). When extrinsic rewards go away, or when the novelty wears off, the internal motivators are what will keep people engaged in the longer-term. Helping people recognize and internalize the personal benefits of the changes they’re making can decrease reliance on external rewards. One way to approach this is by calling attention to an aspect of a new activity or behavior that resonates with the user personally, perhaps something that aligns with a longer-term life goal or a core personal value.
The Walgreens Steps program includes a feature where users are invited to specify what motivates them – why they want to be more active, or fit, or generally healthy. By calling more attention to this feature, and by incorporating triggers into the experience that encourage participants to reflect on their personal enjoyment of the healthy behaviors they’re doing, they can shift the emphasis away from external rewards (in this case, the Walgreens Balance Rewards points) – helping ensure longer-term success for their customers.
The Third Degree: Supporting Real-Time Decisions for Chronic Conditions
If motivating people to make healthy changes is the second degree of meaning for the Quantified Self movement, the third degree of meaning, which remains largely untapped by companies, is helping people – particularly those with chronic conditions - make better decisions in real time.
To a large extent, much of the data-driven, decision-making support available today relates to consumption and purchasing choices. Netflix can give you better movie recommendations because it has data about your viewing history, and ratings from other people with whom you have things in common.
Meanwhile, a growing number of people are living with chronic medical conditions and could benefit from real-time decision-making support informed by the wealth of data available. These people are making decisions on a daily basis about their care, treatment, and activities – and could benefit from insights about their own personal behavioral trends, biometric stats, and even environmental factors. Yet, existing, consumer-focused product and service offerings have largely sidestepped this growing group of people.
That’s where the real promise of a more meaningful Quantified Self lies. Imagine if a person with asthma could quickly get a recommendation about where to go jogging today based on their recent peak flow trends, the local pollen count, the outdoor temperature, and other relevant environmental triggers nearby. Or if a person with diabetes could see how their run to the bus stop and skipped breakfast is influencing their blood sugar.
A More Meaningful Future for the Quantified Self
There’s an opportunity to build upon the existing Quantified Self movement, applying the self-tracking and personal analytics mindset to new, more meaningful problems - like long-term healthy behavior change and chronic condition management. By layering on these new degrees of meaning to the Quantified Self, we are also creating a win-win-win scenario for all involved. Device manufacturers extend their value through additional services and companies like Walgreens find ways to become relevant and provide value in an ecosystem they did not have a place in before. Most importantly, people successfully achieve positive outcomes in their lives, whether it is to better manage their chronic conditions or pick up a new healthy habit.
Artefact's research director and health expert Matthew Jordan has worked with companies like Baxter Healthcare, St. Jude Medical, and Mayo Clinic to apply the design process to the health industry. His 15-year tenure in the human-centered research and design has focused on balancing user needs and goals with business objectives to deliver meaningful user experiences and actionable solutions. In addition to working on a number of award-winning healthcare and medical products, he has also published articles in leading publications including Medical Device & Diagnostics Industry Magazine, Interactions Magazine, and Visions Magazine. Matthew can be reached at [email protected],
Nikki Pfarr is a researcher, strategist and behavior economics expert, who focuses on understanding human behavior, especially the complex factors that influence lifestyle and purchasing decisions. Her focus is on creating tools that help designers and researchers gather new data, reframe complex problems, and identify opportunities for innovation. She is a frequent speaker at industry conferences including IDSA, The Economist and AIGA.
1. Wansink, B., & Sobal, J. (2007). Mindless Eating The 200 Daily Food Decisions We Overlook. Environment and Behavior39(1), 106-123.

2. Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource?. Journal of personality and social psychology74(5), 1252.

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