Test-Driving the Networked Body: 4 Takes on Fitbit Features

fitbit

I've been eager to try out the fitbit since talking with its designer, NewDeal's Gadi Amit, this past summer (full disclosure: Gadi Amit is a regular, unpaid contributor to Fast Company's expert design blogs). The tiny, wireless $99 activity monitor is worn 24/7 and tracks steps taken, calories burned, miles traveled, and even the quality and duration of sleep. It then syncs automatically to your computer so you can dive deep into all that data and log your nutrition.

"The design challenge with the slew of new technologies that allow you to monitor your health is to blend them seamlessly into modern life," says Amit. So, how seamless and effective is the fitbit? I decided to test-drive it to find out.

The device

At two inches high, half an inch wide, and weighing just fourth-tenths of an ounce, the fitbit is closer in stature to an iPod shuffle than a traditional pedometer. It's also incredibly sleek: A single button toggles through LED-lit screens while a clothespin-like construct lets the fitbit attach securely to any fabric on your torso.

My take

The fitbit is so slim and light that I forget I'm wearing it almost immediately. I'm told that wearing it loose in my pocket will decrease its accuracy slightly, but I can move it around throughout the day (at my pants waist for work, clipped to my sports bra at the gym, and then to the strap of my pocketless, waistless nightgown at home). On days when I wear dresses, I hook it to the top of my tights and am amazed that its silhouette is undetectable through the dress (until, once, I make the mistake of blabbing to a group of friends about the next-gen monitor I'm wearing and am badgered until I fish under my dress to retrieve it. They are agog at how tiny it is and how much it can monitor—and I don't blame them).

fitbit

The data

The fitbit's accelerometer tracks motion, even when you're asleep (a special band secures the device at your wrist, where it can more easily count how many times you wake in the night and how fidgety you are before slumber). With the touch of a button, each day's data is displayed on the device in real time: calories burned, steps taken, miles and traveled. A fourth screen shows a blue flower that grows or shrinks depending on how active you've been for the day. When you register your fitbit, it calculates your BMR (basal metabolic rate, meaning the number of calories you'd burn even if you just lay in bed all day) and includes that number in its caloric feedback.

My take

Knowing how many miles I've traveled turns me into everyone's best friend on group walks—any time I stroll more than 15 minutes with someone, I'm asked to read out the distance we've traveled. Miles are easier to wrap my mind around than steps taken, where 2,000 and 10,000 both sound kind of awesome (but only the latter is). While the miles read-out does nudge me to move more, the calories screen has the odd effect of encouraging my eating. I burned nearly 500 calories just waking up and getting to work? Score. Now pass the doughnuts. On days that the display reads 2,800 calories, my eating is ... let's just say gleeful and robust. Halfway through my week-long trial, I've learned to flip quickly past my calories and steps displays and focus on miles and my favorite feedback (which is also the weirdest)—a single flower that uses some black-box algorithm to shrink or grow based on how active I'm being. An hour at the gym and my flower is as long as the device, with a handful of delicate LED leaves. Six hours stuck at my desk and the flower is a squat weed, begging for growth.

fitbit

The Web site

Plug the fitbit's docking device into your computer and any time you're within 50 feet, the device will sync automatically with fitbit.com. There, you can log your food, see minute-by-minute breakdowns of your activity, log exercises that don't get the cred they deserve from an accelerometer (like weight lifting and yoga), and scrutinize your sleep patterns. Creators James Park and Eric Friedman are planning to roll out more community features this December and are considering adding more detailed analysis and life-coach support as part of a subscription model in the future.

My take

The fitbit is so well designed, it's hard not to be disappointed by the Web site. I'm delighted I can manually input exercises like yoga to keep my data and trends as accurate as possible, but the activity search function is clunky and frustrating. (No elliptical machine? Really? Or could I just not find it after 20 minutes?) And I can either put my data under a microscope with the day's view or a telescope with 30-day view. Why not let me look at weekly trends? The nutrition-tracking capabilities are a smart element and because I've used food-logging sites and apps sporadically over the years I can say that fitbit.com's is pretty good. But still, I can bring myself to painstakingly enter every splash of half & half and every handful of trail mix only one day out of eight. "Where's the fitbit chip I can implant into my throat that will track all my food for me automatically and wirelessly?" one friend asks. If only.

The goal

For folks who care about all calories in and all calories out, the fitbit's overlaid graph of activity and eating makes weight loss into a crazily quantifiable counting game. For the non-calorie-obsessed, Fitbit.com offers two weekly activity goals: steps taken or miles traveled. I'm not sure if the user's starting weight and BMI factor into the goals, but 70,000 steps seems like an awfully round number to be customized.

My take

The data streaming out of this pint-sized gadget quickly became overwhelming, which is probably why I started ignoring some screens and clinging to that more holistic-seeming electronic flower. And the Web site still felt too beta to help me neatly slice and dice my data into manageable goals. Some days I burn 1,800 calories and some days I burn 2,800—but unless I'm willing to create my own context by vigilantly logging my food intake, those numbers don't mean much.

Curious about other next-gen activity monitors? The Fast Company staff is test-driving the Philips Directlife. Read our reviews here and here.

[Fitbit]

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