Nike’s Updated FuelBand: Better Algorithm, Worse UX

Over a year after Nike broke ground with their dead-simple FuelBand, it’s issued a second-generation model that tasks the user with correcting its shortcomings.


Out of the box, Nike’s announcement yesterday about the new Nike+ FuelBand SE ($149 and available in November) suggests that the sporting giant has listened to and applied a year’s worth of user feedback to its algorithm for a heightened user convenience. But in practice, it reads like a one step forward, two steps back move for wearable technology.


When Nike announced the original FuelBand early in 2012, the company sought to create a universal currency (NikeFuel) to track movement. A simple accelerometer embedded into the wristband gets compounded with algorithms that identify the type of activity the user is engaged in. Your FuelBand knows when you’re playing basketball and when you’re taking the stairs, and puts a running total of your accumulated points smack dab on your wrist every day. The tallies are designed to motivate more movement.

The updated ecosystem announced this week includes the Nike+ FuelBand iOS app, some superficial updates (new colors, a quick double tap will prompt the band to show the time), as well as software upgrades (read about them here). It’s all still geared toward getting people up and out of their seats.

But perhaps the most standout new feature in the FuelBand SE canon is how it shifts the responsibility on users to record certain activities that it measured with less than perfect accuracy before. Take yoga, for example: Once an Ashtanga class is over, you’re now able to dial into the app and pinpoint exactly how much you exerted yourself during class, on a scale of low to medium to high intensity. From there, your FuelBand will add points.

The key here is that the FuelBand SE lets you fine-tune the intensity of the class, instead of the device calculating points for you. Given Nike’s industry-leading position in the wearable tech space, this self-reporting requirement reads like a major departure from the original design intention of a carefully streamlined user experience.

“Wrist sensors are fantastic for about 23 hours and 15 minutes of the day,” says Ricky Engelberg, Nike’s senior director of innovation for digital sport. But that other 45 minutes? “That’s where wrist sensors have run into limitations.”

That curb has altered the course of the FuelBand. The old rhetoric clung tightly to the idea that your Fuel was a single, all-encompassing number. One digit, one target, every day. A year later, it’s more complicated. Nike innovators and scientists spent thousands of hours this year attempting to perfect the day-to-day accuracy of Fuel. They axed actions from everyday tasks–Engelberg mentions chopping carrots for dinner, folding laundry, sweeping the floor–and found that running was under reporting Fuel counts. That’s all automated. But as soon as a few key forms of exercise enter the scene–yoga, cycling, and some training–Nike asks users to tie up loose ends by clocking in the workout’s intensity. Those sessions have to last at least one minute, and the user has up to six hours to adjust their report. Runners might be fine, given the improved algorithm. But for cyclists, or spin instructors, this singular action has the potential to render the FuelBand useless, because the beauty of the product is that it tells you how your performance is quantified.


At the same time, Nike has opened up their app to anyone with an iPhone 5s, FuelBand or not. “What’s interesting about the iPhone 5s [compatibility] is it gives people the chance to experience how you earn fuel,” Engelberg tells Co.Design. “I think there would definitely be a portion of the users that fall in love with fitness tracking.” Those users would then eventually realize that they can’t play basketball or swim while wearing their phones and opt to buy the actual wristband.

Nike is spreading its Fuel footprint to get as many users, with as many finicky requests, on board. But it feels more like Nike is catering its upgrades to a more elite (not exactly professional) athletic group. To wit: The new Groups feature expands the individual-achievement sharing into a network that can hold 150 people, who can schedule real-life meet-ups. (The Nike team used the new feature to schedule a 5:30 a.m. Cross Fit class the morning of the announcement.)

While self-reporting is a powerful tool for a decathlon trainer, or a yogi getting their certification, a novice in a spin class might need several months before they’re at home with how her muscles handled each workout. It could even add a layer of stress to the experience–“Did I take on that hill as hard as I think I did?”

A year and some change after Nike released its first mainstream product, and the conversation swirling around wearables hints at invisible products, or the potential of round-the-clock infant wellness monitoring. Meanwhile, Nike’s product is still visible, and certainly more complicated.

Read more about the Nike+ FuelBand SE here.

About the author

Margaret Rhodes is a former associate editor for Fast Company magazine.