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People who buy activity trackers shouldn’t have to be beta testers

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Stop telling us we're holding it wrong

Over the past several months I’ve noticed a bizarre trend among the digital health and fitness products I’ve tested: many are faulty, incomplete, or inaccurate products, and the companies making them are hawking them anyway. And when people — myself included — complain about them, the response is always that improvements are coming. But are they?

"Bizarre trend" might not be the proper phrasing, depending on the situation. A multi-sport watch that actually only tracks one sport, with the promise of more to come and a vague timeline, was likely rushed out for the holiday shopping season. A health-tracking app that’s only viewable on a tiny watch face, and not in a compatible mobile app, is an odd workaround; maybe it will get there. But a fitness band that doesn’t come close to accurately measuring running distances is frustrating, or even ridiculous.

These are just a small sampling of an overall trend. My experiences with consumer health and fitness products that have shipped as "ready" when they’re really not go much farther back than this. In December of 2014 I nearly threw an early version of Spire, a so-called stress tracker, out the window, it was so buggy. (So much for calm.) Some might remember when Fitbit recalled its Force activity tracker last winter, after some wearers complained about a wrist rash. Fortunately, I never got a Fitbit rash… but last spring my Jawbone Up3 activity-tracking wristband stopped working while I was testing it, something the company acknowledged as an issue for some early users. Let’s not forget that Jawbone’s very first UP wearable suffered a myriad of hardware issues as well.

"Release early" shouldn't apply to consumer health and fitness trackers

I’m not sure what pushed it over the edge for me last month. Maybe it was the new "smart" sports bra I had been testing that left an itchy rash right where the bra’s sensors are located. (That product is, technically, still in beta and won’t ship until later this spring; the company said it is making the necessary changes to the bra’s components in the meantime.)

Or maybe it was when I tried to pair my Apple Watch with a new iPhone and found that neither the Apple Health app, nor the Activity app, would work on the phone because I had restored the phone from what was likely a corrupted iCloud backup. When did that happen? I don’t know; but I still need to troubleshoot that one.

In either case, none of these tracking devices seemed to be working properly, and it made me want to remove all sensors and wrist-dongles immediately. The time / benefit scale of these things had tipped over at too much / zero.

In the world of software, there’s a well-known philosophy embraced by developers: release early, release often. Some substitute this with the mantra "Launch and iterate," or even, "Learning by shipping." In the tech world, it’s often forgiven if you fall fast or fail often, especially if later on your product does work, or your user base does hit a critical mass, or you create something that is especially innovative.

It’s not just in the world of pure software, either. The first iPhone was riddled with flaws, the least of which was its inability to maintain a phone call. And yet, just a few years later, it became the thing that changed mobile computing, the way we purchase software applications, the way we consume streaming media, even the way we take photos — and all of Apple’s previous missteps were forgotten. It had become folklore: an excellent story to tell about the time Apple really pulled one over on stage at a developers conference, with a half-working iPhone.

Not everyone should — or wants to be — your beta tester

But applying that philosophy to health and fitness products not necessarily a good idea. Most companies that make these products will rush to say the same thing: we’re not making medical-grade devices, and these are in no way meant to be substitutes for medical devices. This is true; almost all of the products I’ve tested are not FDA approved. They might include optical heart rate sensors, or measure your breathing rate, or record your skin temperature, but they toe the line by simply displaying your biometrics or curating outside health content, rather than offering prescriptive advice.

Another justification for shipping a consumer health product that doesn’t seem quite ready is the need for data. Companies sometimes say that in order for an activity-tracking device, or its compatible app, to get "smarter," it needs a certain amount of data from the user first. And that a steady stream of subsequent data are needed before the app can offer solid insights.

Still, that doesn’t mean that consumers aren’t expecting a certain level of quality control with these products right out of the gate.

Here’s the thing: As a reviewer, it’s not actually unusual that I might see, try, or even extensively test something that isn’t a completely finished product. It can be exciting to get an early look or a peek behind the curtain at something that’s still in a development stage. And as journalists, we sometimes have a direct line of feedback to a company, where we can explicitly say, this stopped working, or, this thing is broken.

But most people don’t have that option. They’re not just trying; they’re buying. More and more consumers are plunging their money into these digital health and fitness wearables, these positive reinforcement bands, hoping at the very least that they’ll just work. And some of them are using these products for legitimate health-monitoring reasons, not just digital distractions or "It would be nice if I could be a little more active."

If they’re lucky, maybe the product they bought will work as promised right out of the gate. If they’re unlucky, though, they’ll be part of a feedback loop where they’re giving plenty up plenty of personal health data for little in return — at least, until the company improves its product.

It’s okay for some products to be in "beta", but the companies that make digital health gadgets shouldn’t expect their users to be as patient as they might be with other tech products. At the end of the day your regular customer is not your beta tester; she’s your customer.