The Future of Activity Trackers (Part 3): The Secret to Long-Term Engagement

January 2014

[Third in a three-part series on the future of activity trackers]


Inside Wearables

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Sustained consumer engagement is emerging as the key challenge for companies developing wearable devices, or those developing complementary services.  Many wearable products achieve short term adoption, but ultimately find themselves in a desk drawer within weeks of purchase once the novelty wears off. Companies need to understand why this is happening and the answer is not obvious.

Sunny Ahn, a partner at Endeavour Partners, and I were at CES to meet with old friends and new.  As someone who has spent at least a month with just about every activity tracker on the market, I was struck by how many new wearable products and services were on display that were destined for the desk drawer.  It was also interesting to see the growing number of portals and value added services from a diverse set of companies that are designed to run on top of these wearables and their open APIs, many of which suffer from the same problem.

Simply put, many companies are struggling to understand how wearable technologies and their complementary services can achieve meaningful, sustained engagement with a user base.

The Dirty Secret of Wearables
Amid this frenzy of speculation and inflated excitement, the dirty secret of wearables remains: most of these devices fail to drive long-term sustained engagement for a majority of users.

US Activity TrackersEndeavour Partners recently conducted a survey of thousands of Americans and concluded that as of September 2013, one in ten U.S. consumers over the age of 18 now owns a modern activity tracker from Jawbone, Fitbit, Nike, Misfit Wearables and others. Our research also revealed that more than half of U.S. consumers who have owned an activity tracker no longer use it. One-third of U.S. consumers who have owned one stopped using the device within six months of receiving it (which is actually higher than other anecdotal data I’ve heard in the industry).

Given my own experiences with these devices, and conversations I’ve had with others, I have found that a surprising percentage of devices in the market first fail to achieve even short term engagement for many users because they suffer from one or more fatal user experience flaws:

  • They are easy to lose
  • They break
  • They’re not waterproof
  • They’re a pain to sync with your smartphone
  • The battery doesn’t last long enough
  • They’re ugly
  • They’re uncomfortable to wear
  • They provide no material benefit

Any one of these flaws is enough to turn off a user — more than one often lands these devices in a desk drawer, or even worse, the trash.

Devices that make it through without any of these fatal flaws then need to provide their users with a compelling reason to continue using them over the long run.

The challenge is that while the criteria for adoption and short-term utilization of wearable products and services are becoming increasingly well-understood, these criteria alone are not sufficient for long-term engagement. There is another set of lesser known and perhaps more critical factors that are necessary for long-term engagement. For these we must turn to the field of behavioral science.

Three Factors for Long-Term Engagement
Human behavior is complex. The mechanisms that govern habit formation, motivation, and progress toward goals are just beginning to be understood. But these three factors are essential for sustained engagement. Behavioral science offers the nuanced insights that can lead to the development of successful wearable products and related services.

Key Factor #1: Habit Formation
Basis Health TrackerSustained engagement with a wearable device or complementary service depends on its ability to help the user form and stick with new habits. Psychologists define habits as automatic behaviors or routines that are triggered by situational cues, which are then followed by some form of reward.

Wearable devices can help make the process of habit formation more effective and efficient than ever before. The best engagement strategies for wearables move beyond presenting data (steps, calories, stairs) and directly address the elements of the habit loop (cue, behavior, reward) and trigger the sequences that lead to the establishment of new habits.

Factor #1 In Action: The Basis Health Tracker has an effective habit change sequence solution.

Key Factor #2: Social Motivation Nike+Fuelband SE
Sustained engagement with a wearable device or complementary service depends on its ability to effectively motivate users. Social connections are a particularly powerful source of motivation that can be leveraged in many creative ways. In addition to using social connections to influence behavior, social media and networking sites can be exploited to alter habits for positive outcomes. This includes the communication of social norms through “postings” or “sharing” of thoughts, pictures and comments with one another.

Leveraging social components into wearable products and services to increase motivational factors must be done carefully.  When implemented properly, wearable devices can drive sustained engagement through existing and new social network platforms and broader social media strategies.

Factor #2 In Action: Polar Loop’s Flow Web service and the Nike+Fuelband SE service establish motivation by effectively leveraging social connections.

Key Factor #3: Goal Reinforcement Jawbone UP
To achieve sustained engagement, a user needs to experience a feeling of progress toward defined goals.  Wearable products and services that help people experience continuous progress do so through real-time updates that are powered by big data and insights.

Dr. BJ Fogg, director of Stanford University’s Persuasive Technology lab, observes that the success from achieving several smaller goals (which he refers to as “baby steps”) provides the positive momentum necessary for achieving bigger goals. By setting small goals, people are less likely to over-reach and fall short, and thereby gain the momentum necessary to progress. This allows people to experience a sense of continuous progress.

Wearable devices and services have the opportunity to engineer personal progress for users in a way that has never been experienced. They can now be used as tools to help individuals to make healthier decisions about diet, lifestyle and exercise. Facilitating personal progress in this way leads to improved health, user satisfaction and long- term sustained engagement.

Factor #3 In Action: The Nike Fuelband SE, Jawbone Up24, and Fitbit Force use positive feedback and hourly cues to reinforce personal progress toward goals.

Next Steps
Some companies are already beginning to embrace the complex science of behavior change; however, there remains a great deal of potential for advancements in this area. A greater understanding of habit formation, social motivation and goal reinforcement will allow companies involved with wearables to create ever more effective and successful devices and services to promote health and wellness.

Inside WearablesTo learn more about the criteria for long-term engagement and the future of wearables, download our white paper: “Inside Wearables: How the Science of Human Behavior Change Offers the Secret to Long-Term Engagement.”

Finally, for those with an interest in the mechanisms at play that drive habit formation, I highly recommend Charles Duhigg’s 2012 book, The Power of Habit.

All the Best,
Dan Ledger

Dan is a principal at Endeavour Partners where he has led research on wearable devices and consumer wellness in general. Dan has advised numerous startups as well as larger service providers on product definition, service design, ecosystem strategy and go-to-market planning within this space.  Prior to joining Endeavour Partners, Dan worked for almost 15 years in the chipset business as an embedded system engineer and manager. Through this experience, he brings a rich understanding of the underlying technologies that go into wearables and how they are evolving. Dan holds a joint Master’s Degree from MIT’s School of Engineering and the MIT Sloan School of Management and a dual Bachelor’s Degree from Washington University in Electrical Engineering and Computer Engineering. He can be reached at

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7 Responses to "The Future of Activity Trackers (Part 3): The Secret to Long-Term Engagement"

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  4. Yves APELOIG says:

    The reality is an unsurmountable limit, it cannot be overlooked.
    There is a very good illustration of this limit : American aircraft carrier, the most complicated, advanced, highly competent and secured organization in the world.
    Despite the most up to date technology used on-board, in order to organized maneuver, a “real” model of the ship is use in the briefing room.

    Here the problem and the paradox :

    To get accurate data about the user, the user has to be connected as much as possible to the reality.
    Each time this connection is reduced or stopped, the accuracy of the data is degraded till complete lack of signification, like G-glass.

    But more I want accurate data, more I need to interfere in this connection.
    More I interfere, more I am involved with device, whatever, instead of reality, less the data are accurate.

    More I get data, less I get accuracy. Less the product can be marketable.

    The device whatever has to be freehand, no handling of any kind and even not any specific gesture.
    It cannot lock up the user, in any way, in a bubble, whatever it is : visual, audio, etc. so it cannot be based on any sensorial input/output device. Such device can only be accessories.
    It has to be usable by all people, disabled or not and whatever the disability, even blind people.
    It has to be able to give access to all mobile features, present or future.

    what this system do ? As any wearable, it knows what is around.
    But it “knows” also if and in what you are interested
    It knows “how much” you are interested.
    Then it search for the appropriate content, in the appropriate format (audio, visual, others…), in the appropriate length : why getting half hour of contents if I just want the name ? In the appropriate thematic : why a touristic content if I am interested in economic content ?
    And many features you are just dreaming.

    By analyzing the natural sequences of micro-head movement (see doc) resulting of your body movement, body movement expressing your feeling, willing, preferences and interest, it “knows” what you are interested with, in what condition, in what extent.

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