Routines and the Quantified Self

What is the “Quantified Self” ?

These days some of us or quite a few of us try to capture certain minute details about our daily lives in a digital format. We keep a track of the amount of steps we have taken, the amount of calories in the meals of the day, and so on. The aim here is to keep a track of these things so that we may reflect, analyze and learn about what is going on with ourselves, to eventually improve ourselves over time. This has become much easier due to smart devices and wearable technology. Each and every one of us is generating tremendous amounts of data about ourselves every single day. Systems like the Nike Fuel band, the FitBit and even Apple and Google’s fitness oriented application suites want to take advantage of this current trend.

At the heart of this new “Quantified Self” movement are tiny, inconspicuous sensors embedded in various devices, that help record and log surprisingly accurate and incredibly detailed information. These sensors, combined with ubiquitous computing that allows these numbers to be crunched and presented to the users in an easy to understand format, and social networks that allow the users to share and collaborate, form the core of the new “revolution” in health and wellness oriented experiences.

Although all of this is a great example of how the latest technology can be used for our benefit, the idea of the Quantified Self is not as completely new as one might think. We have been keeping track of ourselves in various ways long before the advent of miniaturized biometric sensors and portable smart devices. Certain things like keeping a track of spending, or stepping on a scale every morning, have been a part of our lives for quite a while now. What’s new is this increased need for self-knowledge, helped by the rich and detailed information that can be recorded about ourselves.

Of course, there are still a few issues with the whole Quantified Self movement. One of them is keeping the user engaged. These systems currently require the user to constantly monitor or observe the information daily or over time. This may lead to information overload, or confusing the user because of too much information. Another is keeping the user motivated and interested in the system. It is observed that after a while a lot of people tend to revert back to their old ways because they get bored or lose motivation, and their fitness trackers end up in a desk drawer.

Routines

One of the things I realized as I read and researched about human factors, is the importance of routines in our daily lives. Certain things we do, certain actions that we perform, are so familiar to us that we do not spend too many attentional resources to complete those actions. They become “routines”. We continue to follow those routines until something unusual happens.

To understand how we can make the above mentioned Quantified Self systems better, we need to understand how to design them better. That’s where the understanding of routines comes into the picture. If the systems become a part of our routine, completely non-intrusive without too many requirements on our attention, they might just become better experiences.

Today’s solutions

Designers have tried to work around the issue of keeping users motivated in the case of fitness tracking. Gamification, or adding game-like interactive elements such as competition with others in your social network, trophies or achievements for achieving goals, or Role-Playing Game like elements such as character creation and progression, have all been tried out. The problem here is that it lacks a universal appeal to people. Some people really like Gamification, and others can’t be bothered with it.

Other attempts at helping users maintain motivation have been actual monetary incentives, such as the “Pact” app that allows you to bet money on whether or not someone will complete their fitness goals, or the “PavLok”, a wearable device named after the Pavlov experiment, which literally gives the wearer an electric shock if he/she does not complete the pre-decided goal.

I believe that the solution lies in understanding how routines are created, maintained and modified. Creating a new routine or modifying an existing one is difficult compared to maintaining an existing one, because changing certain habits takes conscious effort and attention. It takes a few cycles of the routine to fully internalize the changes. If it is too difficult, the individual may revert back to old habits. Superficial motivation like Gamification may not provide enough incentive to the user, to completely change their routine.

What I feel would be the ideal experience:

One of the key aspects of the quantified self is the focus on the individual. Self improvement, and detailed information that is specific to the individual are the key points of this whole experience. Using pre-set goals like “10,000 steps a day” thus seems counter-intuitive to this point. If every person is different, then every person should have goals as per their requirement, or their capacity. That is where biometric sensors fall short, and human intervention provides a more suitable solution. Sometimes it’s better to jog or run until you can feel your legs tiring out, for example, rather than just stopping after 10,000 steps every time.

That is where I feel this system needs to improve not only simply recording detailed information, but also to help create routines, and help you find your own way of making the best use of the sensor data. Information that can help you improve upon your fitness by showing you how much you can do, and what you should do to push your limits. The user would know when they have done enough, when they can feel it in their own bodies, without the need of a 3D avatar of themselves telling them they did a good job.

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