Designing Progressive Web Applications for the Future

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Google unveiled progressive web apps around 12 months ago. We’ve now had the chance to look at some of the pioneers of the technology, see how they’ve managed to implement the concepts, and look at their results.

As both a web and Android developer, I’ve been very interested in progressive web apps, not just from a professional point of view but also because this is a technology that I actually believe in.

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Here’s What May Sound Like a Crazy Idea

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Build a command line option into your next user interface.

Some of you techies may be reading this and thinking, “Yes! I live in a command window all the time on my computer.” Well, I’m not really thinking about you as my target audience. I’m talking more about applications used by everyday people outside the IT industry.

Hear me out.

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Second-hand UX

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Something that I feel is overlooked by a lot of product designers is the second-hand experience of their product. That is to say, above and beyond the target user, who is affected by the product—and most importantly—what is their experience?

If the UX team has satisfied all the needs and desires of the target user, minimized their pain-points, and maximized their ability to enjoy the most common process flows, that is truly awesome—but how does the experience they design affect that person’s social circle? Do product designers currently see that as a question worth spending additional time and resources to answer?

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4 Tips for Designing Apple Watch Apps

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The global wearable technology marketplace is growing at a staggering rate, estimated to increase from $7.1 billion in 2015 to $12.6 billion by 2018.

One of the hottest segments in that market is smartwatches. In the past year alone, smartwatch shipments have increased from 7.4 million units in 2014 to nearly 25 million units in 2015. Some analysts believe global smartwatch shipments will reach 101 million units by 2020.

While Google, Samsung, and others are pouring money into wearables, Apple continues to drive many market segments, including smartwatches. Although it’s difficult to accurately size and predict rapidly growing markets, IDC analyst Ryan Reith believes Apple Watch will ultimatelyaccount for 62% of the smartwatch market in 2015. Apple’s record of innovation, and their ability to create new markets, demands that developers take note of their product releases and market activities. Apple is positioned to lead the smartwatch market for the foreseeable future.

With those thoughts in mind, here are four tips for designing applications for the Apple Watch.

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When Words Are Not Enough

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The frequently-raised objection when it comes to quality research, UX research included, is that the conclusions are drawn based on the participants’ declarations. However, there exist some methods which allow one to grasp the real behaviors of participants, and they can be easily implemented into the research scenario.

During exploratory research, the respondents are often unable to articulate their needs or opinions. In turn, when it comes to usability tests or satisfaction surveys, it very often happens that the respondents’ answers are limited to vague opinions which, without being further explored by the moderator, don’t bring in much data.

Very often, they hide their opinions, because something is “not quite right” to say, something makes them feel ashamed, or their behaviors are controlled by mechanisms which they don’t even perceive—because who would admit to having certain prejudices or not fully socially-accepted desires?

Then how does one find out the real opinions of respondents?

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A New Challenger Appears

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Prototyping is fundamental in a host of different industries. Since I spend a lot of my time prototyping as a user experience (UX) designer, I look to other fields for insights into new techniques that might save time or more effectively communicate an interaction. Storyboards are a great example of a technique that the UX community borrowed from film, television, and comic books. What’s interesting is that despite the value UX has added to digital products across all industries, I have never heard of another field adopting any UX techniques.

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Creativity Must Guide the Data-Driven Design Process

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Collecting data about design is easy in the digital world. We no longer have to conduct in-person experiments to track pedestrians’ behavior in an airport terminal or the movement of eyeballs across a page. New digital technologies allow us to easily measure almost anything, and apps, social media platforms, websites, and email programs come with built-in tools to track data.

And, as of late, data-driven design has become increasingly popular. As a designer, you no longer need to convince your clients of your design’s “elegance,” “simplicity,” or “beauty.” Instead of those subjective measures, you can give them data: click-through and abandonment rates, statistics on the number of installs, retention and referral counts, user paths, cohort analyses, A/B comparisons, and countless other analytical riches.

After you’ve mesmerized your clients with numbers, you can draw a few graphs on a whiteboard and begin claiming causalities. Those bad numbers? They’re showing up because of what you told the client was wrong with the old design. And the good numbers? They’re showing up because of the new and improved design.

But what if it’s not because of the design? What if it’s just a coincidence?

There are two problems with the present trend toward data-driven design: using the wrong data, and using data at the wrong time.

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Mystical Guidelines for Creating Great User Experiences

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The Jewish Torah teaches that the Creator created our world through ten utterances–for example, “let there be light.”

The Jewish mystical tradition explains that these utterances correspond with ten stages in the process of creation. Every creative process in the world ultimately follows this progression, because it is really a part of the continual unfolding of the world itself, in which we are co-creators.

This article aims to present an overview of the mystical process of creation and principal of co-creation and to illustrate how it can guide bringing digital product ideas into reality–although it’s easy enough to see how this could translate to other products and services–in a way that ensures a great user experience, and makes our creative process more natural and outcomes more fruitful.

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Designing for Harmony

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In 1982, Scott Cook was watching his wife sit at the kitchen table struggling to balance the family checkbook. Personal computers were just becoming popular and he had seen them transform work at Procter and Gamble; yet here was his wife fighting to do something challenging for humans but trivial for computers. In a flash of insight, he realized that software could replace pencil-and-paper accounting for everyone. This aha moment set him on a path of user-focused innovation.

Cook met programmer Tom Proulx at Stanford. With partial funding from Cook’s father, the pair not only founded Intuit, which improved many a math- and time-challenged life, but also gave another gift to the software industry that they borrowed from the consumer packaged goods industry: usability testing. They had users try their new software, Quicken, while they ran a stopwatch. Then they’d tweak the software and retest until processes that took an hour were reduced to a quarter of that.

Cook also pioneered a process at Intuit called “Follow Me Homes.” The CEO himself would go to software stores and when someone purchased a copy of Quicken, he would ask if he could follow the customer home and watch her use the application. This type of user research was useful because it allowed him to see customers using Intuit’s software in real-world environments.

By using these nascent user-centered design methods, they were able to meet the expanding needs of their user base and claim over 90% of the small business accounting software market.

Intuit went public in 1993 and then acquired Chipsoft, giving them the product that would become TurboTax. The now ubiquitous QuickBooks came out the following year.

As Intuit evolved, it acquired companies that added payroll, online payments, checks and supplies, online tax preparation, and more to its product line. This expanded the offerings but created a fragmented company where each product had its own division with separate management, design, and–in some cases—offices. A noticeable lack of focus prevented them from innovating as a company; their user-centered design DNA was disappearing. Was their size and rapid growth diluting their design-driven culture?

Solving for the innovator’s dilemma

In 2000, Steve Bennett became the CEO of Intuit. Fresh from GE, Bennett’s goal was to see Intuit act more like a grown-up company. His efforts were good for the bottom line–Intuit’s sales increased $1.7 billion during his seven year tenure–but acting like a mature company appeared to take the company even further away from its scrappy, innovative roots.

Over a decade after those early guerrilla user testing days, Intuit recognized it faced the “Innovator’s Dilemma”–the company was doing a good job of supporting their core products but they weren’t having any success creating new products and they weren’t keeping pace with the changing software industry.

A major change for the industry was the move to the software as a service (SaaS) model, often referred to as “the cloud.” This was a reinvention of the software publishing model that had customers pay a subscription fee to access software online rather than buy a copy for their desktop. SaaS meant companies could push out updates to their customers faster. It also made many things easier for customers, including remote access to work and simplified installs.

The cloud created opportunities for hungry young startups who were moving into Intuit’s space. Many of them were building their customer base from former Intuit users or from other startups looking for a slick, integrated user experience that Intuit wasn’t providing. After enjoying almost total market domination, Intuit finally was beginning to face some competition.

Years of incremental additions and piecemeal changes had turned QuickBooks into an awkward application with a dated interface. Intuit had developed its mobile platform late in the game, creating an inconsistent experience. If Intuit wanted to stay ahead of these new competitors–and the market–they would need to return to their roots.

The cloud also created opportunities for hungry young startups who were moving into Intuit’s space. Many of them were building their customer base from former Intuit users or from other startups looking for a slick, integrated user experience that Intuit couldn’t provide.

 

With Intuit’s market share, they probably wouldn’t see a decline for another ten years. A different company might have felt that was good enough. A different company might have been satisfied with just making money from their core products. A different company wouldn’t have tried to pull off a project as risky as Harmony.

Inspiring innovation by democratizing design

In 2007, Scott Cook had another important insight: He realized that he’d never be Steve Jobs. He’d never be that lone visionary who was single-handedly driving design and innovation at his company. What might have discouraged a different man inspired Cook. After getting advice from one of his design contacts at Procter & Gamble, Cook led a one-day program focusing on what he called Design for Delight (D4D).

His managers applauded in all the right places–Cook was the founder, after all–but there was little enthusiasm.

Undaunted, Cook had a consulting associate professor at Stanford named Alex Kazaks give a second presentation. Kazaks started with a ten minute PowerPoint presentation followed by an exercise where the managers worked through a design challenge that involved prototyping, feedback, iterating, and refining.

This time, the workshop inspired his managers and excited them about the power of design. This lesson–hands on workshops are better at engaging people–would help set the foundation for how Intuit would teach D4D moving forward.

To bring D4D to Intuit, Cook turned to a gifted in-house design director, Kaaren Hanson. Hanson, in turn, put together a team of nine people to help her. In making her selections, she was not only looking for user-centered design thinking but she also needed people interested in working together to solve problems. She wanted them to be outgoing and, most importantly, they needed to be passionate about sharing their skills and experience. If they were going to make a difference, they had to empower other people.

This core team would become known as the Innovation Catalysts. They would lead workshops with Intuit’s employees, educating them on the power of design. Any manager at Intuit could request an Innovation Catalyst to help them drive design and experimentation on their projects. And they were responsible for teaching new Catalysts. The initial group of nine would grow to over 200.

Hanson was not only looking for user-centered design thinking but she also needed people interested in working together to solve problems. She wanted them to be outgoing and, most importantly, they needed to be passionate about sharing their skills and experience.

 

Cook’s attempt to bring innovation to Intuit appeared to be a success. The Innovation Catalysts were teaching innovation and inspiring the rest of the company to think from a design perspective. Intuit was creating an environment that actively supported and encouraged innovation. The true test for the company, however, would be if they could produce successful new products.

In 2007, Bennett stepped down and the current CEO, Brad Smith, took over. Smith identified that Intuit had an innovation gap: Only four out of 50 products introduced in the past decade had grown to $50 million or more in revenues. Following in Cook’s footprints, Smith set out to bring innovation to Intuit’s products.

Taking it to the next level

In 2013, five years after Smith took the helm, Intuit was seeing the benefits of innovation and producing successful products, but to stay on top they would need to keep evolving. The company was still a collection of walled-off products and, although innovation was the goal, it wasn’t the reality in many departments. A focus on profits and products had watered down their culture of user-focused design.

Design-driven innovation was no longer a radical new approach. The industry—and Intuit’s competitors—was also using these processes to build successful businesses; many of them had learned their methods from Intuit. And although Intuit had successfully extended their experience to mobile, they had yet to take advantage of the cloud, a space their competitors were already at home in.

Smith announced a radical and risky new plan: Intuit would move away from being a desktop software company and move toward becoming an SaaS company.

They would do something they hadn’t done in more than a decade: a complete redesign of their flagship product. The centerpiece of this new Intuit would be called Project Harmony: a completely new QuickBooks Online, rebuilt from the ground up as an open and integrated platform. From that work, Harmony’s team would then create a new design vocabulary and apply it to QuickBooks Online and every other product Intuit offers.

This wasn’t Intuit’s first time at the rodeo: they had introduced QuickBooks Online in 2001. At the time, the technology was not up to the task of translating the desktop environment to the browser, so the experience suffered. Their customers were familiar with the desktop application and wary of change, and the ones who did try the new service were generally unhappy with it. Like any true innovator, Intuit would incorporate what they learned into the new product and move forward.

Klaus Kaasgaard and Dan Wenikoff
Klaus Kaasgaard and Dan Wernikoff during a design review.

Heading up Project Harmony was Dan Wernikoff, senior vice president of Intuit’s Small Business Group, and Klaus Kaasgaard, vice president of experience design. Wernikoff provided the executive backing so the project wouldn’t get derailed, and Kaasgaard acted as the project’s main advocate and development lead. Working together, the two sketched out the roadmap for Harmony, including a set of principles to guide the project:

  • Each product represents the entire ecosystem, so each product needs to deliver ease, benefit, and delight during a customer’s initial experiences.
  • Each product is designed individually but maintains the look and feel of the ecosystem.
  • Each product is designed in the context of its role in the ecosystem: understand the context in which each product will be used and create systems that respond intelligently when it changes.
  • Make it easy for a user’s data to follow them and move between products.

Design principles are often seen as fluffy and end up getting skipped or glossed over in projects, but the Harmony team couldn’t afford to skip any details for such a critical project.

It turns out that they made the right call. The design principles unified, inspired, and guided the developers. And when the team was in the middle of the warring desires of different business groups, the principles reminded everyone of their goal.

The centerpiece of this new Intuit would involve doing something they hadn’t done in more than a decade: a complete redesign of their flagship product, QuickBooks.

 

The Harmony team lived up to their name: They designed one Intuit experience despite many business units. But Harmony wasn’t just about changing Intuit’s products. It was also about changing Intuit’s culture and the way that their employees work and relate to each other. It was about strengthening the user-focused design culture that had brought Intuit its early successes. These changes were reflected in a powerful set of decision criteria, including:

  • Intuit’s core products will work together; any product that acts as a customer’s first point of contact will introduce the customer to the entire ecosystem.
  • When there are common jobs or tasks across products, Intuit will use common designs and components. It may not be the best for one, but it will be the best for all.
  • Share data across teams: If a product captures it, that product needs to enable other products to use it.

For Harmony to be successful, it had to work across all of Intuit’s products. And for Intuit to be successful, all of its employees would need to work together too.

From now on, there would be one team with one goal, and it would be design-driven.

 

Win together

At the core of this change is Harmony’s central design team, who act as advocates and caretakers of the Harmony design language. The Harmony team works with Intuit’s business units to insure that the designs are consistently implemented across the entire company.

The core team also evolves the design language. And, to help support their efforts, the design and development teams were reorganized to create an environment that encourages and supports creativity and excellence.

…not only does XD have a seat at the table, in many cases–like the project I lead–we’re driving the process.
— Dorelle Rabinowitz, Intuit Experience Design

Dorelle Rabinowitz
Dorelle leads a brainstorming session with the Harmony team.

According to Kaasgaard, the key to making the Harmony team a success was giving them license to change what needed to be changed and the encouragement to do it. Like the Innovation Catalysts before them, the Harmony team would bring Harmony–and the mindset behind it–to the company.

If Harmony succeeded with QuickBooks Online, the redesigned product would prove the value of the new design system to the rest of the company. If it didn’t, only one product would be affected. It was still risky, but there was no way to avoid it if Intuit was going to keep up with the industry.

To succeed, Harmony had to do three things:

  • Develop a scalable UI framework and the underlying services and infrastructure that make up a modern technology platform.
  • Unify its disparate interaction models and interfaces into one coherent ecosystem across the various products.
  • Institute a completely new way of working for Intuit’s designers and developers that placed the needs of the company above the needs of the individual business unit. From now on, there would be one team with one goal, and it would be design-driven.

Although it’s a relatively new term, design-driven innovation comes from classic design methods: observing people, understanding what their needs are, and making prototype solutions until you discover the right products and services.

By staying in the sweet spot of what people need rather than what they ask for, a company can evolve with its customer base. And it works. According to the Design Management Institute, design-driven companies have outperformed the Standard & Poor’s 500 by 228%. Companies like Apple, Herman Miller, IBM, Nike, Procter & Gamble, and Walt Disney have consistently shown that focusing on your user experience is very good for your bottom line.

Early customer response to the redesigned QuickBooks Online has been positive, as seen in a gushing review by Bill Murphy of Internet Accountant:

…this QuickBooks Online is the most visionary change I have seen out of Intuit in ages; heck it is almost ‘Apple-like.’

Others, used to the desktop version of QuickBooks, have left less flattering reviews in which they complain about changes in functionality and appearance. Time will tell if these complaints are a reaction to the fact that things have changed or if they are the result of actual issues with the updated interface.

Of course, one of the advantages to the SaaS model is that Intuit can quickly roll out updates to its products, giving them the agility they need to react to the market as well as to user testing and experimentation. Intuit’s investors are happy: Intuit’s stock recently hit an all time high.

The Harmony Ecosystem
The cross-platform view of the Harmony ecosystem.

The Harmony team isn’t done yet. Intuit’s designers will continue to evolve their design vocabulary, improving the customer experience for both QuickBooks Online and the rest of Intuit’s products.

Intuit is a 30 year old startup where all 8,000 employees are entrepreneurs, and it’s everyone’s job to create, invent, and improve their customers’ lives.

 

Innovation is everyone’s job

Brad Smith describes Intuit as a 30 year old startup where all 8,000 employees are entrepreneurs, and it is everyone’s job to create, invent, and improve their customers’ lives. The most powerful tool they have to do this is user-centered design, which allows them to improve their customers’ lives and create delightful experiences. As long as they hold on to that–regardless of what method they wrap around it–they’ll continue to be successful.

Instead of waiting for a lone visionary to arrive, Intuit chose to teach design to all, and make the entire company responsible for innovation. The Innovation Catalysts empower and train their coworkers, and those employees find the insights that makes Intuit innovate. The Harmony team provides the consistent design that maintains a uniform experience across Intuit’s products and platforms, speeding innovation and integration.

Scott Cook’s famous kitchen table sits in Intuit’s Cook Campus Center. The walls around it are covered with whiteboards, and anyone can sit at the table to meet, brainstorm, or work. Intentionally or not, the table is a symbol for user-centered design and how it improves people’s lives. And everyone has a seat at the table.

Scott Cook's kitchen table
Scott Cook’s kitchen table holds a special place in Intuit’s culture.

Plateaus are Harder Than Mountains

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Bold claims have been made about applying “big data” to solve the world’s problems, from health (Fitbit) to saving energy (Nest). Data is all around us, appearing in slick devices and colorful dashboards, yet focusing on the technology can cause us to miss the people who have to use it.

Our job as designers is to communicate information. A clean design with big numbers and charts looks good, but how can we make sure people actually understand the data?

iPhone Health app screen showing a chart of steps across a week’s time.
The design promise: An iPhone Health app screen showing a chart of steps across a week’s time.

Tweet from Dave Epstein @epstein "Thanks to the new health app on the iPhone 6 I learned I walked 7 miles today though I'm not sure why I care about that information"
The user reality.

Designing with data for real people

The most visible way people are now bringing data into their lives is with fitness trackers such as Fitbit, Vivofit, Jawbone Up, and many more. Over the last year, I’ve been talking to people about how they use data in their lives. This article is not about the merits of any one device but a compilation of interviews about how real people use data, merged into personas, with some ideas for design.

“Ironically, devices that initially helped foster engagement in fitness sometimes became too naïve to support increasingly sophisticated fitness priorities.”

Simplicity can be limiting

Ken is a middle-aged guy who needed to get in shape. He heard about the Fitbit, and being a gadget guy thought it “was a good excuse to play around,” but he is starting to feel the limits. For good health, you need to get your heart rate up occasionally; not all steps count the same. “This might be a tool more for getting started. I’m training for a 10k and ‘steps’ isn’t a useful way of looking at it. I’m checking out GPS running watches now, but don’t tell my Fitbit.”

Ken’s is a common story; a study noted that “ironically, devices that initially helped foster engagement in fitness sometimes became too naïve to support increasingly sophisticated fitness priorities.”

It is important to realize that the tools themselves are not going to get people to exercise, but they can inspire people to try. For new users, extreme simplicity is a requirement, but this very simplicity becomes limiting as the user expectations increase. At each stage, the tool needs to give back more value than it asks, to address more complex questions as users’ experience and competency increases. For example, colorful charts can show progress and sustain interest for a while, but inevitably we all plateau. The experience needs to develop to address day 100 as well as day 1.

Screenshot of Fitbit.com user dashboard
The Fitbit dashboard does a great job of making information feel approachable, yet some users report that it becomes less interesting as their activity plateaus.

Curiosity, not hard-core analytics

Susan came at quantifying herself from a different angle–sleeping. One of the promised benefits of the devices is to track and understand your sleeping patterns and ideally wake you up at the most auspicious time.

In the end, her Jawbone Up didn’t have a big impact on her life. “I didn’t really use the data–I still drink coffee too late in the evening and read the web in bed, but there is a nice feeling from seeing the chart. It has certainly made me think about getting more sleep.”

That’s probably the best benefit she could get. A blog post in Nature cites research that shows “the stage of sleep we’ve been woken from … does not actually have an impact on cognitive performance,” but “sleep is arguably one of the most (if not the most) important health factor that can be altered.”

Screenshot of Sleep Cycle app
Beyond the question about whether this information is accurate, this is an example of reporting the raw data without providing the value of interpretation, such as “how can I get a better night of sleep?”

One insight from Susan’s story is that many users are not looking for deep statistical analysis. Susan was just curious.

If there is no goal, it can be very hard to offer more than tracking and generic advice. Like the Cheshire Cat said “[If you don’t care where you end up], it doesn’t matter which direction you go.” Sleep cycle info isn’t something Susan can use to control her sleep.

In contrast, designing to a specific issue is much easier. If you read enough health stories, the climax is usually an insight like “My heart attack was a wake up call.” One person who suffered from Crohn’s disease wrote: “I know/knew that alcohol can be bad for anything in the bowels, but it was when I compared pain/flare-days to lite alcohol consumption … I saw a pattern… having the data made it plain as day.”

Achieving that insight is still a human process. Each one of us has to recognize there is a problem before trying to fix it.

A good design should communicate the resolution of information, that measurements are imperfect and the person should focus on the high level changes.

Telling the whole truth

Dan is a former fitness tracker user, but has fallen off. “The biggest issue for me was that the numbers didn’t add up.” “When I saw I was getting credit for steps when lifting my fork, I had to laugh.” He is not alone. The study Phases of Accuracy Diagnosis (PDF) noted most users “learned to regard the data provided by the Fitbit as highly suspect.”

Bad or inconsistent data is a de-motivator. This is important because, as the Phases article concludes, “users are inclined to abandon their use of the Fitbit because: they don’t trust its accuracy; they have trouble understanding what state it is in; and they are unable to make the Fitbit more accurate as they become expert users.”

Screen shot of Nike+ running app map screen showing a run path with periods of faster and slower speeds.
The Nike+ app shows fast and slow sections. Without showing elevation, it’s hard to know if you were slacking off or just going uphill.

Data uncertainty raises an ethical question for designers. We have a responsibility to tell the whole truth. Bold claims about improving health made in marketing need to be honestly built into an app.

Good design with a simple number may hide the messy fact that the number may not mean much at all.

In all the user research I’ve observed, people are always asking for simplicity. Our challenge as designers is that a simple answer is almost always incomplete. The calories burned each mile varies tremendously from person to person, from flat ground to hills, from running to walking. It feels good to design a screen around a single, simple number, but it just isn’t, you know, true. A good design should communicate the resolution of information, that measurements are imperfect and the person should focus on the high level changes.

As Wired Magazine noted, because many of the algorithms are hidden and proprietary, it is hard to know how accurate they are. Comparing them against each other suggests that measuring calories burned via an app is not an exact science.

The Withings scale Health Mate app is designed to coach people to achieve their weight loss goals. Withings has the data. Does the product work, or not? Only they know.

Grice’s Maxim of Quality recommends you don’t say what you believe to be false (don’t lie) but also don’t say things you lack adequate evidence for (be completely truthful). Hiding complexity under bold graphics makes for a beautifully designed chart, but it would be more honest to share the uncertainty behind these numbers.

Once you start to ask questions about health data, you learn that it is often tentative and is revised with new research. This is hard for people to make use of, especially when communicated through fear–and we have to design for this.

At your next family gathering, listen to people talk about their health. Cholesterol levels, blood pressure, diabetes, HDL, LDL? Which one is good now? Can we eat eggs again? Oh, those doctors, why don’t they make up their minds?! Understanding health is a design problem, just as a GUI is easier to use than a command line interface.

More data ≠ better answers

At the heart of many of these devices is a promise that design can make the complex understandable. An article on wearable medical devices noted the biggest challenge: They need to actually work before they can be used for medicine.

An illustration for medical students showing a quick way to interpret the “ST Elevation” form in an EKG graph using “smiley” and “frowny” faces
If apparently even doctors need mnemonics to understand the signs, we should be wary of amateur cardiology. From Medinfo-UFL.

Life recently reminded me that more data does not always give better answers. I do quite a bit of running and wanted to quantify it by using a heart rate monitor. During my runs, I noticed my heart rate was above normal. Way, way above normal. My doctor had me wear a high end EKG system for a few days. After a few weeks of fear, the answer came back: “Yeah, some people’s hearts just beat faster.”

After all this digital measurement, it was a shock to be reminded that all those numbers are just rough guidelines. I learned that doctors care more at how quickly it descends after exercise.

In fact, my heart showed “J point notching of the ST elevation symptomatic of athletic people.” No average person is going to understand this, nor should they be making their own medical diagnosis. Even EKGs routinely get mis-read by professionals; here’s a cheat sheet to distinguish people at risk of a heart attack from the athletic.

Designers have a responsibility to consider whether regular people can plausibly use a tool, and when the subject matter is best for professionals. Just putting an EKG on a watch does not answer the question “Am I healthy?”

Screen mockup of digital watch showing EKG readings
Are you sure you want DIY cardiology? From The Atlantic.

One method is to look at the context of use. Specialists know how to use or to ignore a particular number, but the average person rarely has the training to know if a particular reading is good or bad for them personally. If the information is meant to be understood relatively, over time, perhaps avoid specific numbers; use unlabeled charts or icons. For example, the Fitbit Flex uses 5 LEDs to show progress. A color LCD implies greater precision, whether or not the data is any more precise.

Photo of the Fitbit Flex wrist activity tracker
The limited resolution communicates the right resolution for the user to understand the data (and its accuracy) on the FitBit Flex.

In contrast, using interesting design and high resolution of information risks both overwhelming the user and losing the marathon by focusing on the steps.

Complex data visualization of words in heavy metal songs
Artistic charts are visually interesting but can be hard to read.

Alternatively, capturing and reporting info may not be enough for good design. Knowing that tracking alone does not motivate most people, consider whether the experience could be built around a plan to get from A to B. This lets people select the challenge they are looking for and sorts them into groups that can get better advice.

As an example, the new Apple iPhone Health app has a staggering number of inputs to choose from. What it lacks is a meaningful way for the person to get value from it. The inputs are dutifully displayed on the “dashboard”, sans context, guidance, or help. The dashboard chart even clips the Y axis to make it look prettier, at the cost of making a one pound drop look like a big deal (“… not that there’s anything wrong with that!”)

Just tracking information is not really helping people.
Just tracking information is not really helping people.

A design that only works for a new user is not a very good design.

Plateaus are harder to climb than mountains

Mark is an older guy who wanted to be more active. He was a passionate step counter for the first few months but has fallen off. He echoed a comment in a recent study:

“I liked it a lot in the beginning and I think now I’ve sort of fallen out of love with it. You know it’s like you’ve been married for a long time and… it’s all right but the excitement has gone.”

There are a lot of people like Mark out there–the drop off rate of these products is said to be as high as 1/3 in the first 6 months. The biggest problem is simply novelty fatigue. People love new experiences but become bored or distracted. Gyms know this–they would never have enough space if all the members actually used their memberships.

Mark noted that he was excited to hit his steps but began to feel judged when he didn’t hit them, especially on rainy days. Taking long walks on vacations set high bars that he could never reach on a work day. Tracking also has a perverse emotional effect. “If I forget my Fitbit, I wonder ‘why bother walking if I don’t get the credit,'” Mark said.

Images of Apple iPhone health app
Just tracking information is not really helping people. From LifeHacker.

Roger S. Gil says “monitoring progress can elicit more anxiety since it makes the inevitable ‘plateau’ periods … much more noticeable.”

After the initial honeymoon period where someone plays with a device, it needs to quickly become a tool to achieve a personal goal, or it gets put in the closet. No device is going to make someone exercise, but a design that only works for a new user is not a very good design.

A good example of going beyond tracking is RunKeeper’s Goal Coach feature. It lets you set a challenge to yourself, offers a plan, and shows how you measure up. This is not for the faint of heart. A challenge for the Marks of the world is that most people lack a specific quantifiable fitness goal in their lives. ‘Being healthy’ is a lifestyle, not a 10 week goal.

Images of RunKeeper app Goal Coach screens
A good example of going beyond tracking, from Apple Insider.

Designing for this situation requires the tool to avoid judgments, celebrating progress at each turn.

No one tool is going to solve everyone’s problem. Different stages, from novice to professional, require radically different interfaces with the appropriate amount of challenge and responses. Taking a comprehensive lifestyle approach can help–for example asking people to plan when they want to exercise–to make it a part of their weekly schedule. For some, sharing with friends helps stay focused, but many feel more anxious about being judged.

Simple measurements have a lurking danger known as Goodhart’s law: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” That is, focusing around a single number causes people to work to improve it, even if the larger picture doesn’t change. For example, measuring “steps” may have the side effect of justifying eating more.

In all of these cases, design is clearly an essential tool for addressing the problem of our age: personalized data. It’s up to us to make it work FOR the people whose lives are being quantified.