Do we need yet another manual health tracking app?

With the advent of smartphones, we have been hearing about availability of health at your fingertips. One of the aspects of this is that we can easily keep track of our health using mHealth apps. If you look in the app stores, there are hundreds if not thousands of health tracker apps – some which are general, some which are condition specific (like my Diabetes app Lifely). All of them claim to help the user easily manage their health by entering the health data manually into the app.

The apps use many features to get the users to use them. Some of them are extremely feature rich. These apps are like the complicated TV and DVD remotes that we have in our homes. They have so many features that we do not know or care about all of them. I use just the on, off and channel change features. This problem applies to apps also. There is a minority of users who use all the many features and the developers have to support their needs by building more and more complex features.

Other apps use awesome looking design and UI to get the user’s interest. These tend to be very simple and easy to use. They also use fancy colors and new UI which makes the app very fresh and interesting to the users. Based on their fresh look, they get many users in the beginning. But as with all apps, the usage of these apps also falls as soon as the novelty of the design becomes stale (in about a week or so).

Apart from design and features, some apps use gamification and pointification to get users to keep using the apps. Yes, been there and done that. But gamification can only help to a certain extent. From what I have seen, after a while the game becomes stale and the users  stop using the app. You just have to see the struggles that Foursquare has in going beyond the early adopters.

So I feel that the only way a health tracking app can be useful is if it can track passively without making the user manually enter everything into the app. I recently came across a fabulous implementation of passive activity tracking in an app called Moves. You do not have to do anything to track your walks and runs in Moves. Since you carry your phone with you, it tracks your movements automatically. At the end of the day, you get a report on how many steps you walked and how many minutes you ran. I feel that all health tracking apps should be like this. If the user is expected to do anything more than install the app, you can expect them to stop doing it at some point and your app usage will drop.

So, if you are working on yet another manual health tracking app, please stop now and conserve your time and energy. A new design, gamification or even rewards is not going to motivate your users to keep using the app. If you are working on a passive health tracking app, let me know about it! I would love to test it out.

What I saw at Quantified Self Europe 2011 part 1

I was at the Quantified Self Europe conference this past weekend at Amsterdam. Quantified self is a community of hackers who track and monitor their activities to improve (mostly) their health. I came to know of them when I attended the Healthcamp in Bay area in October 2009. Since then, the movement has spread to all parts of the world with the help of Alexandra Carmichael and Gary Wolf.


The conference was held in an unconference format which means that the attendees chose to present their work and the conference is organized around these presentations. There were many parallel sessions and it was very hard to choose one session over another. So depending on which sessions were chosen, the experience of the participant would vary. There were many who did not present but talked about their work when we spoke during the breaks. I have included them also in here.


Theme #1: Quantified Self is preventive health (in other forums, this would be called participatory medicine since the patient takes charge of their own health).  There were many variations of this theme. John Amschler (@jxa) conducted a session on hacking the Zeo clock, fitbit device to understand your health better. He is trying to get the data off these devices, put them together and then understand what his “health baseline” is. He feels that we should be able to understand our health baseline by tracking them often. After we know our baseline, we can then measure your baseline once a year and take action if you are trending away from your baseline. I felt that this is an awesome idea. In factories, we create trend charts for quality of products produced which gives us an understanding of the health of the production process. Why not use the same theory to understand our health better?


Sara Riggare presented how she controls her Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative disease of the central nervous system. She has been able to manage the disease due to her keen interest in controlling it. She uses a smartphone app (tonic) to keep track of her meds and understand how they affect her. She uses a Nintendo Wii for adjusting and fine tuning her balance. She is now doing a phd starting in summer 2012 to do research on Parkinson’s! She is a true inspiration. She is moving from being a patient to someone who is actively trying to find a cure! You can read an interview with her here.


Robin Barooah presented his learning from his effort to lose weight. He had gained about 45 lbs after his move to the USA. He designed an interesting process to lose weight. He just tracked his mood 2-3 hours after lunch. He did not even go back and analyze what made him happy and what did not. Just by tracking his mood, he was able to lose about 45 lbs in 18 months.  Just by looking at how he felt after lunch, his brain was able to get a feel for what is healthy and what is not. His conclusion was that our body and brain is wired to do the right thing for being healthy.


The same theme was echoed in another talk about how the presenter lost weight by following a paleo diet. He felt that the act of tracking was making the difference and that it was not the data and the fancy graphs that made the difference.


I also met Martin Suba who was able to reverse his type 2 diabetes by using a combination of exercise (tracked with fitibit), diet control and weight control (tracked with Withings). He is in the process of writing up his experience. I look forward to sharing it.


There were so many other themes and many more talks. I hope to write about them and share them here.

Some hidden good and bad iOS5 features

Now that I have spent sometime with iOS5, I am finding that there are many hidden features (including apps) and some annoying changes too.


The first of the annoyances have to do with the Twitter integration with iOS. When you read about the integration, it sounds like a good thing (it probably is). But if you are someone who has multiple twitter ids to manage, the management of multiple ids has been taken out of the twitter app into the main settings app. I do not understand why something should be made harder when it was easy to begin with.


Another annoyance is how one has to get rid of notifications. So iOS has copied the Android notification feature. You swipe down on any screen to bring up the notifications and weather screen. So far so good. If you have apps like NYTimes installed, you will find breaking news alerts included in the notifications (breaking news from two days ago? It stays until dismissed or more breaking news comes up on top). You see an “x” on the top which indicates that you can dismiss these set of alerts by tapping on it. NO! Tapping the “x” brings up “Clear”. You need to tap clear to clear the notifications. I wonder why we need a two step process when one step will do. (This was probably done to prevent accidental dismissal of alerts, but it still is an annoyance).  Similarly, the “Mark as unread” in email has become a two tap process.


Now that we got rid of the annoyances out of the way, we can talk about some cool features. One of them is the location based reminder feature embedded in a new app called “Reminders”. You will get this app preloaded when you install iOS 5. You can schedule a reminder to remind when you reach a particular location or when you are leaving a location. The only catch is that you have to choose the existing addresses in your addressbook. You cannot add a new address into the reminder (bummer!). But it does pick up the current address. So you can setup a reminder for when you leave or arrive back at the current location (on the same day or a different day).


The reminder can also remind you if you want to be reminded on a particular day/time. Somehow this is not linked to the calendar.


The other new feature is the option for indenting your email. To get this feature, double tap in your email editor as you would to enable copy, paste functions. The copy, paste functions come up with an arrow pointing right. Tap this button and you will access the “Quote level” option to choose what quote level you want your email text to be.

Interesting New Children’s Educational iPad game

One of the advantages of being part of the Founder Institute is that you hear about products being launched by other founders all the time. Recently, I came to know of a founder who launched an iPad game for kids called Grow Your Garden HD.  Since I am always looking for interesting and educational apps for my son, I asked and received a promo code to try it out (Ok, that was a disclaimer there!).

The app is a game to teach math for the kids. The objective is to water and grow the plants in your garden. As you grow the plants, they will give you flowers that you add to your flower collection. The education part comes in how you water the plants. You get some watering jars to water your plants (see image below). The plants can only take a fixed quantity of water to grow. If you give it more water, the plant will die. So you have to figure out the right quantity of water using a combination of jars provided in order to water the plant. When I saw this, I wasn’t sure if kids would understand or like the premise. So I gave the app to my son to try it out.


The first few minutes, he was trying to figure it out. Then he was on a roll. He liked the fact that the game becomes more and more challenging as you move through the levels. I was actually surprised that he played with it for more than an hour before getting tired of it. After a while when he wanted to use the iPad, he went right back to the app and completed all the levels! He did ask for my help with the last level though.

I was very impressed with the way the app is built. When I played with it, I could feel myself getting involved with the challenge. I think this is a great way to combine education and games. I am sure I would have loved to learn math this way!