Taylor Davidson · The Missing Loop in Health Hacking

Health hacking technology and communities are all missing something. Today’s product and community diversity is a sign of immature products and value propositions, but tomorrow’s diversity will be a sign of competitive differentiation.
by Taylor Davidson · 29 Mar 2011
Screenshots of fitness apps

One thing I love about Ross Hill’s letter.ly newsletter are his reports about technology and ideas he finds interesting and the “next step” implications of them. Thus, I wanted to follow his example and report out on something I’ve been testing out for a bit.

I’ve been spending a lot of time around a mixture of health hacking technology; for example, I wear my Fitbit with me everywhere, I’ve been playing Health Month the last 2 months, I’m currently using Fitocracy to log my exercise for the next 60 days (part of a little competition), and I used to use Daily Mile to log my runs (and might go back to using when I return to running this spring). In addition, Nicholas has taught me a lot about fitness competitions through conversations about his company FitFeud.

And there are a ton of other health hacking companies, apps and books out there: RunKeeper, the NIke apps, tech and community, the Phillips DirectLife, the Nike Training Club iPhone app (found by Sloane), Tim Ferris’s book “4-Hour Body”, and many more I haven’t seen yet.

But they are all lacking something. I want to love these apps more than I actually do.  Why?

What do health hack apps have to have?


Tracking has to be easy.  Best of all are the devices or apps we wear that track our movements automatically, like the Fitbit.  But there’s so much extra information out there that we could be tracking about our health, and the UIs for these tracking apps has to be very easy, and have to incent us to complete them.

Health Month gets me to track certain information about me because the game interactions makes me want to record the information.

Fitbit can store a tremendous amount of information, but the design of their dashboard creates this immediate guilt that you’re not inputting a ton of information, so we recoil in guilt and don’t enter everything. Not the intent of the design, of course.

How do we track the rest of what we do?  How can we easily track what we eat, for example?  Inputting what we eat, with the proper portion sizes, is a chore.  I wonder who will use Foodspotting’s API to process pictures of what we eat for health hacking reasons, providing a real reason for us to take pictures of what we eat.

Social (sharing, benchmarking, competition, social reinforcement).

Provide people a way to share how awesome they are, and they’ll do it.  Health hacking apps must have some way for people to share their health successes and failures.

Benchmarking us against others (friends, peer groups, colleagues, etc.) is another key component; even if it’s not a competition, let us know how we compare.

People ask me all the time if wearing the Fitbit makes me change my behavior.  My answer is usually “Yes, but…”, and here’s why: I don’t change my behavior because of what the Fitbit tells me about me, I change because of what other people’s Fitbits tell me about them.  It’s the social competition, formal or informal, that affects me.  No, it’s not a competition.  But a nudge can be enough.

Competition and social reinforcement is the next step.  We all know it’s hard to change.  Intentions don’t become actions at scale until you introduce a social reinforcement component. There’s a reason gamification is a hot buzzword of startups today, and it’s not because we like games for the sake of games, but because the social design of a product is an increasingly important part of the product development stack. In a world where the tech is easy, the social is still hard.


“If I do x, then y happens.”  Understanding the impact of our actions is the only way we’ll change.  This is the critical part of the loop: tracking data without being able to understand it’s impact misses the value in tracking data.

Each of the health hack apps I’ve seen misses one or more parts in this loop.

What’s the big opportunity? APIs, to start.  Fitbit just released their read API, and Health Month just started integrating FitBit stats into the game. The lesson we’ve learned from big data is that if you’re not going to create the entire loop, then you need to create a way for the other participants in the loop to get involved.

All of these health hack apps are data silos right now. Some are moving the right way, but we won’t see mass adoption until these different tracking devices, competitions and training apps can be aggregated in different ways for different people.

Today’s product and community diversity is a sign of immature products and value propositions, but tomorrow’s diversity will be a sign of competitive differentiation. And once we get there, then I’ll start truly loving health hack apps.