Fitness wearables and users’ motivational changes over time

Although we have several fitness enthusiasts here in the Spotless office, very few of us have ever owned a fitness wearable. We are aware that they’re gaining traction in the healthcare market and that there may be something to these things more than simply counting steps. Pedometers have been around for a long time and, while step counting is a fundamental part of the fitness wearables available today, there is much more functionality under the hood. Buying a fitness wearable is something I’ve been considering for a while now; so, when the opportunity to study people’s use of wearable tech came up, I jumped on it!

As a starting point we began looking at studies conducted on wearables and their effects on behaviour. We came across an article about a group of school kids in the London area being given pedometers as a way to monitor their activity and to possibly motivate them to become more active[1]. In this case, the kids came back a few weeks later with superhuman results, with some obese children completely outperforming the expectations of an average healthy child’s step count! So, were these pedometers the answer to all of the world’s obesity and lack of exercise problems? No. It turns out that the kids just attached the tech to their dogs’ collars and let them do all the hard work! (A man’s best friend, indeed). I guess this reminds us that motivation usually needs to come from within (intrinsic vs. extrinsic). The question of motivating unmotivated users is a topic for another article.


So, rather than looking at how these tech wearables might encourage unmotivated users to become fitness-conscious individuals, we decided to target fitness-focused individuals and how these wearables can aid them in their day-to-day life.


In order to get our heads into the topic, we ran a workshop in our shiny new labs involving users who owned and used a mix of different wearables. These participants owned a wide variety of different wearables and associated apps such as Fitbit Charge HR, Strava, Samsung Gear, iMoodJournal, Adidas Train & Run and the Fitbit App.


We used some different methods to allow users to write out and think about all of the different features on their wearables. We then talked through their reasoning and how their usage has changed since they first started using them.

Fitness wearables and users’ motivation

3 things we learned:

People start to use their wearable for a specific reason

Participants usually had an idea about a specific feature that would give them the help they required. Be it the stress monitor on the Samsung Gear or the heart-rate monitor on the Fitbit, participants had a strong idea about what they wanted out of their wearable before they bought it. Social aspects such as step count competitions on Fitbit or location-based suggested running routes were also very popular reasons to try out a wearable.

Fitness wearables and users’ motivation

People start in earnest but can get lazy

This is twofold. Firstly, participants tended to start off by using their wearables at every opportunity. This is particularly relevant to diet tracking on associated wearable apps. They would enter every meal to keep track of their caloric intake and match it to the caloric output information from their wearables. As time went on (a few months after purchase) they would skip some meal entries. They even admitted to purposefully leaving out a few high-calorie meals to cheat their own numbers slightly!

Secondly, their use of features would be narrowed down from a wide use to a select few. This was generally down to the initial discovery of the wearable when it was first bought: feeling it out to see what it could do and what is useful. After the initial discovery, participants said they focused on key features of use to them and these weren’t always what they initially bought the wearable for, which brings us to the third finding.

Fitness wearables and users’ motivation
First use
Fitness wearables and users’ motivation
Current use

Motivations evolve over time

Interestingly, as time went on, participants began to experience a change in which features they used most. One participant had started using Samsung Gear to monitor her stress levels. The wearable tries to use heart-rate variability (HRV) to analyse one’s stress [2]. Once she felt less stressed (This was after a few months, although I should clarify that she wasn’t claiming that her reduction in stress levels were a direct result of using the stress monitor feature. It was just an interesting way to monitor it) she started using the wearable to keep track of her running schedule and calorie intake. After getting what she needed out of the wearable, she successfully transitioned to a new use of the tech.

Another participant talked about how he became increasingly caught up in the social aspect of being able to rate and comment on user-made running routes using Strava, even though his initial use was simply to track his own runs to view his running stats. This encouraged him to try to create new routes to post and to try out community-generated routes in order to interact with different creators.

Fitness wearables and users’ motivation

Ideas for future direction

Our discussions with participants in the session brought up a few ideas about how wearables and apps could alleviate some of the issues stumbled upon by users in their uptake.

  • Users should be shown long-term data trends of their progress from day 1 of using the wearable right up to present. This would encourage consistent logging as they would be able to see a progression while using the wearable. If logging data is missed or skipped, push reminders should focus on the indication of a user’s long-term data trend and highlight the fact that they may create a gap by not entering their meals/calories.
  • A wide use of many features should be encouraged from the start. Users are likely to have an idea of one or two features that they want to use at the beginning of use but this time is also when users are open to trying other features. This will be crucial if or when their motivational needs evolve.
Fitness wearables and users’ motivation
  • Social competition is a good idea and a well-used feature, but it may only be valued by competitive users (although I do recognise that a large proportion of athletes or fitness-focused individuals are likely to be competitive). There is space here for social events that are cooperative rather than competitive. Having joint goals to reach with a friend, rather than an objective of beating a friend, may be an effective way of creating peer-to-peer encouragement of device use and exercise involvement.

Fitness companies could take note of the change in motivation that extended use brings. What we are seeing from users who keep up their use of fitness wearables over time is that they are moving from what they perceived would be useful (when they bought the wearable) to what is actually useful to them now (learned value). Meaning apps and devices need to be flexible to accommodate different user needs and having a wide variety of features may keep users engaged for longer.





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