Smart apps don’t know everything
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Smart apps don’t know everything

Jelte Timmer
  • Jelte Timmer
  • Livework Insight

Until recently our friends were the ones who knew us best, and perhaps even knew what was best for us. But nowadays that role is being claimed by our smartphones. Thanks to sensors and apps, they know how much we exercise, can track how many calories we consume, or measure how stressed we are. And they use that data to help us to lead physically and mentally healthier lives.

Design the right service around the data

The world of running apps, calorie trackers, fitness wearables and meditation apps is growing explosively. Gartner forecasts that 322.69 million wearable electronic devices will be sold worldwide in 2017, up 17.5% from 2016 [1]. Running app RunTastic has grown to over 70 million users in several years [2]. But to really help people change their behaviour there are still some important hurdles to tackle. Wearables take a data-driven approach to motivating us to move more and live more healthily. But the data collected by these apps and wearables doesn’t make sense by itself. Only by designing the right service around the data, taking into account the context of the user, can these apps can truly become digital companions to their users.

Gartner forecasts that 322.69 million wearable electronic devices will be sold worldwide in 2017, up 17.5% from 2016 [1]

Be honest about your imperfections

Getting accurate measurements of human behaviour is tricky. For example, popular activity trackers tend to underestimate the activity levels (such as calories burned or distance walked) of people who walk slowly, like pregnant women or obese people. Activities with more subtle movements, like yoga, are also tough to measure. During an interview, a fitness wearable user said that his heart-rate monitoring wristwatch would work only when it was strapped so tightly onto his wrist that it was uncomfortable and left a mark on his skin — and even then the data it provided was incomplete and inaccurate. So the tracker eventually ended up in a drawer — the fate, according to a survey by Endeavour Partners, of more than 50 percent of activity trackers [3].

What my imperfect smartphone has to offer

Regardless of improvements in technology, the apps and gadgets designed to help me improve myself will likely continue to make plenty of errors for the foreseeable future.  Research in robotics might provide an answer [4]. Studies have shown that people are more inclined to trust technology if it communicates clearly and honestly about its limitations. In flight-simulator experiments, for example, pilots will trust and collaborate with a system more effectively if it informs them when it is unsure about its own judgment.  If applied to apps and fitness wearables, such a design could inform users about how advice is constructed. For instance, the app could display the measurements that led it to conclude that the user was stressed and the reasoning why it recommended taking a walk to help ease that stress.

Honesty is the way to go to build trust — even if that means that a “smart” app must admit that it doesn’t know everything.

Don’t talk behind my back

In the process of monitoring and giving feedback, wearables and apps collect a continuous stream of data about our behaviour. This information has a (literally) intimate quality, as was shown when Fitbit users’ sexual activity showed up in Google searches [5]. When you trust an app to collect and analyse personal data, you want to be sure that that data is handled with appropriate care and confidentiality. But this is not the case. Research by the Federal Trade Commission showed that the types of data health apps and wearables are spreading are not just anonymised activity patterns, but usernames, email, unique device identifiers, and other highly personal data [6]. 

Relationship between human and app

The ways in which data from digital coaching apps are being traded, sold, and reused remain largely opaque. A user suffering from diabetes tried to find out what happened with the information from her wearable insulin pump when she uploaded it to the cloud. By studying the fine print of her privacy policy and making several calls with the service provider, she learned that data she thought was used only for telecare purposes were actually also used (after being anonymised) for research and profiling. She was, however, unable to find out exactly how the data was being analysed and who was doing the analysis. This worried her because the cloud service, which she used to pay for but is now free, encourages users to also upload their Fitbit data, suggesting to her that the costs of the service are now being covered by monetising her data.

These sorts of concerns are not a solid basis for a trusting relationship to emerge between human and app.

Giving users clear, transparent choices about how their data will and will not be used can pave the way for a healthier and trusting relationship.

A life companion

Samsung called one of its smartphones a “Life Companion” — an appropriate description of a device that assists us in almost everything we do [7]. But a real companion has to be reliable and honest, it must have integrity, and it should respect a customer’s personal values. Designing the right customer focused services around the data driven world of wearables will enable digital devices to become true life companions.

[1] http://www.cio.com/   [2] http://www.gartner.com/  [3] https://endeavour.partners/ [4] https://www.wired.com/  [5] https://techcrunch.com/ [6] https://www.ftc.gov/ [7]  http://www.samsung.com/

An earlier version of this article was published on Slate.com

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