Sunday, 20 April 2014

iWatch, the quantified self and the worried well

(image via 9to5Mac)

It seems almost inevitable that Apple will launch an iWatch later this year, and most pundits agree that “the quantified self” will be the main theme of this new device. An emerging tech trend, the quantified self connects wearable devices with online services to provide continuous monitoring of a user's health and fitness.

This new category has seen some growth, with devices such as Nike’s Fuel Band, Jawbone’s Up and Fitbit generating plenty of press coverage and modest sales. But as with tablets and smart phones before, Apple’s entry into the nascent category could redefine its purpose and massively broaden its appeal.

I’ve been involved in health and fitness tech for many years, both as a user (tracking my runs on Nike+) and as a developer (I co-created Reps & Sets, the gym logging app for iPhone). So I know from personal experience the tremendous potential that exists for using technology to support people in their health and fitness goals. 

But there’s something about quantified self products that troubles me. We often lazily bundle “health and fitness” into a single phase, but they are in fact two distinct things. After all, you wouldn’t get medical advice from a personal trainer any more than you'd ask your doctor to help improve your bench press.

Quantified self products cross the line from fitness to health, and in so doing, they pander to the “worried well”: those whose only symptom of illness is their anxiety that they may be sick. Oddly, as medical science has improved our health, this anxiety has steadily risen.

Be careful what you measure

As any self help book will tell you, it’s best to focus on what you want, rather than on what you don’t want. Fitness tracking products focus on positive goals. The best ones highlight our achievements and progress, providing us with encouragement and motivation to continue.

Quantified self products, on the other hand, medicalise us, tracking metrics such as blood sugar and blood pressure. These kinds of data may provide insights to qualified medical professionals, but will offer little meaning to the average user. Instead, they encourage us to anxiously obsess over inconsequential fluctuations in our body’s normal functioning.

In other words, the quantified self encourages us to look for problems rather than to look for progress.

Looking for problems can create problems

There are two main problems with this. The first is false positives. Health screening can be a highly effective intervention, but it doesn’t always follow that we should screen for every possible kind of sickness. Some types of screening result in high levels of false positives - where a healthy patient may be told they are sick and undergo unnecessary, unpleasant and sometimes risky treatment. Ultimately, scientists must study the data to determine whether the benefits of the screening for a particular disease outweigh these risks. 

No such determination is made with quantified self products. Instead, healthy individuals are subjected to endless ongoing tests for no apparent purpose, and presented with results that they are not qualified to interpret.

The second problem is the vicious circle - the kind of negative feedback loop you can get into when you obsess about your health. The anxieties created by worrying about non-existant health problems can result to very real stress-related health problems. As a result, the worried well may over time become the worried unwell.

Track your fitness gains, not your health problems

As a former cancer patient, I know what it’s like to have every aspect of your health monitored. Chemotherapy is not fun. But fortunately for me it was effective. Now I choose to focus upon the benefits of successful treatment, by pushing my body as far as it can go in terms of my fitness. And that’s what I choose to measure: the progress of my fitness.

Of course, my health is more important to me than my split times on a marathon. That’s why I still go for regular checkups at my hospital, who do all kinds of tests. But I prefer to leave the quantification of my health to qualified medical professionals who I trust.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

What’s going on inside your helmet? - Quarterbacks, coaches and patterns of success

The pressure on a quarterback in an American football game is hard to imagine. They alone are responsible for passing the ball by throwing it long distances across the field. And the longer they wait before making a pass, the greater the chance they'll be tackled to the ground. But they don’t face this responsibility alone. Inside every NFL quarterback’s helmet is an earpiece so they can receive instructions from their coach. It’s the coach’s responsibility to call the plays, deciding what the quarterback and offensive team will do on each down.

The coach may call for some some long and difficult passes, and if the quarterback fails to complete a few, he might start to panic. Perhaps the negative self-talk sets in, as the defence starts to undermine his self confidence. Typically in this situation, a coach will give his quarterback a couple of easy passes to calm him down.

If you’re not a quarterback, you probably don’t wear an earpiece for your coach to whisper instructions to you as you work. But perhaps you should.

A good creative professional needs to be both the quarterback and the coach. Throwing a beautiful pass is a bit like coming up with a great new idea, or solving a particularly difficult creative problem. The more challenging the task, the higher the risk of failure.

If you’ve spent a lot of time on a creative problem, and you haven’t come up with any great solutions what would your coach tell you to do? He’d give you a couple of easy tasks to do, so you can get your confidence back. In other words, he’d want you to put that difficult brief to one side for a while and have some fun.

It’s easy to get into patterns of failure, and it’s equally easy to get back into patterns of success, once we become aware of what’s happening. When a quarterback throws a series of incomplete passes, his confidence is undermined, and he get’s into a pattern of failure where his performance suffers. By getting him to throw some easy passes instead, the pattern of failure is broken and a new pattern of success is established. Then it’s time to attempt more challenging passes.

Whether creative professionals are working in groups or as individuals, these same patterns emerge. Often accompanied by negative self talk. In a group, you can actually hear the negative talk set in, as people start to focus on the problem state, rationalising why they can’t solve the brief, and in the process demotivating each other and limiting the group’s potential for success.

The solution is always to put the task to one side, do something easier, and come back to the original task when you’re back in a pattern of success. It often helps to “sleep on it” and come back to the brief with a fresh mind the following morning. Or to approach it from a different context, when you’re in a more relaxed mindset. (I often find that I do some of my best creative thinking in the shower).

But what if there isn’t time? 

Managing a creative agency, an issue I frequently encounter is the expectation that if we have quoted 2 days for a team to work on a creative brief, then the client can expect the job to be turned around in 2 days. I would usually insist on at least a week. Clients often don’t like this because they imagine that their work is being held in a queue and not prioritised. But the truth is quite the opposite.

If you agree to turn around two days of creative work in two days, then you haven’t given yourself any time to put the brief to one side and work on something easier. And you’re potentially compromising the quality of your creative response as a result.

The answer is to share some of this with your client. Explain your creative process to them. And if they still won’t give you the turnaround time that you need, you should seriously consider finding smarter clients to work for.


After all, it’s a question of how good you want to be. Do you want to be known for “quick and dirty” jobs, where you churn through average work at high speed, or do you want to be known for creative excellence, that clients are willing to wait for and pay more for?