How to Show Just Enough Data

Mon, Feb 10, 2014

Simplicity Rules

I love tracking my activity. I’ve been using a pedometer of some sort for almost five years. I even created units for distances I had measured in steps. Now that wearable computing is an accepted trend, I’m excited for our future. There’s one potential downside to devices collecting and presenting data to us—it’s easy to try to show too much. As a result of that downside, it’s tempting to show absolutely no data as an overreaction. This post is about one device that is showing just enough.

There are at least two personal use cases to retrieving data from a tracking device. One is to immerse myself in my own data. That is the navel-gazing use case and for that I should have as much data as possible. The promise of tracking devices is that they change habits. For that, you need data that inspires action. Much less data is needed for that use case.

Fitbit flexOver the years I have tried several different Fitbit tracking devices. I loved the original Fitbit that could clip on to things, but I lost a couple of them because they could also clip off of things. The Fitbit Flex has become my everyday tracker now. It’s a wristband with a clear slot window on the top. The actual device slips into the wristband and displays five LEDs through the window as the entire interface.

I thought I would miss being able to check in on my exact step count and other data throughout the day. In truth, it greatly has simplified my experience with tracking. Here’s how the LEDs work:

  • Your step goal is split into five segments
  • Tap twice on the device to see your progress
  • The number of solid LEDs are the segments you have completed
  • The blinking LED represents the segment you are currently working toward

If you’re gunning for 10,000 steps per day, the math here is pretty simple. Each segment represents 2,000 steps. If you have a different goal, it’s harder to translate into a step count.

But here’s the kicker: I have learned that is okay.

Knowing my exact step count is not nearly as important as knowing approximately how close I am to my goal. For example: if it’s into the afternoon and the fourth LED is neither solid nor blinking, I probably should go for a short walk. It’s showing me just enough data to make a decision.

Fitbit provides a way to get at that additional information, through syncing with my smartphone or computer. But that’s more for navel-gazing than taking action.

Syncing for Data, More or Less

There are devices with more—and less—data feedback on the device. The Fitbit Force now has a step count (and a watch, but I hear it’s bulky). I expect that we’ll see some attempts at wearables that give us way too much data. And there will be devices that rely entirely on syncing with another device to show feedback. That has its own set of problems.

My friend Aaron Parecki wrote a post about the wearable tracker syncing problem. There are many different methods that devices with varied displays use. There seems to be some kind of drawback for each, along with a healthy dose of bugginess. The tradeoffs of battery power (of the tracking device and the syncing device), frequency and required user intervention all impact how well syncing performs on today’s devices.

The sync is likely the long-term solution, especially with semi-permanent displays like Google Glass. But even then there’s a need to prioritize certain data for the action-oriented use case. When I’m navel-gazing, I want as much data as possible. When I’m checking in throughout the day, I want to see my progress. In this case, I believe devices should show just enough to get a feel for how I’m doing.

It turns out, five LEDs can suffice. What would you do with a few good constraints?

1 Comments For This Post

  1. Russell Says:

    Lauren’s parents got us Flexes for Christmas. Add me as a friend and we can cheer each other on!

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