Why All the Abandoned Tracking Devices? Science Explains.

Danielle Beurteaux

Maybe you were all-in on the tracking tools trend, whether that was a bracelet or an app or five, and were committed to logging every step, calorie, or heartbeat. But then maybe you gradually forgot to log that lunch, or blew off the last 500 steps. And then maybe you stopped logging in to that app, or took off the wearable and never remembered to put it back on. And there it languishes – in a drawer, untapped, not updated. Such is the typical life of many a tracker.

Abandonment is high. Sure, consumers buy tracking devices – which is what is driving market predictions – but not many continue using them. About a third drawer them after six months.

Wondered why that initial enthusiasm eventually waned? Science has us covered.

Researchers at the University of Washington asked 141 people who were once Fitbit users why they stopped using the device. They fell into one of three buckets: about half felt a bit guilty about not using it anymore, 21 didn’t get the value they wanted out of it, and only five said they had learned enough so didn’t need to track any more. The half that felt guilty also said they want to start using it again.

This is pretty much in line with the comments of some people who were selling their devices. Limited usefulness was one reason. They’re being replaced by smartwatches.

There have been other studies about tracking. One found that tracking turns activities into something more like work. Other research links wearables to a feeling of being controlled, and some viewed these devices as “the enemy” that served up an unhappy heaping of guilt.

The University of Washington study comes from engineering and design schools, so the focus is a little different. The central question is how design can be used to create a better and more sustainable tracking experience. The paper’s authors recommend approaches that include a more personalized data delivery based on usage, and using notifications to prompt users to look at their historical use data. The idea is that these would be “less aggressive and more engaging” than notifications that remind the user to log. They advise caution in designing reminders for those who have lapsed so that they don’t prompt negative associations with previous tracking efforts.

So do these types of wearables have a future? Interestingly enough, the latest version of Apple’s smartwatch is heavy on the fitness angle, and the newest Fitbits are looking a bit more like smartwatches. Those single-use wearables might never make it out of the drawer.

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Danielle Beurteaux

About Danielle Beurteaux

Danielle Beurteaux is a New York–based writer who covers business, technology, and philanthropy. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and on Popular Mechanics, CNN, and Institutional Investor's Alpha, among other outlets.