The ‘So What’ Of The Quantified Self

Assuming that each of us has a picture of the “real world superhero” we want to become someday, then the optimal way to level up and reach that goal begins with the ability to measure and score our lives. Thankfully, new technologies in mainstream gadgets like iPhones and the Nike+ enable this kind of measurement, and are fueling the so-called Quantified Self movement, starting with the continuous tracking of various aspects of our physical bodies.

Using sensors in our smartphones and other wearable devices, we can chart how many calories we burn, our body fat percentage, how many steps we take in a day, how long we sleep — even how many hours a week we spend commuting or sitting at a desk. Soon we’ll be able to access the same kind of statistics on our digital selves: Social reach and influence; tastes and preferences; achievements; credibility and reputation; habits; expertise.

All that information at your fingertips at all times theoretically allows you to carefully chart a path for improvement—and share your winning strategy and stats with others. On a grand scale, that makes for an interconnected world of healthier, happier people making much more informed decisions.

Make it Seamless, Make it Mainstream

The Quantified Self movement is made possible by ubiquitous, low-cost, and always-on connected sensors. The real key for successful measurement and tracking solutions is to make them seamless, meaning that there’s minimal friction and initial behavior change for the user. Consumers don’t want to wear clunky, ugly, embarrassing, or uncomfortable devices, nor will they tolerate products that require them to change their daily routines to input lots of stats or data themselves. If behaviors and signals can be measured in the background or with minimal disruption to existing habits, then users can be on-boarded easily and are more likely to accept the idea of being tracked continuously for long periods of time.

Once users are being measured and quantified, the data must be interactive and easy to understand. The users need to be able to look at their data in ways that are interesting to them, but also know what to do to influence their measurements and scores.

Basis cleverly embeds a heartbeat sensor in a watch (a form factor that’s already familiar to people and non-disruptive to wear) and then offers analytic tools that motivate them to make changes based on the data.

When I tried out the Basis demo, it overlaid my heart rate with my Outlook calendar and even told me which meetings (and people) were stressing me out the most (!). There were other surprising insights: I learned that when I hit stop and go traffic on Highway 101, my heartrate often spikes into the 90s from silent, internalized road rage. Those are the sorts of self-discovery insights that make the Quantified Self experience so rewarding. Numbers, presented with useful context, provide an immediate path to better control over my own life.

Zimride, a service that pairs up car drivers and commuters looking for rides, also uses the Quantified Self to incentivize users. If I frequently commute down to San Jose and I’m known to be on time, I build a reputation score through my riders that makes me valuable and desirable to other potential riders, who pay me for the trip. My punctuality is quantified, I feel good about myself by seeing my score go up, and I’m motivated to keep increasing my status and show it off. I can also see a running tally of how much pollution I have spared the atmosphere by eliminating another vehicle from the road.

Insight, Not Data, is the Key

When it comes to productizing these solutions for consumers, it’s important for entrepreneurs to remember to package their offerings not as Analytics, Data or Tools, but instead to sell Insights from the numbers. That’s where I think Quantification can move away from just efficacy and become about taking control of your own life. The emotional value of that is what people pay for.

Astrologists, fortune tellers and even management consultants remain popular today for a simple reason: Most people would rather be told what the big takeaways are, what they really need to worry about and what exactly to do next. This kind of “so what?” is ultimately more valuable in the eyes of the consumer. (Anecdotally, I’ve seen enterprises pay 10 times more for business insight reports and consultations than for self-service analytics tools).

Furthermore, the richer the data set one can draw from, the more interesting the potential insights to be gained, which leads me to my new business mantra: “proprietary data equals power, but insights equals gold.” So while it’s important to build up a data set comprised of useful and complementary signals, it’s the “so what?” that allows you really make money from the numbers.

Hungry Games?

Despite the growing buzz and proliferation of new gadgets and apps in QS, I have found that much of the initial innovation and entrepreneurial activity has been around tracking physical activity (“calories out”). However, I’m personally on a quest to tame what I think is the most elusive beast of all: “calories in.” Most common medical problems stem from our eating habits, but there really isn’t an easy way to seamlessly and accurately capture the data about the food we ingest each day, short of implanting a sensor into the body to track caloric intake (which violates the low-friction requirement for an effective QS solution).

Many food-tracking apps ask users to input or tag each item they eat (too much work for most people), and some even attempt to identify nutritional data from photos (not accurate enough via automation). If we can’t find a seamless, automatic method to accurately quantify what we’re putting into our bodies, then perhaps we can leverage the interactive, social and fun aspects of Gamification to get users to play along and enter the data needed?

As an example, each day I play a game of “Foodville” with myself: I set a target # of points (calories) each day, and I get to spend them however I like for as long as I don’t exceed my 24 hour limit. As I’m about to eat or drink something, I think about the number of calories I’m about to spend on that item (usually glancing at the product packaging, or doing a quick Google mobile search to look up approximate nutritional info), and then take a mental note of my remaining point budget. At the end of the day, I feel great about meeting my target and advance one day closer to weekly Cheat Day, or else push off Cheat Day until I qualify again. Each week that I stay on plan I count towards my “winning streak,” which culminates in an Amazon shopping splurge that I treat myself to

Although it was a pain at first to look up caloric values for everything I ate or drank, I found that after several weeks I developed a sixth sense for nutritional data, and could pretty much ballpark the point count for most everything I ate. As I got deeper into Foodville, I layered on advanced missions to maximize lean protein and fiber, and minimize net carbs and sugar.

It turns out that this is the same approach that Weight Watchers has been using for decades – I simply think about it as a game and try to layer in “boss battle” and “epic win”-style levels and rewards for myself. Unfortunately, I’m only playing Foodville in my mind, and don’t have a simple, gamified app that I can share or play with others. Perhaps a slick app encompassing elegant use of social and game mechanics would enable multiplayer modes, P2P pressure/obligation/guilt loops, use of Seven Deadly Sin motivators, progressive and adaptive leveling, and other tools to make Foodville palatable and easier to begin playing for mass audiences? I’m hoping to see clever QS + gamification designers team up to come up with such apps, and someday seeing the Top 25 charts dominated by titles like:

  • Angry Burns: Spice
  • Where’sMyWater(cress)
  • Cut the Coke
  • FruitSlicer
  • Plants vs. Breads
  • Food With Friends
  • DrinkSomething(Sugar-Free)
  • DinnerDash

 This post was originally published in TechCrunch