"Hey! You're wearing an unusually high number of watches," said the tipsy guy at the top of the stairs at the baseball game. I laughed and agreed without trying to explain. I was on day 7 of my ridiculous-looking experiment and he was the first person to state the obvious instead of just staring awkwardly.
I'd been an Apple Watch wearer for a little over a year when I found out at our annual Kickoff meeting in January that gap intelligence had generously purchased Fitbits for the entire office. I thought it might look a little odd to have two straps on my wrist, but I'm not exactly a slave to fashion so I joined in the challenge and starting occasionally wearing both devices so I could participate in gapU's February FitBit Challenge. It wasn't long before I started noticing differences in features and (because I, like most gappers, am a bit of a data geek) step counts. My curiousity grew even further when I talked to my husband about my observations and we realized that his Garmin was showing drastically different step counts than my devices when we went for walks as a family with our 6 month old baby. My blog for gap intelligence was right around the corner, so I decided it would be fun to wear all three devices on the same arm for a week and see how their data compared. To ensure that position on the wrist didn't skew the data I rotated their placement on my arm each day.
In a perfect world, I'd have conducted research using products with comparable features and prices but this was more of an informal exploration than an official experiment. The devices I used were a 15 month old Apple Watch (Series 1), a brand new Fitbit Alta, and 15 month-old Garmin vívosmartHR. The list of features below is by no means exhaustive but it highlights some of the key similarities and differences that caught my attention.
*They each have different technical specs, but I differentiated on "Can I wear it in the shower without worrying about drowning it?"
** The max battery life as published by the manufacures. As with my mobile phones over the years, my usage levels contribute to needing to charge more frequently.
A Few Observations
- Know your audience. As a software product manager, I'm particularly sensitve to UX and feature prioritization challenges. The Garmin Connect app for iPhone advertises itself as simple, but it's anything but. They've crammed so much functionality into a mobile app that the navigation has become a maze. Without knowing what feature I care most about (sleep, exercise, general activity, etc.) they default to showing everything. They also give main navigation prominence to social tools even though I'm not digitally connected to any other Garmin users. Hiding in the navigation maze is the ability to turn off the "snapshots" I don't care about, but I'd have to spend a long time exploring and configuring to get it dialed in and even then I'm not sure I'd learn the app well enough to avoid wasting time looking for the updates I want. Garmin would greatly benefit from a redesign adopting best practices for progressive disclosure. A casual exerciser who is trying to adopt healthier habits doesn't care about the same data as a competitive triathlete, but Garmin offers both of these users the same app. The old adage is true: if you try to be everything to everyone you end up being nothing to anyone
- Elegant isn't necessarily intuitive. Apple advertises all of its products as elegant and intuitve. I find the Apple Watch to be the most unique, beautiful and powerful of the three devices I experimented with but it's taken me months to get used to it. On the fitness tracking features, I'm almost embarrased to admit that it took me quite a while to figure out what I could see/do on the watch vs in the app on my phone. The takeaway: no matter how intuitive you "think" your product is, a little tutorial or onboarding would probably go a long way.
- Snack-size servings of data are often just right. The FitBit dashboard gives quick, at-a-glance summaries of today's progress and a means to dig deeper into historical trends and hour-by-hour details. They do a great job of emphasizing the primary feature (step counting) and making all the secondary behavior modifcation coaching tools available but still secondary. We're working hard to apply these same principles to the ever-evolving design of the new gapintelligence.com dashboard that launched last fall. We'd love to hear from you to know which meals or snacks of our GFD are most interesting to you. Drop me a line at email@example.com if you have ideas or recommendations for how we can make our dashboard more valuable to you.
- 3 devices is too many. This might be stating the obvious, but it surprised me just how difficult it would be to change my habits to incorporate all three devices. Holding the baby would cause the highest band to pinch my arm. On more than one occasion I forgot to charge one or more of the devices and missed steps. The Apple Watch (luckily) survived three near-drownings: twice in the shower and once in the hot tub. Did I mention it looked ridiculous?
- I get way too many push notifications. When your wrist buzzes three times for every incoming alert it becomes very obvious very quickly how disruptive this feature can be. I quickly dialed back my settings to quiet everything except text messages and even that was sometimes annoying.
- Reminders help. Like most technology professionals, I spend a LOT of time sitting. The periodic reminders on all three devices to stand and/or move is gradually helping me kick the habit of letting hours go by at my desk without moving my body.
- I am a terrible tapper. All three devices have touch screens, but the mechanics of the interactions on the Apple and Garmin felt much smoother than the tap on the FitBit. I regularly "missed" on the tap and ended up having to try again to get to the metrics I wanted to see. The FitBit screen is also the most difficult to see in bright outdoor light so I eventually stopped looking for most updates on my wrist and shifted to the iPhone app.
- Manual synch feels dated. The Garmin app only updates when triggered by the user. I'm sure this has something to do with saving battery life on my phone or the tracker or both, but…it's 2017 and I've (obviously) been trained to expect better integrations. The Fitbit app automatically synchs every time the user opens the app so it's relatively seamless (and much quicker than the Garmin).
- Garmin has no idea when I'm actually climbing stairs. I live in a one-story house and work on the ground floor of an office. Despite not having any stairs in my daily routine, I was regularly applauded for exceeding my daily stair climbing goal. Inaccurate stairs stats (more BFD) continuously erodes trust in the rest of the data points.
- Laying still is not the same thing as sleeping. Like most working moms with babies, I'm chronically tired. I wish I slept as much as the Garmin and FitBit thought I did! Both devices were unable to tell the difference between me laying still to feed the baby and me laying still because I was asleep. On my most tired mornings, seeing the BFD (Bad Freakin Data, as we call it at gap intelligence) of the sleep I wasn't getting was like a cruel joke. Just like the stairs, I'd rather have no sleep data than innaccurate reports.
- Step tracking is actually arm swing tracking. None of the devices I tried out could consistently count the steps I took while pushing a stroller or carefully holding a cup of coffee while walking. Similarly, they all miscounted animated conversations and writing on a white board as steps. I find these shortcomings to be forgivable since they are all forms of activity/movement but I am thankful that I'm not competing in any step challenges against symphony conductors or school teachers.
- You should only compete in step challenges with people who are wearing the same kind of device as you. As suspected, the step counts varied from one device to the next for the exact same activity. The Garmin consistently came in higher than the FitBit which came in higher than the Apple Watch. On the 3 out of 7 days where I actually had a full apples-to-apples comparison, the Garmin averaged 11% higher step counts than the Apple Watch and 4% higher than the FitBit. Here's a breakdown of steps by day (the fields in yellowhighlighted in yellow were incomplete data sets):
Wrapping It Up
There are SO many data points I could have compared that I've joked about turning this post into an entire blog series.
At the end of the day, the biggest differentiator in step counts ended up being how often I was wearing the device for the most hours of the day. As such, battery life and waterproofing ended up being the most important features when comparing devices purely as high-tech pedometers. Beyond that, I still find the Apple Watch to be the overall "most valuable wearable" for me due to the varied feature set (beyond fitness tracking) and beauty. That said, I'm really enjoying the social aspects of the Fitbit challenges and gap intelligence group leaderboard so I'll probably keep wearing the Fitbit daily and the AppleWatch when I remember to charge it and it fits with my schedule for the day. As it turns out, three devices is too many but two seems to be manageable.