Nike exec looks back at FuelBand’s rise and fall, talks lessons of wearables 1.0

"We are not a wearable company anymore."
By Dave Muoio
Share

Nike+ Fuel BandJust half a decade ago, Nike was among the driving forces bringing fitness wearables to the mainstream. The consumer footwear and athletic apparel company launched its FuelBand fitness tracker in 2012, and a year later stood alongside Fitbit and Jawbone as one of the only major players to hold a substantial share of the wearable retail market. Now, five years later, the wearable has been discontinued.

Although Nike’s devices were among the most well known at the time, they — along with most others — were being billed on an inherently shallow premise, argued Jordan Rice, senior director of Nike NXT Smart Systems Engineering. Speaking at a recent event about his career and experiences developing connected devices, Rice described the rollout of wearables 1.0 as a somewhat flawed experience primarily fueled by hype.

“We shipped a lot of units and made a lot of noise — and Nike is really, really good at making a lot of noise like this,” Rice said last week during a keynote presentation held at Cambridge Consultants’ Innovation Day event. “[The FuelBand] was the first wave of wearable devices [that] really put wearables on the map and created that craze. It was certainly a thing, landed us on the cover of a lot of magazines. We talked [at] a lot of industry events, and people were really, really interested in this whole ‘quantified self’ movement. We kind of created a perpetual motion machine in wearables at that time — and it was great, people actually really engaged with it, and that’s sort of how we judge the success of a product, right? …There was tons of engagement on social media, and people really got behind this idea and it kind of fed itself.”

The core issue, according to Rice, was that early fitness wearables bombarded users with data — steps taken, calories burned, height jumped, distance traveled, etc. — but did little to contextualize these metrics in a way that added long-term value. As Nike and its competitors were beginning to ramp up efforts to develop new sensors and collect more data, Rice said that the company began to realize just how few of its customers were continuing to wear their FuelBands.

“We tried to put data in the consumer’s hands, but I don’t know that we put depth in that data — a lot of it was data for data’s sake at times,” he said. “I began to ask myself a little bit, how deep is this connection that we’ve actually created? Are people connected to the brand and the products? Is this data actually meaningful to them? [Is there] depth, are they taking any insight away from this, and are we really creating a gimmick?”

The lack of long-term stickiness proved to be FuelBand’s death knell. In April of 2014, Nike axed the majority of its FuelBand team and revoked its plans for future wearable releases, although it promised to continue limited support for its previously sold devices. Apple would announce the launch of its long-awaited smartwatch in the months to follow, and Nike was quick to support the device with its various running and athletics apps.

It was during this period that Rice left the company for a brief stint at Quanttus, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based startup focused on predicting cardiac events through blood pressure monitoring. When he returned to Nike two years later, Rice admitted that he was “a bit tired” of wearables, the quantified self, and of asking consumers to adopt a complex (but ultimately shallow) device.

“I came back with the intent of really looking at ways to provide value to the consumer and athlete using technology, and that required a bit of a reset because Nike had gone through this process of creating consumer electronics gadgets and things that were maybe not central to its original core,” he said. “You could argue maybe that was a great innovation experience, you could argue that we maybe lost our way a little bit, you could maybe argue that that wasn’t authentic to who we were. But it left us with a bit of a hangover — me included.”

Rice said that although Nike may have left the wearable hardware game, it certainly hasn’t given up on providing a connected experience for its customers. As the world continues to embrace connectivity, the company has doubled-down on its commitment to well-adopted partner platforms like the Apple Watch. These efforts, he explained, are also being supplemented by incorporating connectivity into Nike products that have already won their way into a customer’s wardrobe, such as NBA jersey’s sporting RFID tags or the company’s more lucrative self-lacing sneakers.

Each of these moves is rooted in Nike’s experiences with the FuelBand line, Rice explained, and the lessons that he and the company took away from the quantified self movement. Chief among these for Rice is that today’s fitness consumers are looking for products that are smart, personal, and — perhaps most importantly — frictionless.

“There’s a tendency when you’re making gadgets and connected devices and technology to to forget the frictionless part, and to ask the consumer to do more, but not give them a whole lot in addition to what they can get from other devices without you,” he said. “You have to give more without asking them to do more, or when actually asking them to do less.”

It’s also important to make sure that the services a product offers are actually useful to the consumer, he said. Instead of answering broad, easy questions like “Did I work out a lot today?”, dedicated sensors and devices should instead be directly addressing users’ less obvious issues, and providing answers that users would otherwise be unable to discern.

“What we did in the beginning was tech in search of a problem, and then they bought [into the] buzz, and then they got tired of it,” he said. “I think now we’re really trying to understand what is the problem we’re solving for the consumer, and why would we make this for them? It sounds subtle, but it’s been a flip in how we think about crafting our roadmap and what innovations we’re bringing to market."

As per Nike’s roadmap, Rice was mum on any specific products the company was planning in the future (although he did briefly acknowledge the value of a data collection play focused on predicting athletic injuries). However, he was very clear about the potential, or lack thereof, for another device resembling the FuelBand.

“We are not a wearable company anymore. We’ve shifted the focus to connected products and … some services on other platforms, and it’s the combination of the two that’s valuable to us,” he said. “I can’t comment on the roadmap too deeply, but I’ll say that ‘We are not a wearable company anymore’ probably stands on its own.”