Jay Blahnik on what separates Apple Watch from other fitness trackers

By Jonah Comstock
01:52 pm

It's been a rough year for wrist-worn wearable activity trackers. As we noted in a column last December, what was once a vibrant and competitive field is now a graveyard of failed devices like the Pebble, the Basis Band, the Nike FuelBand, and many more. Just this month news broke about Jawbone's liquidation after a long, slow decline.

You can place the blame for these failures in a number of places, but one that holds a lot of weight is that behavior change is hard. Getting people to use a device and keep using it, and, through the device, getting them to change their exercise habits, is a taller order than most companies thought it would be when they started. An oft-quoted survey by Endeavor Partners showed that a third of wearables users stopped using their device after six months.

Meanwhile, in Cupertino, there's Apple. Athough the Apple Watch is a multifacted smartwatch, its fitness features continue to be a major draw and a major focus for the company, to the extent that Apple has built a fitness lab at its headquarters with 20 full-time nurses and 13 full-time exercise specialists. 

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So what makes Apple so bullish on a technology that seems doomed to failure? Jay Blahnik, Apple's director of fitness and health, spoke about the company's design philosophy at a briefing with reporters last week attended by MobiHealthNews. He said the Apple Watch takes a distinct approach from other wearables, and that Apple hasn't seen the sort of attrition suggested by the Endeavor study.

"One of the big notions of the activity app is that it automatically keeps track of something you’re already doing and makes it really easy to achieve it," Blahnik said. "Those are the things that lead to rituals. People don’t get tired of brushing their teeth; they do it for most of their life. So there are things that don’t create fatigue -- if it’s really simple to do and it starts to become a ritual. And that was the design philosophy behind this. Let’s not try to make this about the most you can do, let’s save that for the workout app. This is not about the most you can do, but the least you should do every day."

Without naming names, Blahnik compared the three-ring structure of the activity app, which encourages users to meet self-entered goals for moving, exercising, and standing, to the 10,000-step paradigm that might be familiar to Fitbit users.

"What a lot of people don’t realize is the average American does 25 to 35 hundred steps per day," he said. "So 10,000 is four times the amount the average person does. Which is why it’s really hard. And when it’s really hard for you to do, there is going to be burnout. Because it’s not a ritual; it’s actually a challenge every day. We let you set that goal and we nudge you to keep increasing it until you get to a level that you want to do, or a level that you can do. And we back off once it appears that you’ve leveled out. Because our philosophy is ‘great if you can do more, but let’s try and help you do as much as you want to do and then try to get you to repeat that.’ So everything about the way it’s designed is really designed to prevent the fatigue."

The rings are simple by design, but they're meant to motivate users on an almost subconscious level.

"Typical activity trackers also measure metrics but they tend to do them in numbers," Blahnik said. "We’ve built our entire design around a visual. Well, what’s interesting about a visual is numbers continue to get bigger. No matter how big they are, they can always be bigger. But a ring is either closed or not closed. So we’ve found there’s a real addictive behavior in making sure that final ring gets closed."

There are a few other differences between the Apple Watch and other trackers. For one thing, because the Apple Watch is more than just a fitness device, falling off the Activity app wagon doesn't mean leaving the whole device at home, as it might for a dedicated fitness tracker. This makes it easier to reel back lapsed users. For another, Apple's "Activity Sharing" also has a different philosophy than other trackers.

"Most any activity tracker does sharing, but they tend to focus on leaderboards and competition and we really wanted ours to be much more about support," Blahnik said. "... So we might be talking about work on a messaging app but also on my Watch and phone I get a message that you closed your activity ring. So right in the middle of the meeting I can give you a high five just by responding from my Watch and phone.  And that seemed to be really powerful for people who want to share activity, that it’s much more about me giving you a high five or giving you a little smack talk than it is about using the leaderboard or being number one."

Blahnik said the company initially envisioned having completely different experiences for enfranchised athletes and people who just want to get exercise, but they found that the rings were resonant among all users.

"Athletes find that they still want to close those activity rings and they find that, even though they might get up in the morning and run a 10K, they’re still interested in the fact that they don’t want to sit too much during the day. So while it might be easy for them to close their move and exercise ring, they still have to focus on their stand ring," he said. "And then beginners who don’t work out have found it really interesting that they can see the difference between just moving and what counts as exercise and whether they’re sedentary or not."

Now, as the company gets ready to launch the next generation of its WatchOS, Blahnik and his team are exploring new ways to motivate users. Recently, they've added new limited-availability badges timed with holidays and other occasions. They're also aiming to increase the personalization of the activity nudges the Watch gives.

"We previously have given you nudges, but those were all time-based," he said. "We wanted to make the Watch even smarter. So now in the fall, the Watch is going to get to know you based on your activity and provide notifications that are personal. So we would all start our day with inspiration, but the inspiration I would get from the Watch for me would be different from what you would get. So let’s say I’m five days away from a streak, it might point that out to me to keep me on track Or say I don’t have any good news coming up, it might remind me what yesterday’s good news was. Which rings did I close? Did I double up my exercise goal? It’s constantly looking for ways every morning to nudge you and keep you on track for what you might be doing."

The app will also create a personal monthly goal for each user based on their past performance.

"Every month you will get a challenge that’s based on you," Blahnik said. "It will try to get you to beat or repeat something you’ve already done. What we’ve found is when you make it really close to something you’ve already done but just a little bit farther than that goal you did before, it tends to be really addictive. So we’re excited to see how users interact with those challenges but in our early testing it’s been really compelling."

Finally, like most other wearable makers, Apple is eyeing the employee wellness space in addition to personal fitness. The company has opened up the ring infrastructure to be usable by third parties, and Apple itself recently instituted a corporate wellness challenge using an app built by Lose It!

Opaque as Apple is wont to be about things like sales figures, it's hard to say definitively if the Apple Watch is doing well as a product -- that is, whether it is avoiding the fate of so many standalone fitness trackers over the last few years. But its certainly clear that the company has a vision for how to do fitness tracking differently.

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Credit: Avin Aaviksoo, chief medical officer at Guardtime

Dr. Garth Graham at an event in 2016. Photo by D Dipasupil/Getty Images for Harlem EatUp!

Dr. Garth Graham at an event in 2016. (Photo by D Dipasupil/Getty Images for Harlem EatUp!)



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