The other day I sat in the pub after work. I’d left my keys on the kitchen table that morning and I was locked out. It seemed the sensible thing to go for a pint and read my book until my partner returned home from the office. Absently flicking through my personal emails whilst taking the first sip of my drink, I was suddenly struck by an admonishing subject line: How was your run today?
Of course, I remembered, I was supposed to have run 8 km that day. Sadly, however, my running gear was ensconced somewhere in the recesses of my locked abode. And, after all, I’d started drinking now; why, I’d even managed to gulp down half the pint whilst considering the exercise in which I was now supposed to be partaking.
A few weeks ago, on this very blog, I took a pledge. I declared that I would road-test consumer health apps to investigate the ingredients required to make them successful, and to see if they ultimately made me a fitter, happier person. As a first step, I decided to test running apps. Whilst not exactly Usain Bolt, I have been known to go for a run around the park on a sunny morning. And, in what can only be described as a moment of insanity, I recently signed up to take part in a half-marathon with some seasoned runners from the Ogilvy Digital Health team. So it was with a modicum of verve and determination that I downloaded the Nike+ and MyAsics apps from the Apple Store.
The Nike+ app is possibly the most expensive app I have ever downloaded. This is because, as well as the actual download, you also need to purchase a small pedometer device, which fits into a pouch that is threaded through your shoelaces. The app allows you to pre-program runs based on a variety of goals such as time, distance or how many calories you wish to burn. Whilst running you can listen to music on your iPhone, in the safe knowledge that at a simple touch of a button a cheery automated voice will tell you your current speed, distance, and how many darned miles you’ve got left to go.
It’s a simple concept, but surprisingly effective. In days of yore, I would probably have attempted some overblown exercise involving maps and bits of string in order to work out a route for my run, and my two measurements of speed would have been the substantially less empirical: “slow” and “too fast, time to go home.” In this sense, Nike+ works in exactly the way a successful health app should: it does a bunch of the seemingly hard work for you so that you can concentrate on the real hard work that is the task in hand. It even has a feature that allows users to pick a motivational song that they can access with one click should they be flagging before they reach the finish line. I would tell you what my song is, but I fear it will lose its emotional power when you laugh in my face.
Over the past few weeks I have discovered that I can run a lot farther, and maybe even faster, with the knowledge that the app will inform me when I’m nearing my goal. Having said that, I have fallen firmly out of love with the cheery automated voice. The other day I am sure I noticed a malicious hint to her otherwise anodyne tone as she informed me I’d only reached the halfway point. It’s now got so bad that we’re not talking; or rather, I switched her off. But it’s ok, because I can just look at the screen for an update on my progress. I’ll let her back into my life when I’m ready.
The other running app that I downloaded, MyAsics, was free of charge. This app is linked to a website, myasics.co.uk, which you have to sign-up to in advance. The site allows you to develop a training plan based on your age, weight and previous running experience. In this sense it has been ideal for my half-marathon training. Once you have plugged in your details and downloaded the app, you get calendar reminders, emails, and a facility to map your runs by GPS.
In a perfect world I would be happy to declare that this app is the best thing to happen to me since Dynasty became available on DVD (only recently in the UK, in case you’re wondering). However, as useful as it is to have a tailor-made running plan, it’s not worth the guilt you feel when you miss a run. Cue a barrage of push notifications, and passive-aggressive emails of the variety that hit me as I innocently sipped a beer in my local pub. Well I say guilt; that’s not what it feels like at first. Something crops up at work, or it’s a best friend’s birthday, and when the message pops up I think, oh well, I would be out running but I’m doing something ultimately more important. Then come the occasions when I have already got home, slipped on something more comfortable and snuggled under a blanket in front of some quality Joan Collins, when my phone angrily beeps with the now ubiquitous reminder: How was your run today?
There is so much I now hate about that question, notwithstanding the fact that generally I haven’t actually run that day. The way it rears its ugly head at approximately 1900 hours suggests it is fully aware that if you haven’t slugged your sorry ass out on the running track by that hour, there are still at least three precious hours open to you before the gym closes. That’s when I start to feel guilty, and this is a dangerous place to be because after guilt comes stubborn resistance. Namely, ”No, I haven’t been for a run today, and nor am I going to go for a run today, because I’m not going to let a pesky phone app rule my life.”
You’ve probably caught my drift by now: I’m not massively keen on the MyAsics app. The attributes that made the Nike+ app so successful, that allowed you to concentrate on the task at hand, were not present here. Instead the app, which should have me in fantastic shape by now, is like an old nag that I can’t wait to delete from my life.
When we create consumer health apps, it is important to remember that they should complement people’s lifestyles rather than complicating them. I’m never going to be the most dedicated exercise freak, so the Nike+ app worked perfectly for me as it allowed me to run as and when I wanted. With this level of control, I was more likely to run farther, longer and faster. Even if I decided to halt a run early, I could collect data on my performance without fear of chastisement. Through putting the user in the driving seat, Nike has created a positive, empowering app that encourages consumers to make positive changes to their lifestyle.
Whether we’re building apps for running, or to remind people when to take their medication, it’s never good to be chiding or annoying because sooner or later people will want to rebel, and it’s a whole lot easier to delete an app than it is to run for 10 miles without stopping.
Next time, I attempt to overhaul my diet….
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