Being Sweet on Your Fitbit

Partner with your wearable to change your life – and your narrative

Posted May 29, 2017

Remember the Rosetta Stone you got for Christmas, when you vowed to learn Italian? Is your new Fitbit in the drawer next to it? Don’t look so appalled. For many, too many perhaps, the wearable just doesn’t stick.

Stephanie Berman, partner and Chief Creative Officer at The Bloc, writes: “Yesterday I realized I’ve been wearing my Fitbit 24/7, but completely dead, for about 6 weeks’. Berman later fesses up to having hired a trainer with whom she feels accountable to log exercise and food intake. The machine alone just wasn’t enough.

As a psychologist, I am not surprised. What this means to me is that technology, in and of itself, cannot necessarily create behaviour change, let alone transform it.

Enter Caryn Wiley-Rapoport. With degrees in both cultural anthropology and media psychology, Caryn brings deep qualitative knowledge and methodological skill to her inquiry of the self and well-being. She also has decades of experience in consumer research in advertising and currently is a managing director in  the consumer insights practice at Canvas Worldwide in Los Angeles.

Wiley recently completed her PhD dissertation on the quantified self and narrative identity. She analyzed videos where quantified-self individuals related their experiences with, and transformation thanks to, their fitness bands. Granted, this is a self-selected bunch, probably more motivated, and dare I say more data-driven, than the rest of us. And yet, their stories are so illuminating because of the personal meaning they bring to numbers.

But even for them, in the beginning, it was like – Oh, I have to get my steps in, or I have to do whatever. A task, dissociated from who they were. And then it became a reciprocal relationship – if I walk, I get the data, and then I feel good. But I can’t get the endorphins from exercising and seeing that I met my goals, unless I see it in the data. Yes, the word ‘reciprocal’ was there when Wiley and I spoke.

Source: MemeGenerator

It makes sense. Rewards help cement new behaviors, turning them into habits. For someone involved with self-quantification, a change in the data can be very rewarding. This is an important point for whoever creates wellness progress, adherence to medication apps and the like to remember: we expect people, be they healthy or patients, to do the right thing and then feel good about it. Except this often fails. Going to the gym - you’re sore afterwards, especially if you weren’t in great shape to begin with. Going on a diet – at the end of day 1, you look in the mirror and still appear to be in need of a diet. Taking a statin, well, hard to celebrate that, especially since it treats a mostly a-symptomatic condition.

Avid Fitbit users felt that the numbers were helping them persist. Further, they were doing it for the numbers. These became an end in their own right, not a mere crutch on the way to the end.

Wiley noted that the people who made the most of the Fitbit have done so by changing their narrative, assuming a new identity - a fitter, healthier, more competent one. This is the highest form of self-actualization and transformation as conceptualized by McAdams, a psychologist at Northwestern University.

 The psychological self begins life as a social actor, performing social roles. By the end of childhood, the self has become a motivated agent, too, as personal goals, motives, values, and envisioned projects for the future become central features of how the person conceives oneself. These are the layers that most wellness programs and wearables cater to.

A third more evolved layer of selfhood, the autobiographical self, begins to form in the adolescent and emerging adulthood years, when people aim to construct their story of the Me, to provide adult life with broad purpose and a dynamic sense of temporal continuity.

Source: MemeGenerator

Tap into that, and you’ve achieved a transformational type of attachment between user and device. One where the user won’t let her Fitbit die, because if contains and sustains a piece of who she is, as well as who she is striving to be. ‘Striving’ is such a great notion, because striving is a continuous state, which means you keep on doing whatever it takes to help you get to that ideal self, and then some, as you strive for even more. 

Embrace this, and you are pouring life into Elizabeth Elfenbein’s vision of 2017 as the year of patient-centric creativity. Elfenbein, also a partner and Chief Creative Officer at The Bloc, calls, among other things, for humanizing tech, and creating experiences in order to achieve solutions that are all about the patient. If, miraculously, this can be implemented across the board, health will prevail.

Caryn Wiley-Rappoport’s insights translate into so many lessons for developers and creative teams –

Make the numbers speak to users, sing to them even. I’ve preached for this often in the past. Fitbit addicts look in the numbers as personal landmarks – “here is where I pushed myself to go on the kayaking trip”, they will say fondly. They will fondle the trends and the numbers attesting to increased ability and well-rewarded effort.Allow less hard-core users easy interpretation.

Create quick gratification with the numbers. A quid pro quo – I went for a run, and here is how my Fitbit rewarded me. Reciprocity implies a relationship, and when in a relationship, you persist, because you care.

If you can, push to connect with users’ narrative of who they are, who they are striving to be and what they need to do to get there. Further, make sure they never really get ‘there’ – not in a frustrating sense, but because ‘there’ will always involve striving for new goals.

Accomplish this, and your device will never find itself wasting away in the drawer.

Just because she’s such a cool cat, Wiley recently launched a “media mindfulness and social change” practice, which you can read about at