Below are notes from my workshop at the Quantified Self 2017 conference in Amsterdam. Thanks to everyone who participated in the workshop!
These are some criteria I use when determining whether a tool will actually be useful to me, and whether I want to invest money and time in the product.
Effort vs Value
How much active effort does it take to use? On a scale of:
FitBit is always on, tracks sleep automatically
- FitBit is always on, tracks sleep automatically
Jawbone UP requires a button press to track sleep, but is always on my wrist so it's easy
Withings scale requires no additional effort to upload/sync after stepping on the scale
- Jawbone UP requires a button press to track sleep, but is always on my wrist so it's easy
App on a phone
Requires extra work to unlock the phone and find the app
- e.g. Sleep Cycle app requires launching the app and setting the phone on your bed
- Requires extra work to unlock the phone and find the app
Manual data entry
- e.g. in a paper notebook, or manually adding to Google Sheets
Once you determine the level of effort the tool requires, ask yourself whether you are willing to put in that effort. Sometimes the value of a tool is high enough that you're willing to go to great lengths to use the tool.
How does the device sync? Does it require that a company run servers? Does the device download directly to your own computer?
For example, the Withings scale only talks to the Withings servers. You can download the data from their servers later.
The Eye-Fi card can download directly from the card to your computer, which doesn't require a third party service to be running in order for the device to work.
What kind of export options are available from the tool? Planning on the service at some point shutting down or planning on moving to a new tool later will mean you will want to choose a tool that ranks higher on this list.
Full data portability - The tool provides a complete export and import, and you can expect to be able to import the data into another tool later. Almost no services support this, likely because there aren't very good standards defined for what the raw data should look like.
- API to export data continuously - The tool provides an API that exposes the data and can be used to connect with things like IFTTT.
- Export in machine-readable format - The tool does not provide an API, but does allow manual exporting in a machine-readable format. Things like exporting CSV files, JSON files, etc. This is the minimum bar a service must hit before I will consider using it.
- Export in non-machine-readable format - The tool provides an export, but it is in a format that is not machine readable, e.g. PDFs or images.
- No data export - The tool does not support exporting data at all.
How does the tool make money?
There are several ways tools make money, and you should be aware of the profit motive of any tool you use. There is no "right answer" and no "wrong answer" for whether you should use a tool based on this, but it's important to be aware of.
Did you pay just one time to buy a device?
Things like FitBit charge exponentially more for the device than the manufacturing of it costs, because they don't charge you for membership later.
- If you've paid only once but continue to cost the company money because they have to maintain servers for the device to work, then the company will likely try to sell you a new device in order to continue making money from you.
- Customer acquisition is often a huge cost to companies, and if each customer only pays once (how many wifi scales do you really need), then each customer is not going to be very profitable especially if the customers also incur costs on the company.
Are you paying a monthly subscription?
If you are paying monthly for a tool, then chances are the company is working in your best interests since they will want to retain you as a customer.
Is the company making money off your data?
Often times a company will be making money off the data they collect from their customers. The data can be useful in aggregate, so the company might want to encourage lots of people to use the tool to be able to collect enough data to make it valuable.
- This is not necessarily bad, but you need to be aware of this tradeoff.
- I've never paid any money to Foursquare, but I continue to use the app and allow them to use my data because I get a lot of value out of their tool.
For portable devices, battery life is often a huge concern. People often have different preferences for this as well. Some people are willing to charge a device every night, others want to not think about it for months.
My FitBit battery lasts around 5-7 days. That's enough to go out of town for the weekend and not worry about bringing my charger. I also can't charge my FitBit at night, since I wear it to track my sleep.
Related to battery life is what connector the device uses to charge. Is it a proprietary connector? That's usually less ideal since it can be more expensive to replace, and is harder to borrow chargers if you need. Thankfully most devices are moving towards charging via Micro USB or USB-C, so it's usually not too hard to find connectors.
Another thing to keep in mind is whether the tool you're considering has competition in the market. Are there other options you can switch to if this service shuts down, or if your device breaks?
Are there other services that provide this or similar functionality? If not, you might end up "stuck" as a customer, and the company will have little incentive to improve things or reduce costs.
What will happen to the device if the company shuts down?
A Jawbone UP is completely tied to the company existing. The band has no interface, and requires syncing with their iOS or Android app to continue working. If the company shuts down their servers and unpublishes the app from the stores, the device will be nothing more than a decorative bracelet.
A Withings scale will still be a scale if the servers shut down, since it actually has a visual display on the device.