wearable devicesAn article in the New England Journal of Medicine reports on a study of why people abandon the use of wearable activity tracking devices. The study was done by the Center for Body Computing at the University of Southern California (USC).

In the medical/healthcare industry, there has been interest in wearable technology since its advent. Concerns over biometric signal-capture fidelity and data accuracy have kept wearables from being applied to the same extent as medical devices as they have as consumer devices. The technology is improving, however, and has prompted an increase in interest from the medical community.

One aspect of consumer wearables is that their use is often abandoned within six months of purchase. The USC study investigated what the causes might be. To be effective as long-term therapy devices or monitoring devices, how to keep patients motivated to maintain consistent use will be a critical problem to solve.

The USC study incorporated several interesting features. First, the sensor technology was embedded in eyeglass frames (all study participants wore eyeglasses). Thus, the users did not have to make a conscious effort to put the wearable on – wearing their eyeglasses was automatic. Second, one of the reward incentives offered was that of altruistic giving: by reaching a goal, the user could have resources donated to various things they personally cared about.

Significant findings:

  • Though having the technology embedded in their eyewear was the most-liked feature of the platform, it did not have a significant impact on reducing the drop-off rate of the system as a whole. It’s unclear how much of an influence other factors might have had (such as the device failing to couple with the app).
  • Ease of use of the associated app was a significant factor for those who continued with the system for the duration of the study.
  • Robustness of the synching function was very important. If the sensor failed to synch with the app on occasion, that contributed to participants abandoning use.
  • Altruistic incentives did have a positive impact, especially for older users.
  • If the app allowed encouragement from a peer network, it contributed to users staying with the system.
  • Personality traits where predictive of whether participants would continue use of the wearable device platform. Those with a more positive outlook and who were more satisfied with their lives were more likely to continue use. This seems to point to the importance of intrinsic motivation. The question becomes how do you get those who are not intrinsically motivated to adhere?

The USC study gives us some understanding of where attention needs to be paid in the design of wearable devices for the medical market. Of course, there is much yet to be learned. This type of research is valuable for the medical community, and I hope we see continued activity in this area.