Although the potential of activity trackers for enhancing wellbeing and quality of life is undisputed, the findings of arecent contribution show that the required skills to live up to this promise fall short. Both data and strategic skills of users of activity trackers reveal much room for improvement. The most frequently encountered problems involving data skills were related to navigating to the correct data representations. Substantial strategic skill-related problems were experienced when setting goals and translating these into actions.
The number of navigation-related problems implies that the use of activity trackers is already problematic in the initial stages. Consequently, activity tracker users often do not progress beyond the device’s basic functions, thus providing them with an incomplete picture of their current (physical) activity levels and health condition in general. For instance, most users were able to retrieve their daily number of steps but experienced problems in pinpointing the periods during which they took most steps or when searching for their longest stationary periods. This suggests that users who meet the recommended daily number of steps might consider themselves active, even if they sit still for multiple consecutive hours a day, a type of inactivity that poses severe health risks. Such skill-related problems can, to a certain extent, be ascribed to poor design choices (e.g., using an ambiguous emblem of a football player to represent data categories such as “steps” and “active hours”) as poor interface design has been found to affect users’ ability to operate and navigate through internet technologies. However, users’ ability to interpret data and make strategic decisions is less likely to be affected by poor design choices. Despite this, the experienced navigation-related problems may have prevented users to access the data they needed to interpret in this study, or to perform on content-related skills. Similarly, understanding collected data is required to make the right decisions. Therefore, improvements in activity tracker design can be derived from a navigation-related skills perspective and policies aimed at skill improvements should focus on the various data skills simultaneously.
Many problems were experienced when using the activity tracker strategically. While the participants encountered few problems identifying their healthy exercising behaviors, they struggled to recognize opportunities for improvement from the data, let alone to formulate specific goals to improve their current health. This, together with the persistent lack of specificity when planning their actions, is likely to prevent users from becoming more active, as specificity is vital in promoting motivation, self-efficacy, and, eventually, behavioral change. The inability to construct a detailed, personalized action plan may also lead users to neglect other health-promoting functions of activity trackers. In line with this statement, higher levels of goal personalization, have been proven to enhance users’ physical activity levels. By using device algorithms to set adaptive, attainable goals, activity levels could be increased even further.
The results suggest that large parts of the population will be excluded from effective activity tracker use. In agreement with our hypotheses, this seems to go even more for older and less educated populations. This is worrisome, as they could potentially benefit most from improved health as a result of using activity trackers. This suggests that existing inequalities are widening, as elderly and less educated users are unable to take advantage of the data at their disposal and of the decisions proposed or made by activity trackers. There is a fair chance that they will be excluded from benefits such as early diagnosis and treatment of health issues and from savings on health insurance. Additionally, existing biases will be reinforced, as collected data only include data from individuals using the devices correctly. However, the results also suggest that older users will be just as capable to use activity trackers strategically when they were not hindered by navigation-related problems. To diminish these inequalities caused by skill-related problems, interventions should be introduced to provide education or public support regarding activity tracker use, with special attention to navigation-related skills. We have provided a first insight in the specific issues and skillsets involved and provided starting points for how to enhance skills levels amongst the general population in general, and those who fall behind in particular.
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