I hear the word "gamification" a lot, especially in health related behavior technology discussions. If you sit down with a group of people to brainstorm an app idea, something engaging that gets people to do something positive for their health, it isn't long before you start talking about points / badges / levels / challenges, and on and on. I've shared a few thoughts and enthusiasm before for these kinds of app ideas, but I think there's something more core that we're skipping before we go out and "game-ify". That thing is a narrative.
I recently visited my parents and checked up on my dad's love for his Fitbit activity tracker. Now, my dad is no gadget guy, but he loves his Fitbit so much that he has lost 2 of them and immediately replaced them himself; that's 3 including the one I bought him. He does a good walk in the morning, and tries during the day to get more steps in than he did before. I was expecting to hear some new revelation about how he could get more steps in by doing some other activity / routine in his office day.
"I'm not wearing it anymore." "What? Like, you're just not in to it anymore, you don't care about how many steps you get in?", I asked. "No. I still do my walks, I get steps in during the day at work, but I know how many steps I'm getting in. If I do the walk in the morning and then my normal day, I know how many steps that is. Why do I need to wear the Fitbit to tell me that every day?"
Wow, I was shocked. It was such an about-face. Then he conceded, "I may wear it again, just not seeing the point right now". The something that would get him wearing it again is either a change in his routine that needs quantifying, or, a change in the reason for counting steps. Which got me thinking, if every day my dad pulls up to about 8,000 steps, what is that ultimately contributing to? It's aggregatable, averageable, mean distributable (?), comparable (to me and others on Fitbit.com), and bragable (he's been adding to this for a while). But, it doesn't contribute to a larger narrative that he can identify with. I'll concede though that some people are actively creating a narrative of streaks, bests, and challenges themselves, and for them, the Fitbit (data aggregation) alone works.
Perhaps what my dad needs is something that his 8,000 steps per day is contributing towards. Getting a repetitive high-range step count shouldn't be a bore, it needs to count towards some larger narrative. A game would work, but a game is just one kind of narrative.
Which got me thinking. Most persuasive technology does either one or both of two things:
1) Helps the user tell their narrative. It gives them a structure, an audience, a visualization, etc, of the story of their accomplishments and shortcomings (after all, a good story has ups and downs)
2) Allows users to better consume / understand the narratives of others - Often times, we consume the narratives of others we find interesting, inspiring, or that we feel good about comparing ourselves to.
So, to all those thinking about building apps the encourage people to change, think first about the narrative. Don't concentrate on dashboard view X, data input log Y, cool visualization V, or even game mechanism Z. Those can be part of the way the narrative is filled in, but if your idea of the narrative isn't compelling enough to your users, everything that comes before it isn't important.
For those asking what I'm up to with this new startup -- I'm building a narrative. One that I think people will be excited to do, even if they just do their same step counts every day. I'll be starting with the Fitbit at first. I think they have built the best device so far, and their API is all about getting people to add to the Fitbit experience. They do a few badges / challenge things themselves, but I'd venture to say that they're focusing on making the best device (and ease of use) that inspires a new wave of health related experiences.
And now, back to work.