mundane adventures in running
Quantified self has been a hot topic in research and technology for a few years now. A computer in every pocket, big data and social networking have all contributed to a revolution in self-obsession. The success and relative infamy of products like Nikefit or Jawbone’s sleep tracking device, UP, point towards a trend which has definitely gone mainstream.
Sports performance trackers seem an obvious application for self-tracking It is something people are likely to want to track, training tends to be goal-oriented, whether you are doing it for sporting prowess, to lose weight, or under Doctors’ orders. It’s also an easy thing to track: the kinds of thing you want to measure, distance and time, are easy to measure on a phone. It’s no great surprise that there are multiple smartphone sports trackers on the market.
How much difference could you expect between the different apps available? Each is necessarily going to have roughly the same set of functions: measure distance and speed through GPS, support input from other pieces of hardware (heart rate monitors, bike computers, pedometers etc.), and the same ways of accessing (through an on-phone app, on a website etc.). The difference tends to be driven by more ephemeral qualities: in-app UI, support websites, social features, activity feeds, branding and graphics; it is these which differentiate the big players.
While self-improvement tends to be the overarching reason for people to train, the more specific motivations can change: are you trying to look better, to avoid heart disease, to beat your friends, or to transcend the spiritual limitations you put on yourself? In addition, as people come to care more generally about health, there are more types of user out there, old and young, sporty and not, competitive or not. The market is developing so that different apps turn out to be catering for these different types of users. While they are all functionally doing the same thing, their tone of voice, implied intention and audiences are clearly very different. It seems to be the sign of a very mature market: where demand has become sufficient for really quite specific variations on the basic theme.
A comparison of three of the big players, Runkeeper, Strava and Endomondo serves to highlight this point. These are three apps that essentially do the same thing, yet subtle differences in design and branding make them seem very different in terms of application, intention and likely user.
Runkeeper claim a stonking 23 million users. Their CEO, Jason Jacobs states his aspiration that Runkeeper should become the Facebook of health: “This kind of central console that ties all this [health] stuff together.” At the moment though, even despite a recent overhaul, it feels quite close to Plan Vanilla in terms of what it does. On first impressions, it doesn’t shout out an identity, or lend itself to any particular attitude or style of training. It’s only with continued use that its intention becomes clearer. Runkeeper is about science: graphs and charts, training programs, pre-programmed workouts that call out your intervals as you listen to Eye of the Tiger on those quick training runs. It’s the Russian guy in Rocky IV. Social features aside, it seems to be the most appropriate for antisocial runners who are serious about training, but who are measuring their progress against themselves not their peers.
Despite their relatively small (claimed) user base, Strava seem have become the default app for reasonably serious cyclists, especially the MAMIL group. It boasts of a fair few professional users and has tie-ins with big cycling brands like Rapha and Specialized. Beyond basic functionality users flag particular “segments” of routes (for example, north edge of Brockwell Park, or Robin Hood to Wake Arms), which then creates a virtual leaderboard. After that, anyone logging an activity on that stretch is listed in the leader board. So you get the standard stats, how you fared against other users and even (per activity) a rather naff “Suffer Score”.
Strava seems to be designed to appeal to the competitive. The really, really competitive. It is almost impossible to use without starting to compete or, at least, to feel inadequate and left behind by your peers. The tone of voice Strava use in communications fits with this: it is that of a haranguing coach or a competitiveness homunculus chiding your conscience. For example, here’s a sample email:
Uh oh! Matthew Wise just stole your CR!
You just lost your CR on Greenwich Foot Tunnel 2 to Matthew Wise by 9 seconds.
Now get out there, have fun and be safe.
-Your friends at Strava
Go hard, be safe, and have fun.
You can see how it could be very motivating for the right person. And certainly there are numerous anecdotes of users who have seen huge training gains just by using Strava. For others it has led to competitive obsession. In one extreme case, Strava has been implicated in an unsuccessful lawsuit following the death of a cyclist in California who was pushing to beat a segment record.
At the other end of the spectrum is Endomondo. Endomondo feels a lot… gentler. Again it does the basic tracking stuff, also again it has the ability to log routes and for users to compete virtually. Both it and Strava are very social, and really focus on bringing athletes together. There’s just something about Endomondo’s look and feel that makes it seem far more approachable and democratic. It could just be the graphics they use- Endomondo has a soft, eco-looking feel about it, while Strava seems a lot more hard-edged and serious. Even the tone of voice of Endomondo is a lot more laid back and relaxed. There’s no talk of Suffer Scores; instead it has cheesy but charming calculations like numbers of burgers burned off or number of times traveled around the world. It also has group challenges. These vary hugely, but do feel far less Athlete-focussed than anything on Strava, ranging from “Burn 500 calories every day in 2013” to more serious run-furthest-in-a-given-month type goals. While Strava uses social features to encourage competition, or to encourage users to measure themselves against one another, Endomondo feels far more geared to a community striving to achieve something together: Endomondo is about cooperation and competition, not just competition.
As the self-tracking trend continues, it will be interesting to see what other attitudes and aspects can be manifested in sports tracker app design. The holistic health monitor described by Runkeeper’s CEO seems like the holy grail. Certainly, that’s what companies like Fitbit and Jawbone seem to aspire to, putting their sleep monitor devices at the centre of the system. But it doesn’t seem the only possible route. It’s fairly easy to imagine different ways of incorporating social features, for example more of an emphasis on teams or groups of friends, or adding more real world meet up events. We can only hope that someone, somewhere is developing a sports tracking app based on the teachings of Sri Chimnoy.
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