Building that Perfect Quantified Self App: Notes to Developers, Part 1

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building apps building perfect quantified self tool app for self-trackingAfter posting about my search for the best mobile app for self-tracking, I received several e-mails and DMs from developers, asking me to advise more on specifics of the “perfect” app. In response, I offered to write “notes for developers” from the end user perspective, describing the app just as I, Quantified-Self practitioner, imagine it. In this, and the following posts I will share these notes, along with more elaborate details, concrete examples, and even some monetization ideas. In other words, I will describe the app that I would have built myself, if I had necessary resources or skills. I hope that this post will be interesting not only to developers, but also to other folks involved in Quantified-Self movement.

If you recall, the first and foremost criteria for the “perfect” Quantified-Self app was versatility. A lot of existing apps for self-tracking chose to focus on a particular niche: fitness, health, habits, mood, etc, thus limiting themselves to only one or two small sectors of the Quantified-Self movement. However, if you look at the QS blogs and sites, you will see that more than often self-tracking projects transcend the “topical” niches. When tracking physical fitness, people now want to see not only number of miles ran or calories burned, but how their performance is related to supplements taken, changes in mood and other psychological states and behaviors. The diet logs now are not just about counting calories, but also tracking allergies and more serious ailments, and effects of ingredients on mental and physical performance, or sleep. The happiness has been already tied to location, and will soon probably be linked to the weather, quality of sleep, or activities on Facebook. Just to give you an idea, here is the list of some variables that people might be interested in tracking, most likely at the same time:

  • PHYSICAL ACTIVITIES: miles, steps, calories, repetitions, sets, METs
  • DIET: calories consumed, carbs, fat, protein, specific ingredients, glycemic index, satiety, portions, supplement doses, tastiness, cost, location
  • PSYCHOLOGICAL STATES & TRAITS: mood, happiness, irritation, emotions, anxiety, self-esteem, depression, confidence
  • MENTAL & COGNITIVE STATES & TRAITS: IQ, alterness, focus, selective/sustained/divided attention,  reaction, memory, verbal fluency, patience, creativity, reasoning, psychomotor vigilance
  • ENVIRONMENTAL VARIABLES: location, architecture, weather, noise, pollution, clutter, light, season
  • SITUATIONAL VARIABLES: context, situation, gratification of situation, time of day, day of week
  • SOCIAL VARIABLES: influence, trust, charisma, karma, current role/status in the group or social network

RTracker Measured Me quantified self app reviewThis list can go on and on. You personally may know a variable or two that you don’t see on this list, but have been tracking yourself, or plan to track in the future. So why not just let users to define ANY variable they want? This is exactly what rTracker and Track & Share developers did. They even let you organize variables into higher-order customizable categories, which is very convenient. Image to the right: my log in rTracker; this is the list of categories that I currently measure in the morning.

Of course, being able to add any variable is just the first step. The users must be also able to pick the measurement scale that they deem appropriate. This is where the “customizability” criteria comes in. Let me quickly remind you what kind of scales are currently widely used out there:

  • Numeric scale (e.g., weight, temperature, time)
  • Time (date, time, in different formats)
  • Binary scale (e.g., Yes/No)
  • Mutually Exclusive Multiple-Choice Scale (a.k.a. radio-buttion, e.g. Sunny/Cloudy/Rain/Snow).
  • Multiple-Choice Scale (a.k.a. check box, e.g., “weekend hung out with Lenny, Robert, John, Jim.. – check all that apply)
  • Likert scales (n-point scales, e.g., 5-point scale Disagree Completely/Disagree Somewhat/Neutral/Agree Somewhat/Agree Completely)
  • Open ended questions (a.k.a. text or text box)
  • Location (could be name venue from Foursquare or actual coordinates)
  • Slider

Pic 2 developing quantified self app notes from measured meIn other words, I want to be able to record my weight in pounds or kilos as a number, rate my sleep quality on a n-point scale, and check off the list medications that I took this morning, all in the same app. Most of these scales are already offered in apps like rTracker and Track & Share, but offering even more options would be helpful. Image to the left  is a screenshot of my log in rTracker; measuring psychological states using sliding scale.

Of course, sometimes we have no choice but to leave the measurement of certain variables to other apps and devices. For instance, I can look up the distance I walked or biked in RunKeeper, or amount of calories I burned while at the gym, and manually log that information into my tracking app. But why should I? Why can’t I just link my app to the Bodymedia app or Runkeeper (Instant Heart Rate, Zeo or Sleep Time, etc.) so data is appended automatically? In addition to convenience, imagine how many interesting insights you can get from such data mashups! So I would definitely enable data integration with Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Bodymedia, Runkeeper, and other web and mobile apps, to make user’s data even more rich.

Further, there are already hundreds of questions with scales out there that have been tested and validated by scientific and Quantified Self community. Why not enable users to build their logs by adding the questions from the open-source, peer-reviewed depository of QS tools?

Finally, while rTracker and TrackNShare allow you to create and modify variables right in the app, I also liked approach used by meTracker: you “build” your questionnaire on their website, and then track data using mobile app. This is particularly convenient if you are tracking a lot of variables.

Now about the actual process of logging data. If you are going to offer a mobile app for tracking, make sure that it is truly mobile. The user should not depend on a network connection or Wi-Fi, at least when recording data. The one of the weaknesses of meTracker was that I could not even open it while in the subway. That means that the app needs to be either native, or hybrid; web apps in the mobile browser won’t do. It would be even better if I could log my data both from my mobile phone and computer, depending on where I am right now. Let’s admit, most of us spend 6-7 hours in front of the computer anyway, especially those who work full-time. So it makes sense to make the app a cross-platform.

I will sign off for today. In my next post, I will discuss the analytical features of the app, and potential ways to monetize it. Stay tuned!

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15 Responses to Building that Perfect Quantified Self App: Notes to Developers, Part 1

  1. Brian says:

    This may be the app that you want as a person who is very serious about self-tracking and has tons of experience with it. But I do think the app your describing would have a chance with people outside the core of the QS community.
    What people want are apps that focus on a specific problem that is bothering them. Apps that allow for easy tracking and where the act of tracking itself is rewarding. And they want it to provide actionable feedback fast. That kind of versatile, all-purpose tracking app would not break through however well done it would be.

  2. Winslow Strong says:

    Hi Brian,
    While I agree with what you are saying about the average user, the problem is that sometimes nothing actionable will be gained if you aren’t looking at the whole picture.
    For example, if you just use a zeo to track your sleep, and maybe your mood also, all you are likely to find out is that better sleep produces better mood the next day.
    If you want to actually improve your sleep, you need to try varying other factors, and thus keep track of the results. E.g. some report that sufficient carbs sufficiently close to bed is key to sleeping well thru the night. If you don’t track carbs tho, you might never figure that out.
    I think as people see the power for self-analysis, and from that self-improvement, that can be gained by tracking many variables in a coherent framework, that the market will grow substantially. We are in the early adopter phase, but for those developers who want to make a product that could lead the field, they need to shoot for where QS will be tomorrow, not where it is today.

  3. Brian says:

    I don’t believe there will ever be a significant number of people actively tracking things.
    I do agree that looking at these correlations between different factors can be very valuable. But I think you’ll only have people outside the QS core do this when everything is tracked passively and the insights and analysis are delivered without them having to do anything.
    Who knows…perhaps I’m wrong and you’re right. But if I was developing a QS app that I wanted to be successful I would not target the QS audience at all. I’d build it for regular people.

  4. Hi Brian,
    Fair point. But remember, in this age of fragmentation, the “spray and pray” approach to engaging audiences and customers does not work anymore; big does not mean good and profitable. No matter how small is the niche, it is the engagement levels around it that matters the most. One can build a good business around small niches like QS community, too. In this case, you sell not only tool, but lifestyle and services around it (I will cover the monetization in the next post, by the way).
    Not everything can be measured passively. Can you measure your mood passively? Or your attention, cognitive abilities or other psychologoical and mental states? Not really. And that’s why we need this app.

  5. Brian says:

    I think the problem will be if you just offer a great tracking tool you’ll have a problem cross-selling other products. Your customers won’t have enough in common.
    I was at the QS conference in Stanford this year and one of the discussions was on what viable QS businesses there have been. The only ones I can think of focus on a narrow niche (sleep: Zeo, fitness: fitbit, DNA: 23andme, cognitive improvement: lumosity). I don’t think any company has been successful doing something like what you’re proposing. (ie providing some service around tracking in general). Do you know of one?
    I do think QS will break through to the mainstream when it can offer people a really effective way to solve problems they’re already having. How can I track more data about myself is not such a problem.
    Anyway, look forward to reading your thoughts on monetization.

  6. Eric Jain says:

    There’s a “long tail” of problems for which building custom tracking apps isn’t worthwhile, right now. So perhaps what’s needed is a platform that makes it easy to build such apps.

  7. Hi Eric,
    That is a very interesting idea! So, instead of building an app, we build a platform-constructor that would enable people to assemble the tracking tool that they need.

  8. Nick says:

    Hey All,
    I’ve been working on a ‘track everything’ project for awhile and I agree with Brian in saying that “What people want are apps that focus on a specific problem that is bothering them.”
    I believe i.strive.to is infact the platform-constructor as you described it. People can model what they want to track, and then can use and share that as a stand-alone app. Or as part of core app.
    For example i.strive.to/track/pushups functions as a stand-alone pushup tracking app. When data is tracked from the pushup tracker its recorded alongside any other trackers.
    The challenge in this approach is making the platform powerful enough so that each niche tracker can compete with the one off apps.
    The possibilities created by having all this data in one place is what’s really exciting!

  9. james says:

    I developed something very similar to this a couple of years ago. It was a web app with a whole array of “modules” – tracking things like mood, sleep, exercise, weather, body measurements and menstrual cycle. New modules could be added and old ones deleted. Fields could be modified, added or subtracted, and any of the standard controls (text boxes, radio buttons, drop-downs, etc) could be used for any field. It was basically a way to create your own database to track anything and everything.
    In the end I abandoned the app before working on the charting side. Why? All of the feedback I received from everyday users of my other apps was that it was way to complex. Most people want some flexibility but simplicity is just as important. Brian, if you look at a typical “App Store” audience – which I dare say is where monetization begins – you are amongst a small percentage of power users.
    I’ll be interested to read your thoughts on monetizing it. As Apple has shown successful monetization relies on appealing to the masses, and perhaps neglecting the power users. Sure, there is a niche market for it and no doubt developers are working on different possibilities, but I’d be surprised if it stacks up financially at this stage.

  10. In my previous post I started describing the quantified self app that I would have built myself if I had access to necessary skills or resources

  11. Great article, I hope to follow along as you create your first Spotify app.

  12. Sean says:

    You forgot the part where you index all your users and deanonymize them so you can sell the information to health insurance companies.

  13. Measured Me says:

    @Sean I believe that insurance companies and medical services providers should stay (and kept ) out of Quantified Self space, for obvious reasons.

  14. Kim says:

    I’ve read a lot of articles saying the same list of variables that people might be interested in tracking.

  15. kazuk durbin says:

    WOW јust what I was loοκing for.
    Ϲаme here by seаrching foг app
    develoρment

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