The Jawbone UP Fails, But Teaches 3 Golden Rules For Experience Design

The Jawbone UP is a complex case study in what we demand from the gadgets we interact with—and how gadget experiences can be designed to fit into our lives.

A few months ago, if you asked me what the year’s best product would be, I would have put my early money on the Jawbone UP, a wristband and smartphone app that tracks your wellness. Backed by a massive $120 million war chest of venture funding, it’s an all-in bet that Jawbone can help solve the problem of our declining fitness—not to mention crack the sleep-aid and weigh-loss markets, which are worth nearly $80 billion combined.

But having used the thing for a week, I can’t recommend it. The wristband itself is superbly designed: The slight oval shape and rubberized case mean that it hews to your wrist without bouncing around, which would have made it into an annoying bangle. But the wristband is a minor part of the offering. The real product is the software, and the interaction experience. And that’s where things go wrong: The software is too buggy and confusing, the user experience too unresolved. But rather than carp on what’s wrong, I wanted to lay out a few lessons that the product’s shortcomings teach you about app design and user experience design in general. A product like this teaches us all how to make things better.

Apps Must Balance Being Passive And Present

The Jawbone UP is, to put it simply, a wristband and app. The wristband uses an accelerometer to track how much you’re walking, exercising, or sleeping; it then uploads this data to the app, which charts all this information and also lets you log your meals.

You’d think that Jawbone, the company that mastered Bluetooth headsets, would have made the UP communicate wirelessly with your phone. That’s not how it works: The wristband, which has a speaker jack clearly hidden on one end, has to be plugged into your phone every time you want to refresh your data. (Why no Bluetooth? Battery-life issues, apparently.)

This sounds like a trivial problem, but that one failing is, in my mind, enough to sink the whole product. Imagine if instead the wristband was constantly communicating data to your phone. In that case, you’d be checking your phone constantly to see how far you’ve walked, and how close you’re getting to your daily activity goals. In other words, it would easily become a ritual as natural as checking your Facebook—that is, the app would become truly present in your life.

[One of the activity graphs, which you get by turning your phone sideways. The only problem? Turning your phone upright doesn’t restore the original screen. You’re now stuck.]
As is, the UP introduces just enough friction into the process that it never quite melds into your routines. Simply having to take the wristband off, uncap the end piece, plug it into your phone, load up the UP app, and then have it synch means that it becomes another chore—rather than a new feature of your constant dialogue with your smartphone.

It might sound like I’m picking on the UP, but its competitors have failings just as profound. The Fitbit is the most notable. That device really pioneered the idea of constant fitness monitoring, but it clips onto your clothes or hides in your pocket. By contrast, the UP band itself is a subtle bit of smart UX design. Seeing it on your wrist constantly is like a mnemonic device reminding you to make better choices. When wearing it, I found that the simple fact of making that visible commitment to being healthier did, in fact, make me think more about every choice I made.

The point of all this being: There’s a balance between being passive and present that every highly interactive product has to negotiate. Getting that balance right is the difference between creating a product that’s a pain to use, or a pleasure. The UP nails the idea of a physical presence, but fails in creating an app that becomes a virtual companion that rewards constant attention.

If It’s Not On Your Phone, It’s Not Important

The comparison with the Fitbit is apt for another reason, because the Fitbit also has another fundamental flaw: It doesn’t synch to your phone. Again, this sounds trivial but we are approaching a point where if something matters to your life, it’s on your smartphone. I look at my own, and I have my bank account there, my credit card, my friends, maps, Twitter, Zipcar, shopping. But the UX miracle is that by adding all these things into our phones, they feel contained. The apps themselves are stripped down to their functional essence, so even though they’re always present, it doesn’t feel like any of them are claiming more attention than we want to give.

Again, compare the Fitbit to the UP. Would you rather go to your computer every time you want chart your health? Of course not. Granted, the Fitbit has an LED display on its surface that lets you see the basics of your real-time data. A smartphone app allows some rudimentary tracking. But the insistance on stepping outside of the phone means that it’s outside the normal flow of your life, and therefore slightly more bothersome.

The UP gets this interaction right by tethering to your phone—and our increasing reliance on them. But then things get dicey.

An App UI Should Be A Stylish Straightjacket

Let’s step back a little bit. The key thing that people remember about the the tech war between Apple and Microsoft is the battle between licensed technology versus a walled-garden approach.

What people often forget is that same war had a design dimension: Microsoft’s UIs were built around the idea of being able to find multiple ways to the same point. Thus, you had a start button and an application button and a list of recently opened apps. To some extent, Apple has begun moving in that direction with little features such as the Launch Pad. But Apple’s overriding philosophy has always been that everything you want to do within a UI should have only one path for getting there.

[The "+" icon takes you to the screen on the right. But you can access all those functions using the icons above the bar charts, in the screen to the left.]

The app for the Jawbone UP got me thinking about that dilemma, simply because for a very basic app, there’s too many paths for ultimately doing the same thing. You can go around in circles on the thing, and that quickly lends the exhausting feeling of being lost. And when you see two different ways to do the same thing, such as take a photo of your meal or track a workout, it leaves you this constant nagging worry that no UI should ever create: Am I doing this the right way?

Such navigational loops are probably fine for more complex UIs, like the one on your computer. But apps, and their stripped-down UIs, are a different beast. The best of them are both narrow and shallow: There’s few options, and tapping them doesn’t take you tremendously deep into the experience. They usually have a home screen, and a few functions. If you click those, your only choice is to go back home, via a single button that returns you to the beginning. There’s never a question of being right or wrong. There’s never a question of finding where you are. (For comparison, I think the best table and desktop UIs are broad and shallow: You can see at once a myriad of options for interaction, but each of these doesn’t take you too far down the rabbit hole.)


All of the problems I’ve laid out above are fixable. Maybe they’ll even be fixed by Jawbone very soon. But first, they’ll have to solve some strange bugs and hardware flaws. (My wristband, for example, simply stopped synching after five days. It no longer works.) But the UP comes tantalizingly close to being a game changer—if only some very subtle features were resolved, such as the link between the band and the app, and the myriad options in the app that are confusing to digest.

We’re at a moment when designers must balance subtle decisions that end up being about both user experience and social engineering. I can’t think of many more problems in tech that are as exciting—or as difficult.

Click here to our previous reporting on the Jawbone UP.

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  • fix iphone screen

    Determine right now, to have the lightest touch you have ever had in your life while fixing anything. The iPhone 4 is delicate, and it is really easy to rip a ribbon from its' connection or to simply knock a resister off its' connection. As you remove the mother board (logic board in Apple speak) don't put your hand on the three tiny (really tiny) resisters which just sort of hang out the back edge of the mother board because it isn't hard to knock one or more off.

  • fionamacd

    I got my UP in January and wore it constantly until June when it stopped syncing. I love the look and I like how it does sleep and exercise. I wish it displayed the time so I could lose my watch too ;-) When I had the syncing issue I tweeted Jawbone just to ask if normal band wear is expected at 6 months. They responded very quickly and after having me unsuccessfully try some soft and hard reset - sent me a brand new band. They sent me the replacement with a FedEx label to use to return the defective one. Very pleased and surprised. It is happily back on my wrist now.

  • Steven Chu

    You people are crazy. Cliff, you think that making this unobtrusive device MORE like Facebook is the right way to go? That's insane.

    As a programmer, I think this generation has it completely backwards. Having it not communicate 24/7 allows it and you to be MORE PRESENT in life. Everybody is so obsessed with microactivities and micro checking facebook updates and statuses and everytime there is an awkward pause in conversation people just look into their lap and pull out their phone and tune out from friends... that is the wrong way to go.

    We are missing the off switch. The Jawbone UP does it's thing, and when you want to check - on your OWN TERMS, you can do so. Having it sync 24/7 would mean its an ever present distraction which is another heap on the dungpile of a very distracted culture.

  • Broccod

    Began using my UP in Dec '12 and it broke down in Feb '13. Waiting for its return from Repair. Two friends purchased Ups at about the same time and just told me that their's were no longer working either. I've checked the Web for Complaints and there are many. Ugh!!

  • Orbitor2005

    The lesson should be how a company deals its failures when it comes to its consumers. I bought the original UP from Jawbone before they were even released.
    Needless to say it stopped working within a few months. I called up
    Support and they said they would send me a refund in 4-6 weeks (I
    actually opted for a store credit). That was 2/11. Heard nothing so I
    called them back in June. Told sorry, 4-6 weeks. Called them back in
    August told 4-6 weeks. Nothing. Called them in August told 4-6 weeks.
    Nothing. Called in November and asked to speak with a supervisor. Told I
    would get a call in 24 hours. Nothing. Called back told sorry I will
    hear back in less than one week. Today 11/23 I received the store credit I was
    promises last February (10 months ago).  Also, while any Joe can $50 off in
    ordering a new Jambox not so with my "limited" store credit (they forgot
    to mention that part.) This is not a consumer centric company like Bose and in the long run that is what consumers remember.

  • Luke

    Not commenting on which device is better as I haven't used the UP, but this review says the Fitbit does not synch to your phone. I have both the new Fitbit One and my girlfriend the Fitbit Zip and lo and behold both synch flawless to our phones over Bluetooth 4.0. I think you're basing a lot on the 5 year old original Fitbit...

  • karolynliberty

    I was immensely happy with mine for four days.  Then it stopped working and I got another one. I was immensely happy with it, especially the naturalistic way it vibrated while I was spending time with an overtalker (to indicate that I hadn't moved for 75 minutes), which caused me to glance at my wrist -- a nonverbal signal that indicated to the other person that our conversation was wrapping up. That was awesome.
    I was immensely happy with my second UP for seven days.  Then it stopped working, and the store I went to return it to said they were not longer being carried, and the website said I can have a refund but I can't return it or swap for another.  Because apparently they only work for one week.
    I would pay 2x for an UP that works. I loved it.

  • dave birney

    i kind of like the idea of not having data streaming to the phone constantly. id imagine that would drain the battery as well. it would be nice to be able to press a button on the band to update it, if you need it

  • Kevin

    Your review failed when you complained that battery technology isn't yet where you'd like it to be.  Not really a fault of the UP.

  • whoisstan

    I used Nike+ for a while, it works but it has the a very fundamental flaw that it shares with the other gadget/tool suites, the data is not *entertaining* or *engaging* enough, it doesn't provide insights beyond the pure numbers. One thing Nike+ does well is that it provides an API that let other companies innovate in this area. API is key. You need to be able to mash this data with other datasets freely.

  • Ed Bierman

    My wife had ordered this for Christmas from Amazon, but yesterday she got a notice that the company is cancelling all orders.

  • Ed Bierman

    I had put this on my Amazon wishlist and going to put it on hold for now -- I really like this idea and hopefully the problems that now exist can be fixed because as you said I think this is a game changer

  • Scrantoncity

    If they would come out with a more polished, second edition that will sync over bluetooth to all android devices, count me in! This, as you stated, could be such a useful addition to our lives, and would make the perfect Christmas gift to a parent or friend who is counting calories or wants to lose weight!

    It's funny, when I read this "Turning your phone upright doesn't restore the original screen. You're now stuck."

    I was thinking "Why don't you press the back button?" Oh, android, how I love thee.

  • R FunV

    Wireless communication WOULD make for a more seamless user experience, but I'm not sure if I want spend eight hours a night with something against my body constantly emitting RF.

  • Jeremiah Burns

    Agreed, but this wouldn't be necessary.

    There's no reason they couldn't design the bracelet with a clever which doesn't even look like a button, say...and this can be tapped when you want to sync your data.

    Likewise, you wouln't want the bluetooth on your smart phone to be on all day every day in order to sync...battery life would simply plummit.  

    However, a button that you press when you're ready to sync, and you can let it sync in the background for 5 minutes whilst you carry on with life?  Well it's probably still not ideal as there's still "friction" (to borrow the term used by the author) in your life...but it's not nearly as large an inconvenience as actually having to plug in.

    This would also help with battery issues as you'd only sync when you wanted to.

  • C Fly

    Just to add to my previous comment, the device is advertised as being able to wake you up at the most optimum time during your preset time period.  My most optimum time must be exactly at 6 am every morning because that's when it goes off, like clockwork, every morning.  This device has no capability of measuring when the best time of waking a person up might be.