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.
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.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.
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.
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 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.