Last week, Nike unwrapped a project it has been working on for two years, and which will go on sale next month: Nike Fuelband, a rubber wristband that aims to track your every move, and how active you’ve been throughout the day. If that sounds both a little bit awesome and a little bit suspect, we’re with you: We reported on Jawbone’s ballyhooed attempt to create something just like that. And we also reported the massive shortcomings of the device they produced.
But Nike may have cracked the nut. While we haven’t yet had a chance to test it out, we have had a hands-on demo. And from that, it’s pretty clear that Nike Fuelband is a masterful example of UX design. Point by point, it fixes all of Jawbone Up’s problems. It’s an object lesson for anyone looking to design any sort of interactive experience.
Creating a Fitness Index
The Fuelband doesn’t rely on too much unusual tech: It’s simply a wristband that tracks your movement, linked to an iPhone app. Throughout the day, it uses an LED display on the band itself to show your progress on a fitness index called Nike Fuel. The index itself is the product of some ingenious synthesis.
Its main brain is a 3-axis accelerometer in the wristband. And that’s where it gets interesting. From there, algorithms work to classify every type of movement you make, whether it’s walking up stairs, running, or even playing basketball or skateboarding. Each activity gets a multiplier, so if you spend an hour playing basketball, that hour gives you more Fuel points. Likewise, if you take the stairs versus the elevator, you get more Fuel. (All of that behavior was programmed into the wristband’s intelligence, after having been modeled in Nike’s performance labs while test subjects were being tested for cardiovascular exertion.)
The bottom line is that the wristband isn’t just a step counter or even a calorie counter. "We wanted to create a universal currency, so that you always get credit and are aware of how active you are," says Ricky Engelberg, Nike+'s director of user experience. "It’s not about reps or laps. This an index of everything you do." Thus, no matter if you ran one day or played tennis another, the idea is that Fuel will be a universal currency allowing you to see how much you’re progressing towards a bigger goal: physical fitness, rather than just exercise or working out.
It’s All About Feedback
We came down hard on Jawbone Up for not having real-time feedback—and the fact that, without it, you can’t have an ambient, consistent dialogue with the device. How can it always make you a little bit better if you have to take it off and plug it in every time you want to check how you’re doing?
The Fuelband fixes that problem with a simple LED readout right on the band which shows you how much Fuel you’ve earned and how close you are to your daily goal. (It also shows the time and how many calories you’ve burned.) But if you want to look at your performance with a little more depth, your iPhone app is being constantly synched with your band, so that you can see a chart of your activity levels throughout the day.
Jawbone Up had neither of those features, apparently because of battery limitations. But the Nike Fuelband solves that with some novel industrial engineering: Look at the inside edge, and you can see two panels that curve with the band. Those are curved lithium-ion batteries, some of the first ever invented. Another great detail: The designers labored to make it so that the Fuel readout is only legible to you. Thus, you won’t be drawing quizzical stares when people see it light up from halfway across the room, and your goals stay personal.
To be clear, the actual wristband itself isn’t as finely done as the Jawbone Up. Where the latter has a unique, textured form, the Fuelband is refined but boring. It doesn’t look or feel all that special on your wrist. But the user experience is far better: During the day, you can constantly check in with it. That one detail makes the Fuelband not only a gadget, but a game. It means it’s far more likely to nudge your behavior ever so slightly—by say, encouraging you to walk instead of taking the subway, or showing you how far behind you’ve gotten on your goal after watching football for four hours. "It’s about tiny behavior changes," says Engelberg. "Over a week and a month and a year, it adds up."
To build in even more motivation, the band and app register streaks—the number of days you’ve hit your goal. The app also allows you to share your goals and streaks via Facebook and Twitter.
Reinventing an Ecosystem
The Fuelband has some keen limitations: Because it lives on your wrist, it can’t really track anything that doesn’t require you to move your arms. Thus, it can’t track bicycling. Meanwhile, it’s water resistant, but not enough to swim with.
But Nike has a reasonable response to those problems. The Fuelband is actually only one element in their plan to overhaul the entire Nike+ line. "Every Nike+ product will soon earn you fuel," says Engelberg. In the coming months, all of their various pedometers and heart-rate monitors will start to spit out Fuel scores, which you can tabulate online.
The most obvious limitation is the online aspect: You’re not tracking those Fuel scores on the Fuelband app. But we’re betting it’s only a matter of time before a heart-rate monitor, for example, has a Bluetooth chip, which will mean that you’ll have one single place for tracking almost everything you do.
[Top image: Stefan Olander, Nike’s VP of digital sport, unveiling the Fuelband last week in New York]