You may know Nicholas Felton best as the creator of the Facebook Timeline. But the reason he even got that job was his cultishly popular Feltron Report, an annual, infographical dive into his own life. These reports—which are gorgeous, limited edition prints on fine stock paper—track both intimate and silly details of his life, from where he’s been, to what he’s been drinking, to whom he’s hung around the most.
For the better part of a decade, that meant Felton kept meticulous notes through each and every day. As of 2013, he and a friend Drew Breuning created a private app called Reporter to make the process easier. Now, you can buy Reporter on iPhone for $4, a polished version of the homegrown app by Felton, Beuning, and Friends of the Web. And it's good for a lot more than rendering nifty visualizations. Reporter can create a truer self portrait of your otherwise intangible human metrics—nuanced ideas like your mood, your real friends, and your diet—that modern sensors just can't track very well.
"This is one of those passion projects," Felton tells Co.Design. "This is a product I want to see in the world. I have no idea if people will pay for it. I have no idea if people want it. I have no idea how big the market is for this."
Reporter is, at its heart, a survey tool. Six randomized times a day (or more, or less), the app will send you a notification to answer a series of questions. Defaults are things like, "how many cups of coffee have you had today?" or "who are you with?" But it’s possible to program any question you want to ask yourself, with a variety of easy responses including multiple choice, fill-in-the-blanks, and yes/no, among others.
If the surveys sound like a pain, then honestly, Reporter just might not be for you. But Felton has designed the app to be incredibly streamlined, by minimizing the UI (there’s no endless feed to monopolize your attention like Twitter); leveraging sensors to track data automatically (GPS measures location, while your microphone can track ambient noise levels); and deploying smart, learning code that autofills common answers for you (meaning you won’t have to type your significant other’s full name more than once). All of these features combine to create an extremely practical experience, tailored to get you off your phone rather than reel you in—the exact opposite of the "constant engagement" model behind most apps.
"We want you to record as quickly as possible—in 10 seconds or less—what’s important to you," Felton says, "then get back to walking, talking, hanging out, and living your life."
Meanwhile, your data is crunched privately on your phone (not a server that's just mining your life for sale), transforming your answers locally into real-time visualizations. So far, these visuals are tasteful but spartan line, bar, and area graphs that, while perfectly functional, don’t begin to approach the ornate beauty of Felton’s annual reports. But such is the price of visualizing almost any sort of data a user chooses to collect.
"To a certain degree, there are limitations—to have these visualizations that can just accommodate a bunch different types of data coming in, they need to be somewhat generic," Felton concedes, adding that he still has big plans to expand the selection through in-app purchases. A map visualization of your locations over time is a no-brainer, he tells me.
There's also a whole other layer of analysis (and visualization) that the app can eventually tap. It’s the correlative data—graphs that can look at, not just how much coffee you drank, but how much coffee you drank depending on the weather, or how happy you were depending on who you were with.
Anyone who’s heard the aphorism "correlation isn’t causation" will know that you can only trust such data so much; it can imply connections between two things that don’t really exist. But to Felton, that’s not really the point. "I just think it’s funny that when I’m with my cat, I drink more beer," Felton says. "What’s the correlation, a real thing or imaginary? Hopefully, that’s good dinner conversation."
All of this said, the most impressive part of Reporter might be that it’s ultimately a very low-tech tool that, through its streamlined interaction design, can solve some of the biggest problems facing wearable devices and life quantification technology today. For instance, your Jawbone Up fitness band wants to help monitor your diet, but it can’t ever see the food you put in your mouth. Reporter will just ask you what you’re eating. While your GPS knows where you are, there’s no easy way to track and identify the friends you’re with at any given moment. Reporter will just ask you who you’re hanging out with.
Surely, we’ll eventually have omniscient sensors and algorithms capable of deciphering all of this information. But until then, Reporter is happy to just ask you whatever it is that you’d like to tell it.