Ben Fry Makes Your Sweaty FuelBand Runs Look Gorgeous

Nike FuelBand is giving its 1 million users individual activity portraits for last year, courtesy of a data viz from Fathom Information Design.

For all the insight available from self-quantification tools, such as the Nike FuelBand, the data its users get is fairly uniform. Activity is treated with roughly the same metric–Fuel points–and a rudimentary line graph, its peaks and valleys varying slightly for each individual wearer. So when Fathom Information Design got access to datasets for 1 million FuelBand users, the company decided to make these activity portraits as singular as the people themselves.


“We were struck by how unique people are,” says Ben Fry, principal at Fathom. Within the Fathom offices, some people “have really different days based on their commute. Or some people have kids and go home and hang out with the kids, and have a very different schedule from that.” All of these details start to pop in Fathom’s charts, thanks to deftly designed color-coding.

The layers of colors allow for an extra bit of insight: it’s easy enough to see your early morning run reflected back as a spike in activity every day, but once a shade of red starts to fill in for the frequency, you see how diligent you actually are. If the color deepens in a defined pattern, that signals a highly disciplined athlete. If there’s a color gradient, then chances are you’re hitting the snooze button more often than you think. “For different people you want it to have a distinct portrait or thumbprint or narrative,” Fry tells Co.Design. “With that comes an implicit motivation.”

Fry says that this is just the beginning of such detailed self-quantification. (To wit, the Nike Fuelband has only been around for two years.) “We’re just starting to scratch the surface in the movement,” he says. “It’ll just continue to get more interesting as we get more accurate sensors, and getting things that are reporting live.”

He’s referencing an interesting design quandary: so far, users have to accept the responsibility of plugging in their own (possibly biased) data. Nick Felton’s new Report app helps streamline the task with scheduled, super quick, survey alerts. Other apps, like the mood-tracking Expereal, reward your work with gorgeous watercolor graphics. But Fry’s most excited about the future potential of capturing more people, more easily.

“This sort of thing gets more interesting when you can get a broader audience, as opposed to a self-selected group of people who are particularly interested,” he says. “Think about cell phones, the way they’ve [become] pervasive. It means the technology has worked out some kinks, and it kind of layers into people’s everyday life. At that point the technology starts disappearing.”

See the Year in Fuel, here.


About the author

Margaret Rhodes is a former associate editor for Fast Company magazine.