Physiology and Research

Ask the Expert: UX Design for Health and Fitness Wearables

Herman BonnerCommunications Specialist, Firstbeat

In this Ask the Expert feature, we talk with Firstbeat’s resident User Experience (UX) expert Wille Hujanen about the challenges of bringing the benefits of physiological analytics to the consumer market.

Thanks for agreeing to share, Wille, maybe we could start with you telling a bit about your backstory, what brought you to Firstbeat, and how you fit in here.

If we’re honest, a colleague of mine saw that Firstbeat had a job opening. The position looked interesting and seemed like it would be a good fit, especially since I had some experience working with heart rate variability when I was studying industrial design.

It was during that earlier work that I became fascinated with the subject, so coming to Firstbeat was the perfect opportunity to explore and go further into the future.

A lot of people think of UX design as interface design only, but coming from an industrial design and digital service design background, I was taught to think about about user experiences as a package, as a whole, considering every touchpoint the user has with the product or service. Within the worlds of fitness and wellness there is room for lots of different human experiences, and this richness makes it a very attractive area for me to work.

Ironically, I am something of a couch potato, myself, and probably the first person hired by Firstbeat who wasn’t a former athlete, or super fitness enthusiast. I count that among my achievements. It is funny, but diversity of opinion and experiences are important, too.

The distinction you make between User Experience (UX) and User Interface (UI) is interesting. How would you explain the difference for those who might be familiar?

As a rule, user experience is a bigger package, whereas UI is just one part of it. The user interface is part of the user experience. User interface involves a lot of graphic design, and user experience is about defining what the UI should be, what it should look like, anticipating how the user will make sense of the information presented.

I’m focused on understanding what the user wants to achieve, their target.

We try to identify and define user goals, but we also try to discover the pains that a particular user has, negatives that get in the way. These can be things like, “I don’t want to exercise,” “I don’t know what to do,” “I tried running once and it hurt. I don’t want to do that again.”

So part of the UX design challenge is to provide information via the user interface in a way that helps overcome the negative things. And, at the same time working to highlight positive things that the user is trying to achieve. “I want to lose weight,” “I want to look better,” or “I want to feel more energetic.” The UI is where those factors are reflected.

Naturally, when it’s time to sketch and discuss user experience concepts with our partners, it’s usually presented in the form of an interface design, one that encapsulates the experiences we work together to achieve.

You mentioned Firstbeat’s partners. Working at Firstbeat puts you in a unique position, because you work with companies across the wearable technology landscape. In just the past few years you’ve worked with development teams from Garmin, Suunto, TomTom, Jabra, Huawei, Huami, and many others.

We do work with a lot of different brands and each one comes with different opportunities, expectations, and goals. It’s an exciting time in the wearable technology sector, because of the crossover between smartwatches and fitness trackers.

The first devices that integrated the Firstbeat analytics engine were simple, purpose-built heart rate monitors for high-performance athletes. Some of the companies that we work with like Garmin and Suunto have been building heart rate monitoring devices since the beginning, and Firstbeat’s relationship with those two companies extends back for at least a decade. Those discussions can be very different from those with emerging areas who have little or no experience working with physiology.

In recent years, we’ve also been working a lot more with big traditional consumer technology brands. The evidence from the market is clear that to be successful a smartwatch needs to be able to deliver some essential fitness tracking capabilities, but the development teams working on these devices don’t necessarily come from a fitness background.

We help them bridge the gap, bringing our expertise to the table to ensure that their device delivers relevant and meaningful fitness and training information to the user.

Working with new clients is always a good exercise and opportunity to make sure that what we are trying to convey makes sense. It’s vital to cover the physiological background and scientific foundation of different features, but to avoid getting bogged down in jargon.

Getting past jargon does seem to be challenge sometimes. Let’s talk about VO2max. It’s hard to think of a more important measure for health and performance, but despite its inherent value some people struggle to make sense of it because it’s unfamiliar.

To be honest, VO2max is a huge challenge from a UX perspective. The information it provides, the ability to actually see your fitness level, is invaluable, but VO2max just as a number by itself is horrible. It doesn’t say anything to regular people. It is unfamiliar and doesn’t even sound like a word. The number doesn’t explain itself in anyway.

Encountering an unfamiliar number sets your mind in motion as you try to make sense of it. What’s it telling me? Is mine good or bad? What’s the scale, 0-10, 0-100, something else?

VO2max numbers range from 20 on the low end to 80, maybe 90, on the high end, but those high-end numbers are limited to elite endurance athletes. Good, healthy ranges differ according to gender [higher on average for men than women] and typically decline with age.

Helping people, everyday people who are interested getting fitter, healthier and feeling better, make sense and take advantage of the information VO2max has to offer is a good challenge. Fitness Age is a good example of how we’ve been able to tackle this challenge. It makes fitness more relatable by putting it in a familiar context.

You may not know that VO2max represents how many milliliters of oxygen your body can utilize to produce energy aerobically per kilogram of body weight per minute – but everyone knows about age and the relationship between chronological age and declining vitality and physical performance capacities.

We can leverage that knowledge to highlight the relationship between your physical activity patterns and vitality. The ability to actually measure fitness provides the link.

You can go online and see people having conversations about Fitness age and other people responding that likely have no idea about VO2max. Both can immediately identify that a young Fitness age is great, or you’ll see someone respond, “mine must be like 60.”

They get interested in the future, and because there is a scientific foundation the information connects back to the source. When people start digging, trying to find out what it’s based on, then they will uncover that VO2max is the best possible global standard for fitness and that they can improve over time. This is good. It’s a UX win.

Any other examples come to mind?

Our goal is always to help people make better decisions not just to give them data.

A great example of this is a highly-tuned feature like Training Status. Found in the latest Garmin Fenix and Forerunner watches, Training Status combines multiple streams of data to reveal how your body is responding to training. Key variables include your current Training Load, the accumulated strain your activities place on your body, and changes in your cardiorespiratory fitness level measured in terms of VO2max.

We combine that information to say something simple and understandable. And, critically, the feedback we provide answers an important question that people actually have. People want to know how they are doing. The feedback they get from Training Status tells them.

When your workouts are at the right level, challenging but not too tough, and your fitness level is increasing, then your Training Status is Productive. Depending on your situation, your body might be Unproductive, Peaking, Detraining, Recovering, or other recognizable states.

You don’t have to study theory or how to interpret your own training. You can just see it.

Another good example of a UX win is the new Body Battery which Garmin just debuted in the vívosmart 4. The Firstbeat analytics engine works behind the scenes, interpreting heart rate variability data into stress and recovery, but instead of just showing stress like you see in All-day stress tracking Garmin delivers a new twist on the presentation.

Physical activity and stress drain your Body Battery while moments of recovery and good sleep charge it up. Bringing all that information together means you can see your body’s energy levels increase and decrease in a familiar way, like how your phone battery works.

You charge the battery and use it throughout the day. You can see how much is left and make smart decisions about how you want to use your energy.

You mention Stress and Recovery, areas where Firstbeat is very much on the cutting edge of physiological analytics. What kinds of challenges does that pose on the UX end?

When you’re the first to market with a groundbreaking capabilities, you’re also on the cutting edge of how to present the information. On one hand it’s a great opportunity, but on the other it can be a tremendous burden.

There’s a lot of pressure to get this right on the UX side of things. We have to anticipate, work with our partners, think about how to build on the innovation, how to take it a step further. What kinds of assumptions will the user have for this information? I can see when I’m experiencing stress and when I’m recovering, but this opens the door for more questions. What does it mean? Is it good or bad?

Stress, especially in Western countries, can have deeply negative connotations, but from a physiological perspective stress is neutral. Neither good or bad, it’s your body in a heightened state. You might be sedentary but your body is active in different intensity levels depending on what you’re doing So it’s very easy to get off on the wrong foot when you start to talk about stress. People instinctively know that recovery is good but they don’t necessarily know what recovery means and how they can influence it.

How a user makes sense of this new information has huge impact on factors like trust and willingness to make decisions based on the feedback. And that’s one of the reasons why it’s essential that we consider UX elements early and often in the development process.

Thanks, Wille!

  • VO2max Fitness Level

    Your true fitness level and key to personalized training guidance.

    Read more
  • Training Status

    A groundbreaking approach to training effectiveness evaluation.

    Read more
  • Training Load

    Keep track of the physiological impact of all your training activities over time.

    Read more
  • Fitness Age

    A relatable metric tied to your VO2max fitness level

    Read more
  • Body Resources

    Bring activity, stress, and recovery together for better decision making.

    Read more
  • All-day Stress & Recovery

    Reveal how your body responds to the challenges of life and environment.

    Read more

Herman Bonner

Communications Specialist, Firstbeat

Herman is a former U.S. World Cup fencer, coach and high-performance manager. Keen to explore how people make sense of the world around them, Herman currently thrives at the bustling intersection of technology and everyday life. His educational interests include mechanical engineering, economics, ethnomethodology, and sports management with a focus on marketing and communications.

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