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  • 8 Pitfalls to Avoid in Fitness App Development

    8 Pitfalls to Avoid in Fitness App Development

    Alex Gurbo
    Alex Gurbo
    CTO & Co-founder
    20 July 2019

    Fitness apps have been around for the past eleven years. According to Statista, the annual global revenue growth of this market is estimated at 5.0% until 2023 when the market volume is projected to hit $20.5 billion. It is then safe to say that fitness app development is shaping our future right now. But what kind of future is this?

    Today, researchers are equipped with the fitness app usage stats accumulated over this last decade. This allows them to analyze the impact this mobile software has been making on people’s lives so far. Amidst enduring hype surrounding the industry, their findings are not purely rosy.

    Learning by Mistakes: How to Develop Better Fitness Apps?

    Today’s fitness app developers can learn a great deal from the usage history to avoid some of the pitfalls that researchers point at. The ones who manage to leverage this knowledge are most likely to take the lead in the industry as users grow ever more conscious about their health.

    This article offers a take on some of the most alarming drawbacks of modern fitness apps as well as ideas on how they could be bypassed in future solutions.

    1.   Data Vulnerabilities

    Fitness apps collect a lot of users’ personal data. In a tap, you share your food, weight, exercise, blood sugar levels, sleep patterns and more vitals with the systems’ backends. Some apps connected tracking sensors don’t even require manual actions for that. This is not to speak of your phone capable of sending information like your running route, distances walked and exercise habits to the data center via the app.

    Even military organizations using fitness apps point to this privacy threat. “If you can have access to the personnel training and exercises then you also have information about where this person is and when does he or she do certain activities,” says Beyza Unal, a research fellow at the International Security Department of Chatham House.

    Here are just a few examples of harmful, unethical or unwanted use of this information if it ends up in wrong hands:

    • Social engineering (e.g., for fraud, blackmail and other types of manipulation)
    • Harassment
    • Secretly building a customer profile for behavioral advertising
    • Building a voter profile by political organizations
    • Credit scoring by financial organizations

    The list can only be limited by the human imagination. Yet, the more aware people grow, the more attention they pay to their privacy when choosing a fitness app to go with.

    Solution: One simple step that fitness app development companies like Fitbit are doing right now is forcing users to opt in to share their data instead of keeping sharing on by default. Fitbit also enabled a compliance regime with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), the federal law of USA specifying privacy and security standards for medical information.

    2. Obsession with Data Tracking

    Many fitness app users fall into the trap of being literally obsessed with metrics on the screen. From the perspective of the company behind such an app, this may look rather positive because users spend more time with their product. But, in the long run, it will backfire.

    Here is one scenario: Zoe, a committed exerciser keeps her eyes on the fitness app screen all the time only to see that her heart rate is far from the goal. Anxiety takes hold. She doubles down on her training until physical exertion breaks her. The story repeats itself several times ending up in a full-blown anxiety attack. Finally, Zoe has to see a therapist who prescribes her to delete the app from her phone.

    Obsession with tracking data can take various forms. Whenever a user has a bad experience with a fitness app, chances are they will ditch it.

    Solution: When developing a fitness app, you can enable questionnaires that would once in a while pop up to help users assess their morale and provide recommendations on further use of the app and healthy exercises.

    3. Inaccurate Data

    Technology has made a huge leap in tracking lately. However, data accuracy with fitness apps remains wanting. Even Fitbit, one of the leaders in the market, falls short of it.

    According to a study by California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, “the Fitbit PurePulse Trackers do not provide a valid measure of the users’ heart rate and cannot be used to provide a meaningful estimate of a user’s heart rate, particularly during moderate to high-intensity exercise.”

    Needless to say, users who strictly follow their progress with a fitness app run the risk of developing a rather unhealthy lifestyle.

    Solution: Besides constantly working to improve data accuracy, fitness app developers should devote more effort to regularly reminding users that they should not rely solely on the app metrics. Pokemon GO, for example, did a great job showing its users a warning popup whenever they would begin to move too fast, saying it is not safe to play when driving.

    4. Insufficient Personalization

    In 1960, the average Japanese man was identified to burn 3,000 calories when racking up 10,000 steps per day. This has turned into the gold standard since. Today, most activity trackers have set this figure as a goal regardless of an exerciser’s individual specifics. Is hitting this metric on a daily basis effective, safe or even possible for everyone? “If you are elderly or infirm then this is not going to be good for you,” says Dr. Greg Hager, Professor of Computer Science at Johns Hopkins.

    Solution: Today’s technologies found in fitness apps allow for comprehensive personalization that can be achieved through consulting with professional coaches and physicians. However, it would make sense to enable supervision by and consultation with specialists for users themselves.

    5. Target Metrics Not Based on Evidence

    With about 320,000 health and fitness apps on key marketplaces, there has been surprisingly little research on their efficiency so far. In 2018, researchers could only find six systematic reviews including 23 randomized control trials since 2008. A meaningful impact on health and surrogate outcomes as targeted by the apps could only be proved with eleven of them. The quality of the overall evidence of app effectiveness was estimated as “very low.”

    When an exerciser achieves the target metrics set with a fitness app but feels no positive changes physically, they end up frustrated and anxious. As mentioned above, this often leads to abandoning such apps completely.

    Solution: Dr. Oyungerel Byambasuren, the lead author of the study published in the journal Digital Medicine in 2018, recommends more comprehensive app tests before releasing to market.

    6. Overuse by Teenagers

    Adolescents tend to be extremely body-conscious. The transition from child to adult includes developing self-esteem and social identity. Teens seek to establish a solid position in their social circle, which often implies obsession with body standards. The tool they use to conform to such standards? Right, their smartphone.

    There are several real-life examples of how adolescents have been using health and fitness apps in a non-healthy manner. Take MyFitnessPal, an app that helps users calculate calories and exercise their way up to particular goals. It has been popular with pro-anorexia online communities as a tool to consume less than healthy and exercise more than safe. Teens are continuously reported to use it for extreme dieting that leads to the development of eating disorders.

    Solution: In order to avoid reputation risks, fitness app developers can take certain measures to make sure a) their product is not available for teens and b) does not allow for harmful use. In some cases, the latter looks more easily achievable.

    One way is to introduce an algorithm or a set of algorithms that limit access to the app once tracking data entered by the user falls behind healthy standards. The system can then request the user to either prove that they are adults or provide contact information from their parent or legal guardian if they want to continue using this fitness app.

    7. Race Instead of Personal Growth

    Apps like Nike+ Run Club, Espresso Bikes and Strava invite users to race with each other on metrics, including professional athletes and champions. At first glance, this feature may look motivating. But many trainers believe that it does more harm than good.

    There are three reasons for this:

    • Competition makes people abandon their personal training plans and goals and simply race day by day pursuing unrealistic goals.
    • This race against stronger and more experienced athletes tempts exercisers into an exhausting effort that often leads to injuries and burnout.
    • Metrics of stronger contenders are easily intimidating. As a result, frustration and self-criticism strike, making it harder for an individual to achieve their personal growth goals.

    Solution: Fitness app developers who want to maintain the competition element within their product while keeping users engaged can introduce a smarter rival matching system. Like in shadow-fighting, users would have to compete against their counterparts featuring metrics closest to their own. When they grow, they would face another rival.

    8. Lack of Competent Assistance

    A fitness app can suggest an exercise, show you pictures or even videos of how to do it and track your stats. However, it cannot tell you whether you do it right. Professional coaches say that if you practice a movement incorrectly this will not only result in zero efficiency. It may also cause injury because of too much stress put on the wrong muscles at the wrong angle and overall bad body mechanics. And if you have an injury, most fitness apps will not factor it in your tracking, progress and further schedule.

    Solution: This issue could be partially solved by connecting a user phone camera with a coach in real-time. The coach would oversee the user as they make a particular movement and provide advice and guidance.

    Key Takeaways

    These brief overviews the main issues with fitness apps today, giving developers a direction for their thoughts and plans. In a nutshell, here is how you can reduce risks for users:

    1. Let users stay in control of their data.
    2. Help users keep track of not only their physical progress but also their state of mind.
    3. Make sure users stay aware that there is a margin of error in their tracked data.
    4. Personalize user experience with the help of physicians and trainers.
    5. Test your app for the impact it makes on users to provide proof and increase safety.
    6. Limit unhealthy use and make sure your app is accessed only by adults and supervised teens.
    7. Make user competition fair (or purge the race element).
    8. Allow users to make sure they do movements correctly by connecting with coaches.

    Once you are ready to develop or improve your own fitness app, Lotasoft is here to help you achieve excellence.

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    Just a reminder: once you have an idea about your fitness app in mind, don’t forget Lotasoft’s team is here to help you turn it into a ready-for-market product.