How do you design fitness trackers for the people who really need them?

Look at ads for the leading fitness tracking gadgets and you’ll see a bunch of people who don’t look the least bit like they need any help in the fitness department. At the Wearable Tech Expo in New York on Wednesday, Sonny Vu, CEO of Misfit Wearables, maker of the Indiegogo-backed Shine device, quipped,” I was joking that these people don’t need activity monitors, but they make it look good.”
Misfit ShineThe people in real life who wear Nike Fuelbands, Jawbone Ups and Fitbits (see disclosure) may not be models, but they tend not to be the people most in need of extra fitness motivation.  So how do you get the less-fit masses to join the fitness-tracking bandwagon?
Vu acknowledged that many people don’t feel comfortable wearing fitness trackers because they don’t think they fit the mold of the competitive, athletic type that the devices seem to attract.

Getting out of the Silicon Valley bubble

“We try to have Oklahoma City in mind,” he said. “A lot of these products look like they were designed by Silicon Valley men for Silicon Valley men. And while there are a lot of Silicon Valley men, there are many people who do not fit into those categories. It’s about finding a story related to your brand and design and experience that people can relate to.”
Monisha Perkash, CEO and co-founder of LUMO BodyTech, who was with Vu on stage, said the key is figuring out how to make the devices more engaging to consumers over a longer period of time. “That’s a nut no one in this category has completely cracked,” she said. “For all the products in this space, after the initial dazzle of using the product wears off, you see a pretty steep decline in usage. I think the ones that are able to overcome that will be the ones that have amazing engagement.”
Wearable technology and the so-called Quantified Self movements are still relatively young. And as with any new technology, it will take some time for fitness devices to spread from early adopters to the masses. But as we’ve argued before, mainstream users already own a wearable device: their smartphones.
With apps like Moves iOS (s AAPL) and Noom’s Walk (on Android) they can already track their steps and activity without shelling out more cash for a standalone device. Yes, they don’t track activity as continuously as dedicated fitness trackers and they don’t, at this point, generate the same kinds of data and analytics. But for people taking their first baby steps on a path to a more active lifestyle, they’re a convenient, non-intimidating and low-cost option.

Creating community and competition around activity

After the panel, Avi Greengart, an analyst at Current Analysis, and the moderator of the panel with Vu and Perkash, told me that he believes competition and community support could be other key ways to help bring fitness tracking to a broader audience. Studies from Weight Watchers and other groups, he said, have shown that weight loss goes up when the activity is more social. (As we’ve seen from diabetes prevention startup Omada Health, for example, that principle is being successfully extended to other areas of health.)
Greengart said that even though its user base tends to favor sports geeks,  Nike has done a great job creating that kind of social system among its Fuelband users. “The challenge is to be able to take that type of competitive environment and translate it from hard-core sports fanatics to consumers who simply need to be more active,” he said.
Disclosure: Fitbit is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.