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From guilt to relief: the emotional impact of giving up activity tracking

Personal tracking devices like Fitbits are meant to improve our lives, so why is the overwhelming emotion they provoke a sense of guilt and self-loathing when we stop wearing them and place them to one side?

That’s one of the questions researchers at the University of Washington grappled with in a recent study looking at the reason users abandon personal tracking tools — and how to get people back to using them again.

“We heard from a lot of people who said that they planned on coming back to self-tracking, but felt guilty about the fact that their activity was too low, and would rather wait until they’re doing a bit more exercise,” Daniel Epstein, a UW doctoral student in computer science and engineering, told Digital Trends. “It’s a very common response. We expected that, but perhaps not for it be quite as prevalent as it was. A lot of people really feel a sense of discomfort at the data that’s revealed, or the burden of having to wear a device every day. When they abandon it sometimes they feel a lot better.”

In a paper due to be presented next week at the Association for Computing Machinery’s International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing, the University of Washington researchers surveyed 141 people who had started — and then stopped — using a Fitbit. The goal was to find ways of presenting previously collected data to see if it could prompt users to return to tracking.

Related: Our favorite fitness trackers will help coax you off the couch

Around half of the lapsed users reported a sense of guilt over abandoning their wearable, and said they would value returning to tracking. About one seventh of the former Fitbitters — 21 to be exact — concluded that they had gotten no value out of their wearable device and struggled to see how the data could lead to a change in behavior. A mere 5 study participants said they’d learned as much as they needed to know about their fitness habits, while the remaining 45 told researchers they had mixed feelings about it.

The researchers then experimented with different visualizations and ways of framing the data to find out how people best respond to calls to return to tracking — while observing that some techniques, like pushed recommendations, were popular among some users, but were viewed very negatively among others.

In all, it’s a reminder of the fact that a device as deeply personal as a fitness tracker also needs to personalize the way it encourages you back into the fold.

“One method is promoting engagement a little bit more — particularly since many people do feel really guilty about [abandoning their devices] and really want to come back to tracking,” Epstein said. “Also, for people who abandoned it because they found it to be burdensome, you can show them days they were particularly active or some positive effect to reinforce the fact that it was worthwhile. I think those two things will go a long way to promoting engagement and a positive sense of the experience.”