Fitbit sucks, and it’s a big problem

Fitbit is arguably the biggest little consumer technology success stories of the last half-decade. Founded in 2007, the company took off in the new decade, riding a wave of cutting-edge wearables to a 4.1 billion dollar IPO this year, the fourth largest of 2015. Amazon’s list of best-selling fitness trackers is smeared with the devices.

There’s just one problem. No one knows if they actually work.

Credit: Charly W. Karl / Flickr

Credit: Charly W. Karl / Flickr

That’s true in more ways than one. No study has been able to confirm that a fitness tracker provides any tangible benefit to health over a specific period of time. We don’t know if they help people lose weight, improve cardiovascular health, or lead to a decrease in mortality.

Time deserves some of the blame. A great study will examine subjects for years, and includes hundreds or thousands of participants. Fitness trackers are new enough that such reliable studies are rare.

A survey conducted by fitness app developer Lose It! found 60 percent of users claimed to lose more weight with a fitness tracker (which, of course, means 40 percent said they did not).

On the other hand, a survey from Carnegie Mellon University has found that using a fitness app of any sort (tracker included, or not) didn’t have much impact on overall health. Those who were healthy prior to using it tended to remain so, and those with poor health habits usually continued them.

While the verdict is out on the long-term benefits of fitness trackers, we do know one thing for certain. They’re not, in a technical sense, accurate.

Almost every study looking into accuracy has found issues. The Journal of the American Medical Association found that fitness trackers hardly worked better than a smartphone. Iowa State University found trackers mis-measured steps taken by a margin of 15 to 30 percent. A study by the American Council of Exercise found similar inaccuracies, though it does conclude by stating that people are more likely to be active with a fitness tracker than without.

Now, Fitbit is facing a lawsuit over its heart rate monitors, which alleges the company’s monitors can at times misreport heart rate by as many as 78 beats per minute. That’s a serious accusation. Poor heart rate reporting can be a life-threatening, and the people likely to need it are those most likely to be in harm’s way if the information provided is inaccurate.

If reviews are any indication, it seems the lawsuit has merit. Wearable, testing the top-of-the-line Fitbit Surge, found it was accurate only 77 to 82 percent of the time it was used for aerobic exercise.

Fitbit has taken no responsibility for the inaccuracy, though it backpedals by saying its devices “are not intended to be scientific or medical devices.”

Which, of course, is true – but the company isn’t upfront about it. The main Charge HR product page makes no such statement, nor does the company’s page on “best practices for PurePulse accuracy,” or even the company’s Heart Rate FAQ.

The only specific reference to the Charge HR’s categorization as a non-medical device is located in the Caution section of the device’s user manual. It’s a legal wink-and-nod that exists to protect Fitbit, not users.

What you will find on Fitbit’s page is a colorful, parallax scrolling advertisement packed with claims and figures, none of which cite a source.

This, when given thought, becomes blatantly ridiculous. It’s snake oil. I suspect many who’ve purchased a Fitbit would scoff at the claims of weight loss pills or performance boosting powders. Somehow the claims made by a tech startup seem more substantial, despite the lack of factual support.

Fitbit is not alone in its disregard for accuracy. It’s a problem the plagues consumer technology. As said by Ian Bogost, writing for Slate, tech start-ups have cheapened engineering. For a company like Fitbit, “to engineer is to jury-rig, to get something working more or less, for a time.” Today’s corporate philosophy demands that engineers “move fast and break things,” a creed that supposedly spurs innovation – and conveniently makes expensive, laborious testing not just unnecessary, but uncool.

Put another way, Fitbit sucks at what it’s supposedly meant to do — provide information about a person’s heath habits. Yet, because it’s a tech start-up, many people are giving the company a pass. We’re supposed to accept that shit happens. When innovating, things break.

But sometimes the things aren’t things. Sometimes, they’re people. And as Fitbit shows, the fast-moving culture of consumer tech can’t deal with that reality. Let’s hope it learns before someone gets hurt.