Business of Well-being

Decisions...Decisions: Choosing the Right Wearable Fitness Tracker

As wearable fitness trackers gain increasing mainstream popularity and their manufacturers develop new devices to support consumer fascination with these products, employers will be hard-challenged to keep pace with implementing strategies that take full advantage of their potential into corporate wellness programs.

No wonder many companies are uncertain about how to choose a fitness tracker best-suited for both their business objectives and their employees. Their decisions require careful analysis of criteria, such as durability, comfort, battery-life, price and technical support.

One major feature easy to overlook, but equally important consider is whether a device is equipped with an open-platform. Any wellness program that makes use of fitness trackers will ultimately be interested in the data these devices collect. Retrieved by sensors and fed into a software system for conversion into meaningful data, this information can provide insight into participation, engagement, and improvement in personal health across time when combined with a properly designed wellness program.

Many device manufacturers offer wellness products and services. Some offer complimentary wellness services that work well in coordinating a seamless experience. However, as with any program, no one size fits all. Device companies aren't always experienced or equipped to address the complexity of an entire wellness program.

The fitness and activity aspect is, but a single component of an overall wellness strategy. This means that any device partner selected should have an open platform that can be plugged into other wellness services and products. If multiple device companies are chosen to facilitate employee diversity or a BYOD (bring your own device) policy, both partners should have an open platform that can be equally integrated with the wellness provider.

Choosing a device partner with a closed platform and limited product offering may not capitalize on meaningful data and services and effectively render these devices useless for the purpose they were purchased. To this end, organizations need to understand the integration and data capabilities of each device purchased.

Conversely, wearable device manufacturers need to determine if and then how they'll open up their products and data to partners and third parties. An open platform enables fitness and wellness devices and apps to interoperate with a variety of services, increasing the product's overall value and utility.

A common scenario might include a fitness tracker that collects step and sleep activity, a smartphone app that records nutrition information, and a scale that monitors weight and body fat. In a silo, these metrics are useful and interesting. But, collecting these metrics from disparate devices and apps and pushing them into a unified solution will prove much more advantageous.

As more devices, apps and services reach the marketplace, wellness companies or individuals that utilize these products will be challenged to replace pieces that offer better solutions from disparate vendors. These scenarios aren't likely unless each major player is transparent about their device's technical capabilities.

The best way to predict how a company will treat their open integration strategy is to look at past performance and the successful integrations the company achieved. Rapid evolution in this young industry makes understanding the meaning of an open platform for health devices and apps that much more difficult.

Just a year ago, Apple and Google introduced major platforms that allowed devices and apps - including Apple HealthKit for iOS and Google Fit for Android -- to push and pull data directly into their individual platforms. There's also a trend toward device companies that open up web APIs to partners and developers.

The wellness industry would be best-served by working with device partners that provide a web API that directly integrates with HealthKit and Google Fit. Companies including Jawbone and Misfit have been early adopters to web APIs and their integration into HealthKit and Google Fit.

Despite the limits to integration, the Fitbit web API may be the most mature and widely adopted. Apple Watch will attempt to seize the wearables market this spring through release of smart watches that will include capabilities to record many of the same metrics as current fitness trackers.

In many cases, the smart watches will either compete directly with fitness trackers or compliment them. The ability to collect, aggregate and analyze combined data will become increasingly important. Smart watches and devices that fail to open their platforms will frustrate users and miss an opportunity to be relevant players in the corporate wellness space.

The failure to open a platform for cross-integration may seriously affect wellness programs looking to improve employee engagement and corporate culture. To  better contextualize  data, incorporating multiple wearables and technologies may accommodate the consumer narrative and, at the same time, keep manufacturers accountable to the function and purpose of their products.

A failure to integrate with Apple's Health App prevents wellness program administrators and, ultimately, end-users from benefiting from an interoperating model that enhances and deepens community engagement and peer-accountability across devices and channels. A perfect example is the demise and downfall of Blackberry and the manufacturer's inability to support multiple Apple and Android servers, which inevitably failed users.

The strategic blunder prevented Blackberry from attaining the extensive app ecosystem that its rivals had. Many concerns regarding adoption and utility of varied open platform strategies will soon be answered. The performance and coinciding acceptance of Apple and Google's large health platforms will be interesting to watch.

Platforms capable of creating the most compelling and intimate real-time health applications will reside in direct device capabilities, such as Google Wear, Garmin ConnectIQ, Pebble SDK, and Apple's WatchKit. If these platforms fail to gain acceptance, the wellness industry can fall back on the time-tested web API strategy, which most device companies have already successfully developed and deployed.

In any case, battles will be fought this year and winners declared in this race to integrate fitness trackers within the corporate wellness industry. Corporate Wellness Magazine will continue to monitor these events and report on the available wearables and the opportunities and challenges these devices will present within employee benefits programs.

With literally hundreds of wearable solutions expected to enter the market by the end of next year, employers will need to keep up to speed with which device is best fit for the health of both their company and their employees.

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