Why I Ditched My Fitbit and What This Means for Analytics

By Andy Cotgreave 06 Jan, 2016

Note: This is the first installment of a series on the quantified self. A version of this piece first appeared in ComputerWorld.

When I first got a Fitbit, it was amazing.

My daily dashboard, focusing mostly on a 10,000-step target, was incredibly motivating. Was I hitting the target? Answer: sometimes. Connecting with friends added great gamification. I began making different choices in my daily routine to take more steps. When I lost my first tracker, Fitbit sent me a free replacement. Wow! What more could I ask from this dream company?

Over time, however, I stopped going back to the dashboard as often.

After a year, my Fitbit strap broke. I decided not to buy a replacement. Why? Because Fitbit’s analytics was a dead-end dashboard.

After using a Fitbit for 12 months, I knew what the dashboard would show me each day. I’d learned to be able to sense the approximate step count each day. I no longer need the exact count, and yet I was still making healthy choices to walk more. The dashboard ceased to reveal anything new to me. Having successfully analyzed my steps, I wanted to move on and ask new questions about my daily activity.

For example, I’m more interested now in how much of each day I spend sitting down. Sitting down all day is not healthy; I use a standing desk at work as often as I can. What I want to do is measure how much of each day I spend standing. Fitbit records active minutes but doesn’t display them in a way that meets my new needs. My Fitbit couldn’t adjust to my new data requirements, and thus our happy relationship came to an end. Until I can tweak and adapt the Fitbit dashboard, it is no longer useful.

The Fitbit story is relevant to all visual analytics. Dashboards that don’t evolve don’t get used. Too often, a completed dashboard is seen as a finishing line, not a starting point. All this does is lead to dead-end dashboards. They litter company portals, unloved and unseen. Whether it’s Fitbit data or the finances of a Fortune 500 company, you must consider dashboards as living, evolving things that are responsive to people's changing questions.

Could Fitbit win me back? It could, if it adopts some of the approaches to dashboards any business needs to apply to deliver successful self-service analytics to its employees. Here are three:

1. Empower People to Dive in and Ask Ad Hoc Questions on Your Dashboards

Even the perfect dashboard will only answer the questions you designed it to answer. What happens if someone is looking at the dashboard and finds it needs a small tweak to the dashboard, such as adding a field, in order to answer the user's question? Can the user tweak the dashboard there and then, or must he or she wait for some unknown period of time? Empower users to edit and enhance the views themselves for ad hoc visual analysis. This is more than filtering; people need to be able to manipulate and adapt the component charts themselves.

2. Provide Access to Data Sources, Not Finished Dashboards

Let’s face it: It’s not possible to build one dashboard that fits everyone’s needs. Why not focus instead on tightly-governed data sources? Provide people with some dashboards and encourage them to build then save their own. Imagine if I could tweak Fitbit’s dashboard to focus on the activities that I want, just the way I want? Incidentally, Fitbit doesn’t allow you access to your own data unless you’re a premium customer. This doubles down on the problem: People aren’t engaged or empowered when data is inaccessible.

3. Change the Data Being Collected as Requirements Change

I’m done with counting steps. Thanks to Fitbit, I know exactly what a typical day looks like. Next I need a tracker to measure standing/sitting patterns. I accept that this is hard for Fitbit to do, but even if the dashboard could evolve, there’s also a data problem. Customer needs don’t stand still for Fitbit, and they don’t stand for still other businesses, either. The data you collect needs to evolve with your business or your customers.

When businesses adopt these approaches, they see success. Matt Francis, who is responsible for analytics at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, says, “Low dashboard usage typically signals a need for change. Sometimes they are for projects that are wound up. Other times requirements have changed so we work with people to refresh them. This way we ensure dashboards on our systems are giving users answers they need.”

I can’t evolve my Fitbit dashboards. I can’t get at the underlying data in order to explore it myself. I’m stuck with what Fitbit created: a dead-end dashboard. Don’t let the people in your organization feel the same way about your dashboards they use in your business. Whether you’re analyzing wearables or widgets, steps or sales, you need flexibility and freedom in order to keep the dashboards alive and useful.

Got an interesting quantified-self story of your own? Email us at ideas@tableau.com and let us know.


Submitted by David Rubin (não verificado) on

You raise an interesting point. Like most things in business, what doesn't evolve and adapt will eventually become obsolete and die. This is true with business models and it's true with what we interface with every day. The companies that understand this and act upon it will succeed.

Submitted by Arash (não verificado) on

This is a great point of view of pre-customized dashboards, especially for technical users. Around the time FitBit came out, Misfit also came out but with an API for their data, but their product quality wasn't as good. I think the real message with these devices and services is make something from scratch yourself. I made my own tracker with Arduino and am working on the data visualization end. Took time but I learned much more than I would have from purchasing one from a store

Submitted by Brandon D. on

Fitbit does allow you to export your daily data in 30-day chunks. I was surprised to learn that Tuesdays tend to be my most active day; I think this is because I run around the house gathering trash for pickup the following morning. https://www.fitbit.com/export/user/data

Submitted by BER (não verificado) on

Is it that the dashboard needs to evolve or is it that we need to evolve, either how we use the dashboard or to another dashboard? I agree 100% that we should see the dashboard as the starting point, but does it need to be infinitely scalable to adapt to us or is it a matter of finding the right one to fit our moving needs?

When I lost weight (50 lbs, unfortunately all back), I used a calorie tracking app and used the dashboard to track my calories in and out. For about a year I limited my analytics to calories and disregarded the calories (I worked out regularly, so I adjusted my calories goal rather than doing calories in and out) out or other parameters. After I had learned how to eat the right amounts, I evolved my use of the dashboard to track my proteins to fine tune my muscle to fat body composition. If I wanted to, I could have refined my analytics (maybe control my sodium or cholesterol), but that was all I need. Then I used the dashboard just to keep myself in check, even though I could go weeks without using it and didn't gain an ounce. Unfortunately I went off the wagon, so I'm back to square 1 and started just looking at my calories in.

On the other hand, it may be that FitBit's dashboard just needs to be an entry level dashboard and your needs have gone past it. 37Signals, the makers of Basecamp, say that they refuse to take customer suggestions because they have a product that fits a specific need for a specific market and adding features may not serve the core market.. I got a FitBit and after only two days I returned it because it wasn't the right thing for me—namely, I want live feedback for my heart rate, preferably synced to my phone live. I tried making it work for me, but realized that I couldn't bend it to my needs. But I know other people for whom this data is more than plenty, so should FitBit adapt to my needs or just keep their core market happy? Would they be able to do their best if they are adapting to us all?

I agree with you 100% that for pro users the dashboard should be able to improve, but I propose that instead of saying that FitBit doesn't scale as it should, perhaps we evaluate if it's the right solution for us or if there is a better solution. I would have loved to make the FitBit work, but it just isn't for me.

Submitted by Graeme Crawford (não verificado) on

Would you be able to come up with something more interesting using the web data connector that The Information Lab wrote?


I'm in the middle of creating a dashboard for the folks at work - who are trusting enough to enter their login details in my dashboard so that we can show some competitive stuff, which always adds an extra edge! :)

Submitted by Tara (não verificado) on

I completely agree! I graduated from Fitbit to a device that sounds like it would suit your needs as well. The Polar M400 doesn't have a beautiful dashboard interface but has a wealth of data for you including time spent standing, sitting, laying down, active, and asleep. It also allows you to select the type of workout you are doing when you ARE active, and has a built-in GPS for tracking pace, route, and distance. If you pair with a heart rate monitor strap (proven to be much more effective than the wrist ones) it gives an incredibly accurate picture of your active times and calorie burn. You can use it just like a standard Fitbit if desired, but the additional functionality makes this a device I have enjoyed for the last 12 months and use on an almost constant basis!

Submitted by Scott Buffham (não verificado) on

Interesting read and I am at that first year with my device - a Garmin VivoSmart. But the questions I had were "why did I make or not make my goal" and also on trending. I created my dashboards in Tableau from 8 data points to find causalitues. Nice to see additional comments on wearable technology. Thanks! Good article!

Submitted by Andy C. on

Hi Brendon - yes their download is partly useful but the 30-day limit is ludicrous and arbitrary. By making it hard to access THEIR OWN DATA, veteran Fitbit-users are left stuck with the default beginner dash.

Submitted by Andy C. on

hi BER,
You raise a good point, one I try to make when I discuss this subject live. The original dashboard is a GREAT dashboard. It's perfect for beginners, and Fitbit should not change it. The problem is what happens next: how do I evolve my own dashboard as the original one becomes less and less useful to me? Fitbit should enable me to download all my data in one go. Or provide more advanced dashboards for veteran Fitbit wearers.

Submitted by Ryan Lally (não verificado) on

Anything new on this since the progress Tableau has made with WDCs?

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Submitted by Dian-Analytics ... (não verificado) on

Thank you for this post!! Fitbit has evolved since January, and now tracks heart rate and longest stationary period etc, but this is still a fantastic reminder. I found it by searching for Fitbit and Tableau because I'm an analyst and I want to analyze my data deeper than what Fitbit can give me. I can see which days are most active, but what if I could merge that with my calendar and other data - what did I do each day? who was I with? Was I working from home or in the office? Local or corporate office? Is my weight loss more closely correlated with good sleep, food, or exercise? etc.

I've always been an advocate of tools and scorecards over dashboards. Flexible tools for most things and scorecards for specific goals that we're measuring. At a time when everyone is forced to do more with less, you've reminded me to stick to my own rules - I have my team delivering too much static information right now.

I'd like to hear from this group how you measure dashboard/tool usage. What is the best delivery mechanism for tracking usage? Various analytics teams at my company use either desktop or server. Does server have tracking capabilities?


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