Understanding the wearable fitness tracker revolution

  • Ryan VoorisEmail author
  • Matthew Blaszka
  • Susan Purrington
Original Paper


The goal of this study was to examine why individuals purchase wearable fitness trackers and explore their usage patterns. Four focus groups were conducted with 31 participants who shared their thoughts on their purchase intentions, fitness behaviors, and how they used their various fitness trackers. Several themes emerged from their discussions which shed light on this emerging technology. Aspects of gamification and the diffusion of innovation were evident in how participants chose to purchase and use trackers because of the need to compete with friends and family and hold themselves accountable when it came to being psychically fit. The importance of esthetics and virtual rewards were also influences that impacted users’ opinions of their fitness trackers. The findings suggest the importance of social pressure, personal accountability, and gamification when it comes to purchasing and using a wearable fitness tracker during leisure time activity.


Wearable fitness trackers Gamification Diffusion of innovations 

There has been exponential growth in technology to track fitness and health over the last few years. One of these areas of growth is wearable technology. Wearable technology is an electronic device or computer that can be integrated into clothes or an accessory worn on the body (Wright and Keith 2014). According to Stein (2014), wearable devices are sorted into three categories: Notifiers – which provide information to the consumer, glasses – used to augment virtual reality using eyeglass wear, and trackers which use sensory information to provide data to the consumer. More than 13 million wearable fitness trackers were sold in 2015 (Hutchinson 2016), followed by an increase to more than 33 million in sales in 2016 (Protalinksi 2017). Estimates suggest that by 2020, 411 million wearable devices worth $34 billion will be sold worldwide (Lamkin 2016). Fitbit is the current market share leader among wearable trackers, controlling about 20% of the market, followed by Xiaomi, Apple, Garmin, and Samsung (Protalinksi 2017). Fitbit recently became one of the first corporations to purchase a jersey sponsorship for an NBA team (Rovell 2017).

The widespread adoption of smartphones across all demographics has dramatically increased the use of wearables since these technologies are often synced to a smartphone (Bessant 2016). The mobility of a wearable fitness tracker (WFT) has provided a new and enhanced platform for communication and personal fitness. The various brands of WFT devices are generally found as clip-ons for the pants, a bracelet, or a watch. WFT devices have the ability to track a variety of physical activities such as steps taken, miles traveled, monitoring of heart rate and sleeping patterns, and floors climbed (Nazari et al. 2017). Within these devices, the user can also log water and calorie intake, and track their exercise (Shah et al. 2017).

To date, research has primarily focused on the accuracy and reliability of these devices (e.g., Nazari et al. 2017; Shah et al. 2017). Given that wearable technology is still in its infancy, an exploratory study was deemed necessary and appropriate. This study set out to explore why and how users of WFT make their specific purchase decisions, what they use their trackers for, the features individuals utilize, and the link between WFT and social media.

1 Smartphones, technology acceptance, and WFT

The transition from mobile phones to smartphones has helped the WFT revolution. Ninety-five percent of Americans own some sort of cell phone with 77% of them owning a smartphone (Pew Research Center 2017). In the United States, 51% of all internet usage is done via mobile phone. In 2008, a year after the iPhone was released, only 12% of all internet use was done via mobile phone (Chaffey 2017). As mobile usage increased the use of mobile devices for fitness became commonplace (Boxall 2016; Chaffey 2017). For example, the amount of fitness or mobile healthcare apps has exploded over the last 10 years. Of 154,000+ healthcare apps for smartphones, 36% are fitness related (Misra 2015). The mobile fitness app market is anticipated to be worth $26 billion by the end of 2017 (Boxall 2016). Additionally, the desire of people to use their smartphones to post to social media about fitness plans, goals, and accomplishments, has been found in previous research (Teodoro and Naaman 2013).

Technology acceptance can be best understood by how, or if, individuals adopt new technology. Davis (1989) created the technology acceptance model (TAM) based on two key factors: perceived usefulness and perceived ease of use. Davis’ model suggests that if the perceived use and the perceived ease of use develop behaviors that become intentional, users will then adopt the technology (Davis 1989; Davis et al. 1992). In other words, the easier the technology is to use, the more favorable the attitude toward using the technology becomes. Kim and Shin (2015) write of this concept “Perceived usefulness and attitudes then positively influence user intention to adopt and use the technology” (p. 528). With the evolution of fitness applications on smartphones, users are seeing the need and usefulness of using the mobile interface. Within digital fitness applications, there is the opportunity to compete against yourself or others through “step challenges” or “workout challenges.” These devices also turn this tracking of physical activity into a digital game.

2 Gamification

One area that has seen major growth in the mobile health arena is the concept of gamification. The term gamification came to prominence in 2010. It is defined as “the use of game design elements in nongame contexts” (Deterding et al. 2011). Within the health and wellness industry, it is estimated that gamification was a $2.8 billion business in 2016. As wearables have become more of a mainstay so has the concept of gamification that many of them integrate (Hofacker et al. 2016).

Businesses continue to make large investments in gamification to build customer loyalty and motivate users to continue the use of their products (Hamari et al. 2014). One of the key concepts of gamification is turning extrinsic rewards into intrinsic rewards (Fankhauser 2013). In other words, developers use an active ingredient to provide game-like context to a non-game experience (Cugelman 2013). Gamified elements include the usage of both ‘leaderboards’ and ‘points’ (Mekler et al. 2013). For example, in an effort to increase spending, a credit card may give a person reward points for every dollar spent. To increase spending in particular areas, a credit card company may increase the point value for a specific industry sector such as travel or groceries. These reward points can then be used to buy gift cards, travel, or provide cash back (Cugelman 2013). Early research has shown that gamification has the ability to influence the user and has the opportunity to provide physical outcomes (Hamari et al. 2014). Gamification can increase motivation to participate in healthy habits in young people. For example, the video game Dance Dance Revolution requires movement to score points and compete with friends. This has a positive effect on the reduction of body weight and health promotion (Gonzalez-Gonzalez et al. 2018).

Gamification principles such as threshold targets, game-like experiences, narrative storytelling, and visual cues are clearly evident in the WFT market (Hofacker et al. 2016). For example, the Fitbit app offers the options for users to set goals for steps walked, floors climbed, and calories burned, while also offering visual stimulation on the app and tracker. These goals can be shared within a group to provide positive experiences such as encouragement on social platforms (Consolvo et al. 2006). Goal setting for an individual is often the primary strategy to promote physical activity (Deterding 2015). Strava, a popular app used to track bicycle riding was designed to change attitudes or behaviors through persuasion and social influence (Fogg 2003). The goal of Strava was to create a “team” type feel while riding solo or training alone (Wallace 2012). Likewise, Fitbit has features such as step competitions with others, and guided adventures that allow users to virtually run the New York marathon or walk Yosemite National Park (Peltz 2016). These concepts of gamification are designed to boost repeat use (Vincent, 2016). Lastly, phrases common in games such as “leaderboard,” “reward,” and “goal” are found throughout fitness apps. Gamification centers around the idea of users need of status and achievement (Fogg 2003).

Gamification also has the ability to make a product more exciting and engaging (Cugelman 2013). Cugelman (2013) identified seven persuasive strategies in gamification: goal setting, capacity to overcome challenges, providing feedback on performance, reinforcement, comparing progress, social connectivity, and fun and playfulness. Additionally, Cugelman notes ten popular gamification tactics: providing clear goals, offering a challenge, using levels, allocating points, showing progress, providing feedback, giving rewards, providing badges for achievements, showing the game leaders, and giving a story or them. Hamari et al., (2013) notes that the three most common motivational affordances are point allocation, badges or achievements, and leaderboards. These concepts of gamification also appear evident in the trackers. For example, the Fitbit app rewards users with badges for completing certain tasks, allows them to view their progress relative to other users in a daily or weekly leaderboard, and compete with others in “step challenges.” Garmin takes it a step further with trackers modifying a person’s daily step goal based on their activity level.

3 Diffusion of innovation

While the growth of wearable devices has been steady, the slow process of becoming an integral part of the technology space is not surprising. Many historically important devices such as the radio or television, took years to become adapted across society (Rogers 2003). A society’s rate of adoption for a technology is explained, in part, by the diffusion of innovation theory. Diffusion of innovation is the explanation and process of how new devices or ideas are initiated and communicated over time (Rogers 1962). The diffusion process can be explained as a five-step procedure:
  • Awareness (knowledge) – An individual’s first exposure to the innovation. They do not have all the information about the innovation. The user lacks knowledge and interest.

  • Interest (persuasion) – The user becomes interested and seeks additional information regarding the innovation. The user will begin to research the innovation.

  • Evaluation (decision) – The user understands the advantages and disadvantages of the product. At this stage, the user decides whether to accept or reject the new innovation.

  • Trial (implementation) – The user begins to implement the innovation. The user determines the overall usefulness of the innovation. The user may seek out additional information.

  • Adoption (confirmation) – The user confirms their desire to continue with the innovation (Rogers 1962, 2003).

For any new innovation, it is critical for the innovation to “catch-on” in order for it to survive. Most products have early adopters who help spread the word of the new innovation (Rogers 2003). Early adopters use their communication channels to distribute information about the product. It is rare that a product will catch on initially, rather it could take months or years for a product to hit “critical mass.” There are five adaptor categories:
  • Innovators – These users are keen to try a new idea. Innovators are often opinion leaders and will lead their social group into the new idea.

  • Early adopters – These users tend to have a better connection than the innovators. The early adopters have the “greatest degree” of influence over their social group.

  • Early majority – These users will adopt the technology before the average member of the social system. Their innovation-decision time is typically longer.

  • Late majority – These users are typically skeptical and slow to adopt. Their adoption is likely to come from an increase in social pressure before they become a regular user.

  • Laggards – These users are traditionalists and the last to adopt. These users go by the mantra “well, we’ve always done it this way.” Laggards are typically suspicious of any new innovation (Rogers and Shoemaker 1971).

Over time, the shift between a few people having the specific innovation to everyone having the innovation can change the way people accept the new technology. Over the last two decades, the diffusion of innovation approach has been observed in society’s adoption of numerous new technologies.

4 Leisure activity and wearable fitness trackers

There is growing concern among health professionals over the low levels of leisure time physical activity in the United States. Leisure time physical activity includes active recreation activities engaged in for personal enjoyment and includes activities such as walking, biking, swimming, gardening, hiking, and dancing (World Health Organization 2017). Sport and fitness programs are organized types of leisure time physical activity. The Healthy People 2020 Initiative (2012) identified that almost 30% of U.S. adults over the age of 18 do not engage in any leisure-time physical activity. Furthermore, almost 50% of adults with activity limitations do not engage in any form of leisure time physical activity. Women, members of racial/ethnic minority groups, and older adults have higher levels of inactivity. Ultimately the lack of leisure time physical activity leads to more sedentary lifestyles.

WFT typically stay on individuals during waking hours and through the night, to track the quantitative data of their activity. Most individuals are not obligated to wear the devices; device use occurs during leisure time physical activity rather than during work. The use of WFT to track activity levels, provides a unique perspective to how a device mediates the leisure time activity of physical activity. Leisure time activities, either physical or sedentary, provide an opportunity to change an individual’s behavior, for better or worse, through the reinforcement of peer behaviors. The reinforcement from peers can be perceived or actual, resulting in social support to further participate in a leisure time activity, which can impact one’s quality of life (Epstein et al. 2007). In a study conducted by Leung and Lee (2004), positive social interaction and emotional and informational social support from peers contributed to a higher quality of life and health outcomes.

While research on WFT has largely focused on their accuracy (Nazari et al. 2017: Shah et al. 2017), little is known about the why and how a leisure user picks a particular WFT and the reasoning behind that decision. Therefore, the purpose of this study was exploratory in nature. The researchers wanted to have a better understanding of how the devices are used, what goes into users’ purchase decisions, the features users found useful (or not useful), and how (or if) posting accomplishments on social media played a role in their use of WFT. Based on such a discussion, relevant information could be discovered on the diffusion of the fitness tracker innovation, and how the elements of gamification impact their usage of their tracker. This study attempts to lay the groundwork for future research on the leisure activities of people who adopt the emerging technology of WFT. The following research questions were used to help guide the study.
  • RQ1: What factors contribute to why people want wearable fitness trackers?

  • RQ2: What factors contribute to the purchase decisions for a wearable fitness tracker?

  • RQ3: What features of fitness trackers do people enjoy, or not enjoy, and why?

  • RQ4: How do participants feel about using social media in relation to their fitness tracker?

5 Methods

The use of focus groups followed the guidelines of Krueger and Casey (2015). The choice to use focus groups to answer the research questions came from Krueger and Casey’s advice to use focus groups when a range of feelings and opinions are needed on a behavior. Following Krueger and Casey’s suggestion, four focus groups were conducted over the span of two weeks at which point saturation was reached. According to Krueger and Casey, saturation represents “the point where you have heard the range of ideas and aren’t getting new information” (p. 23). The size of these single–category focus groups ranged from five to ten participants, which fit within the focus group size recommendation from Krueger and Casey. All of the focus groups were conducted online through This online portal allows participants to talk to each other and to the moderator, while also allowing them to comment on the statements made by other participants. Following the suggestion of Krueger and Casey to use bulletin boards for recruitment, online recruitment of participants was done via fitness-related online bulletin boards on Reddit and Facebook. Online focus groups have become a popular tool for conducting qualitative research in advertising, marketing, healthcare, and computer science (Stewart and Shamdasani 2017). Online focus groups help protect anonymity, expand the potential geographical reach of a study, and allow greater convenience for participants (Stewart and Shamdasani 2017; Zwaanswijk and Dulmen 2014). Schneider et al. (2002) found that online focus groups tend to elicit more participation from each member, as opposed to face-to-face groups, which are occasionally dominated by more verbose participants. Schneider et al. also recommend that online focus group moderators ask direct questions to facilitate more than short agreement statements. This approach was followed at all times. All participants were asked to participate only if they had a fitness tracker and felt comfortable sharing their answers in a private online forum. After getting their informed consent and explaining the purpose of the study, those who meet these qualifications were randomly placed in the four groups.

During each of the focus groups, participants were asked the same questions. The focus group began with each participant telling the group what fitness tracker they had and for how long they had owned it. The discussion then moved on to their motivations for wanting a fitness tracker. Participants were asked to be specific with their answers when possible. The next series of questions drilled down into why participants bought the tracker they did. Questions were asked about the research they did, their familiarity with other trackers, their familiarity with other products from the same brand, and what impact the use of trackers by friends and family had on their purchase intentions. The discussion then moved to the tracker themselves, as participants were asked to give their opinions on the various features of their trackers and related smartphone app. Participants then discussed how often they share their fitness accomplishments to social media and how they feel about these kinds of postings on social media. Finally, participants estimated how frequently they checked their tracker, the associated smartphone app, and the website. Participants were asked to share with the moderator their age, gender, occupation, and any reflections about the focus group.

Analysis of the results were conducted by two trained qualitative researchers who followed the guidelines of qualitative data coding established by Saldana (2011). In recognition of Saldana’s patterns of human action, the researchers sorted respondent’s answers into thematic categories that were responsive to the research questions. To create categories, the researchers used descriptive coding to designate salient insights as they read over the responses. The researchers then discussed the codes and categories they developed individual of each other and came to a consensus on the category names, themes, and their applicability to the research questions. Additionally, the results followed other suggestions from Krueger and Casey (2015) for reporting results, such as the need to use modifiers rather than numbers to indicate how many participants agreed with an idea (p. 160).

6 Results

The responses from 31 focus group participants cut across a wide range of motivations for usage, purchase intention, popular features, and thoughts about fitness and leisure activity. Respondent’s thoughts are organized in this section as they relate to each research question. All quotes are reprinted as given and no changes have been made to sentence structure unless noted. To make the reading of the narrative structure of the results easier, pseudonyms are introduced for most of the participants (Krueger and Casey 2015). When these pseudonyms are first introduced, they are accompanied by an overview of the individual’s demographic characteristics.

Twenty-eight participants responded to the request at the end of the focus group for information about their age, gender, occupation, and location. The age of participants ranged from 22 to 63, with an average age of 34 years (SD = 11.5). Fifteen of the participants were female, while 13 were male. Of the 31 participants, 22 had a fitness tracker made by Fitbit, seven had one made by Garmin, one had one made by Jawbone, and one had a tracker from Misfit. All participants reported checking their fitness tracker and its associated mobile app multiple times per day. Riley, a 43-year-old software developer stated “I check it probably 20 times a day to track progress and make sure I hit a certain number.”

The first research question asked why participants would want a fitness tracker. Responses from participants fell into two categories Accountability and Participatory.

6.1 Accountability

This category dealt with users eager to get in shape or stay in shape but in need of a system to assist them. It appears that a WFT may fulfill the role of a motivating force for physical improvement. One participant remarked “I bought it as a way to keep myself accountable with exercise,” while Meredith, a 33-year-old graduate student and retail worker added, “I thought it might help me get off the couch and be more willing to take my dog on a walk.” Jane, a 52-year-old female who works a desk job, elaborated on how the tracker itself is a motivating force, “I wanted to use it to encourage myself to commit to a fitness goal of being more active in the day, in order to lose weight.” This sentiment was agreed upon by Kristen a 31-year-old attorney from South Florida, who said “It motivates me and it helps me have an idea of the approximate calories I burn in a day.”

A few participants mentioned specific features of their fitness trackers that help hold them accountable. “With its option to give me notifications telling me to move periodically, as well as in-depth data collection and workout tracking, it seems like an effective option,” said Gary, a 24-year-old male who works in IT. Others agreed with the importance of notifications to move and the importance of the tracker as an ever-present reminder to stay active. Participants with desk jobs enjoyed this feature. Kristen, the attorney, remarked “I have a desk job too and it helps hold me accountable. If I see that I moved too little, I am more likely to get up and walk around.”

6.2 Participatory

The participatory category referred to users who said they bought their trackers because they were familiar with other users of the same brand of tracker. These other users were almost always relatives, close friends, or romantic partners. Respondents who purchased trackers to participate with other users were often aware of the competitions that users partake in. Alex, a 29-year old teacher, explained “I bought it because my sister and mother already had one. I saw them competing every day and it made me want to take part.” Mary, a 46-year-old mother of a young child, added “I wanted to be able to challenge friends and family to daily step goals.”

Participating with romantic partners was a major theme. “My boyfriend had a Fitbit before me and I wanted to be able to compete with him, so it made the decision easy,” remarked one female participant. Another female in a different group had a similar thought about the influence of those in their social circle when it came to getting a particular fitness tracker:

The experience of friends and family would highly influence my choice of purchase because I want the community of people to challenge and keep me motivated. I only knew one person with the Nike Fuelband and nobody with the Jawbone Up or the Sparkpeople tracker.

Kevin, a 50-year-old engineer, had similar thoughts, “I was motivated to buy the tracker by friends who use them and have had positive experiences.” As did Stephanie, a 27-year-old who manages a facility that helps adults with disabilities, “I had a few friends who had Fitbit and they tuned me into the challenges and steps and how it could be fun, this is part of the reason I started looking into fitness trackers.”

The second research question asked why people bought their particular tracker. The purchase trends varied but broke down into a few distinct categories. The first was that many trackers were gifts, sometimes asked for and sometimes a surprise. “It was a birthday gift. I requested it hoping it would encourage me to become more active on a consistent basis,” said one female user, while Joleen, a 30-year-old female academic advisor at a college, stated “It was a Christmas gift. I requested it to help keep track of my mileage and sleep patterns as I train for races.”

Responses in this part of the focus group often overlapped with categories from the first research question. For example, the desire to participate with others lead many participants to buy the same brand of tracker that their friends and family owned. This allowed them to easily compete against them in step challenges. Jane said “My adult daughter owns a Fitbit Zip and Alta and recommended the Alta to me. Her positive experience helped me decide on the Alta” Alex, remarked “I did not do very much research, I just bought the same brand my family had so I can compete with them” Others also knew that certain companies were more popular, “I chose to ask for the Fitbit because I knew more people had them and you could do ‘challenges’ with anyone who owned a Fitbit product.” Some participants bought specific trackers for another family member to participate with them. Mike, a 43-year old construction superintendent, put it this way “I bought a children’s version for my daughter.”

Lastly, owners of a fitness tracker were sometimes familiar with existing products from the same company that made the fitness tracker they bought or asked for. This most often took the form of owning either the Fitbit Aria scale or a Garmin navigational device such as a GPS. Garrett explained “My family have owned a variety of Garmin devices over the years and in my cycling club Garmin is the standard device owned. This influenced my decision.” Most participants did not own other products from the company that manufactured their fitness tracker.

The third research question asked about the features of the fitness trackers and how people utilized them. This part of the focus groups generated the most responses, which were broken down into the categories of Gamification, Competition, Improving Leisure Time, and Esthetics.

6.3 Gamification

The concept of gamification was evident in many responses, particularly those mentioning the rewards given within various mobile apps linked to a fitness tracker. Meredith explained the appeal of badges in the Fitbit application, “I love the badges, they encourage me to move more to get them. I think it’s especially useful how fitbit makes [you] know what the badges are so you can target them.” These badges often serve as motivation to stay active. Lisa, a 25-year-old manager for a large food company explained the reasoning as, “If I find that I am close to getting a badge, I will actually keep walking in order to reach the goal.” Phil, a 40-year-old computer programmer, also discussed how the badges motive him, “Some of them were motivating to try to accomplish (100 flights of stairs in a day).” Alex added the following:

I think the badges for accomplishments are fun. I refresh my profile at the end of the day to see how much closer I am to the next goal. Although sometimes I want to get the next badge faster, so I waste my time getting more steps when I should be doing other things.

Jen, a 24-year-old woman who works in a call center, explained how collecting badges is a fun aspect of fitness trackers that also provides motivation to keep moving:

I really like the badges. It's a great feeling when you unlock the next one. I find it highly motivating. I have also participated in the step challenges. I quite enjoyed being able to see everyone's progress and had a lot of fun trying to beat them.

Mary, perhaps put it best when she said:

I am very motivated by badges, trophies, etc. I get my step count every day just to watch the digital "fireworks." I also like bragging to friends by sharing my badges on social media. I look forward to the "100 lifetime miles" style trophies, and I often find myself browsing my friends' badges and trophies.

6.4 Competition

As suggested in Jen’s answer in the previous section, a closely related category to the concept of gamification is the importance of competition with other people. This competition often took the form of step challenges. “I participate in the Workweek Hustle every week and that also motivates me to keep moving,” said one participant, to which Alex added, “I frequently (at least once a week) participate in step challenges with friends. It’s the main reason that I use a Fitbit.” Pat, a 63-year-old who works in an elementary school, added “The challenge has motivated me to move more and increase my daily sets to try and stay ahead of the other competitors.”

As in the participatory categories for RQ1, users often engaged in competitions with significant others, family, and friends. Vivian, a 24-year old female who works at an investment bank, said “I like setting my own goals and striving to reach them, but its fun to challenge my husband and friends as well.” Matt, a 58-year-old male who lives in a small town and works in marketing, had similar thoughts, “I participate with weekly challenges. This helps to push me to do my steps. I started a treadmill daily to start my day. My wife has one also so there is competition between us.” Jane explained how the competition is a motivating factor for staying fit, “I do weekly challenges with a couple groups and enjoy the friendly competition. I’ve learned I’m very competitive and the challenges keep me moving.” Jessica, a 27-year-old who works as a city clerk, articulated how there is an important element of surveillance of how others are doing “I love the challenges with friends. They are competitive and entertaining. I also enjoy seeing how closely my averages rank with my friends.” Stephanie summed up the value of competition in this manner:

I participate in step challenges every week (work week hustle) and the weekend warrior. I really enjoy it. It helps me move and gives me motivation. My uncle and mother in law always win, so it's great to be challenged by people who are waaayyy older than I am.

Not everyone enjoyed how competitive others could be with the fitness trackers. Megan, a 27-year-old graduate student, said this about step challenges “I don’t challenge friends because people get ultra-competitive and cheat to ‘beat’ their friends despite not losing weight or making any progress. They only cheat themselves.” Gary agreed with this sentiment, “I do not participate in step challenges because fitness should be a cooperative goal. Not a competition.”

6.5 Improving leisure time

Many users remarked how elements of the first two categories assisted them in a more overarching goal: improving leisure time activity. Kristen explained the concept when it came to the competition with others, “It definitely is motivating and I do try to be on the top of the leaderboards when I can.” Joleen, a 30-year-old woman who works in academic advising at a college, said the following about competition affecting her leisure activity:

I frequently do step challenges. I really enjoy these and find them encouraging. I think they keep me focused on my fitness goals and motivated throughout the day. It helps switch my mindset from obligation to opportunity. During step challenges I see myself viewing my workouts as I get to go workout rather than ok I need to go workout over lunch.

Others remarked that the features of the tracker itself helped them improve how they spend their time. Gary said the following:

Goals on my Garmin are incredibly useful for me, especially since it has the ability to automatically adjust my goal number of steps according to my current performance. This encourages progress at a steady pace without overwhelming the user. This I feel makes my Garmin very good for beginners and those dedicated to fitness alike.

6.6 Esthetics

The look and digital display options of the fitness tracker were important to many participants. Since modern fitness trackers are often worn on the wrist, they are more difficult to conceal than a traditional pedometer. Megan related her experience of this aspect by saying, “I wanted a tracker that looked subtle and was waterproof. I did not want a FitBit because everyone has one and I did not want to advertise my desire to be more active.” The size of the tracker mattered to some members. Kristen said “I went with the [Fitbit] charge 2 rather than replace the surge because it was cheaper and also sleeker looking from the bulky surge.” Participants remarked that the style of the fitness tracker mattered to them and many expressed a desire to have more customization for the look of their tracker, such as the ability to buy a different color wristband.

In addition to the look of the fitness tracker, the way it displays information to the user was also important. Jane explained this aspect by saying about her Fitbit “I like the slim design and that it functions as a watch and I can opt for text/call notifications.” Meredith added, “I like the way it looks and the feel of the band. I love the Fitbit app, it’s super intuitive.” Mary had this to say about the display features on her tracker:

What appeals to me most is the step count on my wrist. I also like the stairs climbed count, although I don't have a specific goal for that. I like that the tracker also has a watch in it, and if I could hook it up to my phone it would show me incoming calls.

Jessica agreed with this sentiment by saying, “I like that my Fitbit is also a watch. That was a deal breaker for me.” Matt summed up his feelings on the digital display by saying, “I like the tracking of steps and calorie count as well as the mile count. I like the stop watch and regular watch so that I can use in soccer games I officiate and use as a work watch.” Comfort was also a concern for users. Kevin explained the importance of comfort and other esthetic factors:

The Fitbit Blaze hits all the points beautifully. Comfortable to wear, long battery life, 1 week offline data logging (great for hiking the Grand Canyon etc), 24x7 heart rate monitor, sleep tracking and accurate activity tracking.... and Fitbit have a sweet API so I can get access to my health data (very important to me).

There were several additional findings that a few participants agreed upon, but which did not fit into any single category. A majority of participants stated that one of their favorite features was the ability to track their sleep. Of this feature Jen said “The most appealing feature of the Fitbit is the fact that it tracks my sleep. I really enjoy being able to see how much sleep I get every night.” Among those who had trackers that monitored heart rate, there was near unanimous agreement that this was a feature everyone felt they benefited from. Participants were also asked if there were any negatives to owning a fitness tracker. Participants offered fewer suggestions in this area, but two common topics mentioned were that trackers should be more resistant to water and easier to charge.

The fourth research question asked how posting updates to social media impacted one’s use of their tracker. Most participants expressed that they did not like posting to social media about fitness, and didn’t like it when other people did so. “I don’t share fitness tracker data on social media as it’s boring and no one cares,” Jamie said. Kevin added “Never. Hard stop. I do not understand the motivation in sharing that sort of information.” While most people did not feel a need to share on social media, a few participants explained that they sometimes share when they reach a big accomplishment. Chloe, a 22-year-old student, explained, “I share my accomplishments on Facebook, but rarely. For example, finishing a half marathon where I live.” Megan also echoed this sentiment, “Not very often. I did when I completed the C25K program and when I ran 5Ks.” Others explained that posting about accomplishments is something they do on other apps. Garrett explained, “All my real workouts are shared automatically on Strava because if it’s not on Strava it didn’t happen. I never share anything on Facebook as if you are interested in exercise via social media you’d already be on Strava.” Four other participants also used Strava, while one used MyFitnessPal to share accomplishments.

7 Discussion

The purpose of this explorative study was to identify the motivations for individuals to purchase wearable fitness trackers and explore the various ways in which they use them. The focus group approach followed the guidelines for the number of focus groups and the number of participants laid out by Krueger and Casey (2015). The results indicate that elements of the theory of diffusion of innovations, the technology acceptance model, and gamification combine to play important roles in how individuals purchase and use wearable fitness trackers.

Diffusion of innovations states that early adaptors help to raise awareness about the existence and benefits of new products (Rogers and Shoemaker 1971). Results from the current study suggest that the rapid adoption of fitness trackers may be transitioning from the early majority to the late majority. This is suggested by the participatory category in the first research question. Participatory behavior mirrored elements of early majority adaptors and late majority adaptors through the prevalence of the idea of purchasing a fitness tracker because friends and family have one. Additionally, as the results show, participants mentioned how they often adapted specific trackers because their friends or family spoke well of them. Within the realm of fitness trackers, this suggests that Rogers’ (2003) transition from awareness to adoption is heavily influenced by one’s social circle. This adoption rate is almost certainly helped by the rapid spread of smartphones and the popularity of fitness apps on them (Boxall 2016; Misra 2015). In short, near-ubiquitous smartphone adoption makes it easier than ever to track personal fitness, and this ease, combined with a desire to join influential adaptors in a social circle, helps a consumer make the decision to purchase a tracker. In the realm of technology acceptance, the two areas noted by Davis (1989) as part of the TAM model, perceived usefulness and perceived ease of use, were often highlighted by the users. The product was seen by most focus group participants as easy to use and useful. This lead to positive feelings toward the product, which leads to acceptance and continued use.

Focus groups results can sometimes be informative for what they don’t include as much as for what they do include. It is important to note that none of the participants mentioned advertising campaigns, celebrity endorsements, branding efforts, and brand-specific websites as influences on their purchase intention. While this may be a function of participants’ self-presentation to the group, it remains noteworthy because of the heavy focus on the two themes of participatory and accountability. The only concept related to branding was the possibility of some elements of brand loyalty from the Garmin users who mentioned they owned previous Garmin products such as a GPS.

The accountability theme is worthy of discussion in terms of how the participants spoke of their trackers. They often imbued the trackers with elements of personality, as if the presence of the tracker itself would motivate them to make more productive use of their leisure time. One participant said the tracker would “help me get off the couch.” Another said they used it “to encourage myself,” while a third said of the tracker “It motivates me…” In these cases, the owner of the tracker appears to be treating the tracker as something akin to a personal trainer or panacea that will help them improve their leisure activity.

The usage patterns and popular features discussed by participants touched on many areas of gamification and leisure literature. The tracker’s use of step challenges has a clear connection to the gamification aspect of competition. Sometimes this competition is with other people, but it is also a solo effort rewarded with badges and accomplishments highlighted within the user’s profile. For example, Fitbit users achieve badges by hitting step thresholds during the day. Additionally, Fitbit users can also complete location challenges. A user can earn the Vernal Falls Badge by completing 15,000 steps while completing a visual journey through Yosemite National Park on the Fitbit mobile app. To complete this challenge, the user is expected to enjoy “scenic landmarks, learn new facts about health and fitness, and reach their Daily Destinations” (Fitbit 2017). This likely relates directly to the business model that WFT companies use when turning extrinsic rewards into intrinsic rewards (Fankhauser 2013). As noted by Cugelman (2013) these game elements, whether individual, location-based, or competition based, appear to provide an active incentive for the use of the tracker which users enjoy and incline them toward continued use. Cugelman’s (2013) gamification concepts of overcoming challenges and goal setting clearly take form via participants’ feelings about the joy they feel when obtaining badges and trophies. All of the participants who discussed their enjoyment of these features mentioned how the WFT device made them check the app more frequently and often motivated them to obtain a goal they were close to realizing. As noted by several participants, if a participant was getting close to a step goal or badge, the user would continue to move until they achieved it. Additionally, users will often keep checking their WFT to see how close they are to their specific goal. Newer devices now alert the user if they are close to a badge or have been stationary for a while. For example, the Garmin VivoFit 3 beeps when the user has not moved enough or has been stationary for an extended period of time. (Torres 2016).

As to the concept of participation with others in leisure activities, social reinforcement to enhance individual behavior change has been found to be effective for adolescent youth using video games as a leisure-time physical activity. Epstein et al. (2007) found that youth were more likely to participate in physical activity if others participated at the same time. Rewards for group performance, such as virtual money or coins, were a further reinforcement on behavior. The concept of improving leisure time was relevant to focus group members as the virtual rewards from their trackers appeared to help motivate them to do more with their free time. WFT use provides a similar social reinforcement for engaging in leisure time physical activity, while also combining this desire to participate with the strong pull of gamification.

The last research question attempted to understand a WFT user and their posting to social media. A majority of the participants stated that they rarely post their WFT results on social media, though some participants did post about major accomplishments. This is not surprising in light of previous research on posting to social media when a goal is achieved (Teodoro and Naaman 2013). Additionally, those who used social media more frequently mentioned specific fitness-based social media such as Strava or MyFitnessPal. This could relate to participants’ feeling more comfortable in a social community of other fitness users, a finding that would align with Teodoro & Norman’s discovery on the importance of social sites to provide accountability to an audience. In other words, the participants’ feel that sharing their accomplishments with their “in-group” is more suitable for their social media fitness “fix.” These users are able to share their accomplishments with like-minded people with whom they feel accountable. As Cugelman (2013) mentions, some of the gamification tactics such as leaderboards, badges, and achievements could relate directly to why people may post to WFT social media sites. Providing a platform to track your progress, as well as comment, engage and “cheer” others, provides a fun incentive that may promote continued usage (Cugelman 2013).

8 Limitations and future research

This work has limited generalizability because it utilized focus groups. While the participants in the study came from various backgrounds and were widely distributed in age and location because of the online selection process, the findings from these focus groups should not be extrapolated as applying to all users of WFT. Additionally, full demographic details were not provided by all participants making it hard to judge their level of education, their socioeconomic status, or their ethnicities. As focus groups are often used as a prelude to other kinds of research (Stewart and Shamdasani 2017), future research could attempt a broader reach, such as a survey, that built off the findings in this work. Furthermore, it would be beneficial to understand how non-WFT users judge the current wearable market. As Hofacker et al. (2016) pointed out, gamification is new to the smartwatch and WFT industry. It is unclear to what extent consumers are turned off from purchasing WFT by concepts such as gamification, accountability, participation, and social sharing.

9 Conclusion

Overall, participants in the focus groups agreed that their fitness trackers were bought to keep them accountable to their fitness goals, to allow them to participate in friendly leisure competitions, or were given to them as gifts. This study provided unique insight into how elements of gamification materialize in participant’s feelings about the virtual rewards offered by fitness trackers, along with the importance of participation with others in leisure activities. Furthermore, the study advances understanding of how the diffusion of innovations applies to the rapidly expanding marketplace of WFT. The study recommends future research that is quantitatively based, applies to a larger demographic, and includes non-adaptors of WFT.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ryan Vooris
    • 1
    Email author
  • Matthew Blaszka
    • 2
  • Susan Purrington
    • 1
  1. 1.State University of New York CortlandCortlandUSA
  2. 2.Indiana State UniversityTerre HauteUSA

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