Seeing Inside the Quantifiable Self

While the trend has been slowly building over the last decade, the concept of the ‘quantifiable self’ has now fully emerged, in the form of gadgets and websites that can monitor, display, and analyze your personal health and wellness data. Whether it’s the Nike Fuel Band, FitBit, or sites like MyFitnessPal that track your fitness data, the ability to use technology to easily and effectively see inside yourself and (in theory) improve your life is now taken for granted. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Qualities and Quantities
At the outset, it’s worth thinking about the difference between quantitative and qualitative data in research, and why the former is so heavily preferred in the marketplace. Quantitative data can be counted and expressed numerically, whether it’s a heart rate, a percentage of people with a given gene, or the number of people who answer a yes or no question in a survey. In branding, an example of quantitative data can be the level of ‘unaided’ (“Tell me the top three companies that come to mind when I say “fitness”) or ‘aided’ (“Did you know Company X was a fitness company?”) awareness. Quantitative data can also be used to track KPIs (key performance indicators) that measure the success of a marketing or branding campaign (“Our unaided awareness among fitness professionals increased 50% year over year after we launched our media campaign.”)

You Like Me, You Really Like Me!
Qualitative is what is sounds like: the quality of the feeling or understanding you have about something. If, quantitatively, you have 3,000 friends on Facebook, qualitatively, you may value a very small group based on common interests, shared personal history, or other factors that are hard to translate into an unambiguous numeric value. With the growth of social media, we have learned to measure our social abilities in just this way: Facebook likes, Twitter followers, YouTube comments, and other social media stats turn meaning into metrics.

Why do technology companies like quantitative data? Exactly because it can be measured. Not only that, but collecting data (for example, via products like Fit Bit), measuring and analyzing the data (through algorithms) and presenting that data to the end user (interface experiences, whether embedded or online) can all be monetized, providing structured tasks for engineers, UX strategists, marketers in a way that qualitative cannot.

Quantifiable Data: Friend or Foe?
Evgeny Morozov, in his new book, To Save Everything, Click Here, calls this ‘the folly of technological solutionism’. But let’s put things in perspective. As long as privacy is respected (admittedly not an easy thing), and users are in control, quantifiable data and the services they support have value. It’s true that, to improve health, you need to know things that can be measured, from your weight to your blood pressure or how much time you were on the treadmill today. Or that correlations to other health characteristics in population samples may help you make your own wellness choices. We just have to consider the bigger picture: my FitBit can’t measure (or maybe it can?) the psychological strain of the fight I had with my partner before dinner, or the joy I felt hiking with a good friend and good conversation. There are many qualitative aspects to our lives that weigh into how we feel, how we perform, and how we live.

Measuring Perception
Likewise, companies measure their own success in presenting their story in terms of quantifiable data: the KPI achieved, the ROI gained, all of which can lend disproportionate weight to data that are more amenable to being measured, as opposed to the ‘messier’, qualitative data. If ‘companies are people’, then ‘brands are selves’, that can be quantified and, if needed, put on the right fitness program to restore brand health. And just with people, companies should consider the qualitative aspects of brand perception. What does it mean for a company’s product to make someone just feel good? What does it mean for me to just feel good? This combination of facts and feelings is at the heart of understanding and developing successful brands.

More to come on these topics, or get in touch.

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