After looking mostly at the big picture in our series on the Quantified Self (QS), we think it’s helpful to have a very practical, in-depth look at one of the current QS apps out there to see some of the core principles and ideas behind QS in action.
Your body is the ultimate interface problem. Sometimes, it just doesn’t give you the feedback you need.
They are creating products to provide feedback loops to the things we’re doing with our bodies. Their first app – they labeled it Massive Health Experiment 01 – is called The Eatery and wants to help people eat better.
The feedback loop of tracking food
Tracking food intake is a typical QS area and nothing new. Doctors and nutritionists have known about the power of feedback loops for a long time. Just tracking what we eat can change our behaviors. (Observer effect, anyone?) Knowing that somebody like our doctor will see our records and ask questions amplifies the effect.
No wonder the app stores are full of diet diary apps that want to take the food journal to the 21st century. So far, most of them haven’t managed to keep me using them. They are either too simple to give any meaningful insight or too complex by tracking exact calorie numbers etc., thus taking too much time to record a meal. The key is the fine balance between easy and fast recording and the provided feedback and insight. Only then can we expect reliable long-term results.
This balance is exactly what The Eatery is aiming for and after using the app for the last couple of weeks I’m really impressed by how good of a job it does.
Capturing a meal
At the core of The Eatery is a photo of everything I eat. That’s the social object – if you will – around which everything else is built. So, when I sit down to eat, I take out my iPhone, open the app, point the camera at whatever I’m eating and take a picture. Then it shows me where I most probably am (I can correct it if it’s off), I can choose the size of the meal (not in grams but in categories like “a little” to “you will be very full”), I can label it (with the help of autofill that shows me labels I entered before) and finally I have to rate the food by dragging the photo onto a scale between ‘fit’ and ‘fat’ that will result in a percentage rating for my meal. That’s it. It’s mostly dragging with your finger and typing a few characters. After a couple of days, I got pretty fast with capturing my food. And getting feedback on the food intake keeps the motivation high to fill out all data points.
Rating a meal
One of the big problems we have with food is that our knowledge about it can be very vague. So just letting me rate my own food might not be such a good idea. Even if I know pretty well which food is healthy and which is not, I might be tempted to cheat just a little. That’s where The Eatery’s anonymous peer-review comes in. My food is not only rated by me but by 12 to 16 other users. Likewise, I will rate the food of others. Right after I add my meal (or at anytime in the ‘Fit or Fat’ tab of the app), The Eatery shows me photos of food along with the other users’ descriptions, but without their names. I simply drag the photo onto the scale to cast my vote. It’s very easy and super fast but has some amazing effects.
First off, my food gets a decent average rating that keeps me honest. But it also has some very interesting side effects. I find that by rating meals for only a minute (that’s how long it usually takes me to rate a couple) a few times a day, it changes my relationship with food because I now make about 30 to 40 decisions about the healthiness of food every day. Every time I rate a meal, I quickly and almost subconsciously ask myself “How healthy is this?” I find the effect on my diet almost as big as the recording of my food itself. To put it bluntly: constantly rating fruit very high on the ‘fit’ scale makes me think “Damn, I should eat more of that stuff.”
From this article about The Eatery in Co.Design, Massive Health is also doing some amazing work behind the ratings. For example, they let nutritionists rate some of the photos and compare their rating with yours to learn about your knowledge of food, which will help them provide you with better insights. The app also shows you the same meal again, from time to time, to see how consistent you are in your ratings. All of this creates more data points, which in turn leads to better feedback.
Feedback & Insights
So far, Eatery’s feedback is pretty nice. It emphasizes the week as the timeframe for feedback. Massive Health thinks that we shouldn’t focus too much on a day-by-day or an even closer meal-by-meal comparison. This would put us under too much pressure und might weaken the long-term positive effect.
The app’s feedback tab first shows the average rating of my food for the ongoing and for last week to put the two directly into competition. It shows a graph of my average rating per day throughout the week, and then displays the best and the worst meal of the week. I can also access some insights about the places where I’m eating so that I might learn where I tend to eat unhealthy.
At the end of the week, The Eatery creates the week’s report with all kind of stats. For example, it tells me how I have eaten compared to the other Eatery users. It also shows me how healthy I eat on average throughout the day.
After using The Eatery for a couple of weeks, trying to record everything I eat, I can definitely say that it works for me. I’m much more conscious about what I eat. And that’s in equal parts due to recording my own food, getting the ratings for it, rating other’s meals, and the insights and feedback I get from the app for my own eating habits.
I also find myself saying crazy stuff like “Damn, that pasta never made it above 45%.“ All of a sudden, I have a new metric in my life. I know that fresh fruit will always rate above 90%. So yes, there have been moments where I bought apples to raise a low percentage, aka an unhealthy day. That’s just fine with me. Whatever helps.
A QS benchmark
In my opinion, Massive Healthy has done an amazing job finding the perfect balance between an easy-to-use app and the feedback and effect it provides. It is a great example of how to facilitate feedback loops and how to bring about long-term behavior change. Personally, I think the app is a benchmark for other QS apps for how to choose the needed data points and not just tracking everything. It is fuzzy by design because it is focused on the person, not the data or the food.
For the record, I haven’t talked about the social aspects of the app. The app allows my Facebook friends to follow my account to see and comment on what I’m eating. I guess this could be another help to be more responsible about our food and inspire each other. I haven’t gone into this because right now only about five friends have installed the app, and only one actually uses it. I simply have no observations so far about the effect the social aspect has. But I really hope that this will change in the future when a lot more people start using it. It’s well worth it.