The impact of tracking technology on an online running community

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This is the work to date on my Master’s thesis. I am gladly sharing it with you as so many of your have contributed. I am very grateful to the 1,147 respondents to the survey and the 23 to the pilot survey who helped shape it. I am, in particular, very grateful to those who were interviewed and completed the open question questionnaires that became the qualitative pieces.

I will spare you the long, painful drudge of the literature review as it can be a little dry,  but am happy to share some of the findings and I look forward to sharing the completed paper in the Spring.

Darren

Abstract

Activity tracking technology (ATT) is a ubiquitous part of modern fitness lifestyles, yet there is little research on the impact of said technology on end users. Most research to date on the impact of ATT on the end user has been conducted in the medical field. Further to this the role of fitness rewards in the use of the technology is investigated, and the view on ATT uptake by specialists in the field is explored.

A survey research methodology using questionnaires and interviews was employed. The quantitative data was analysed using descriptive statistics and the qualitative data via thematic analysis. The survey sample consisted of members of an online running community and the interviews were conducted with senior community members and fitness rewards providers

The main results of the survey indicate that tracking long term progress against goals was the primary reason for use of ATT. 95% of respondents stated that technology failures would not stop them from exercising, even though 42% of the sample indicated that technology failures do affect their motivation. The main reasons for disuse were poor connectivity to GPS (36.52%), followed by poor battery life (32.47%) and constant technical issues (23.06%). A key theme that arose from the thematic analyses was around the use of ATT in data sharing through social media and websites.

Background to the Problem

Activity tracking technology (ATT) is relatively new in the fitness market and yet is fast becoming a part of everyday life. Whilst fast-moving technological advances and competitive pricing have allowed many to start using tracking technology it is not yet understood whether usage of this technology has a positive or negative impact on the users. The aim of this research is to establish whether the technological aspects and features of ATT have an impact, either positively or negatively, on a user.

In addition, little is understood regarding the following;

  • The reasons one tracking method is chosen over another
  • Whether the use of the device/method promotes activity or not
  • If technical failures or difficulty of use impacts negatively on activity levels
  • The length of time the technology is used for – i.e. continued use over an extended period or whether it is discarded when interest wanes, or fitness goals are reached

Further study is needed to understand why ATT is adopted, what factors steer a decision for one ATT (GPS Watch/Pedometer/Smartphone application/Website) over another, and, perhaps the most important factor of this research, whether the reliability and ease of use of the ATT negatively impacts the users. The ATT types considered include:

  • GPS Watch – a multifunction sports watch with GPS tracking technology, tracking pace, speed, distance, laps and split times, as well as GPS routes, that can then be uploaded to a website for data analysis and data sharing.
  • Pedometer or Foot pod – either a standalone device tracking steps taken based on pre-set stride length, or a peripheral of a Smartphone application or GPS watch.
  • Smartphone Application – An application using the phone’s GPS to track activity or that requires the user to enter activity, or can be linked to a GPS watch, HRM or a pedometer.
  • Website – either a website used by smartphone applications or GPS watches to synchronise activity, or one that requires the user to upload the activity manually.
  • Heart Rate Monitor (HRM) – a peripheral of a Smartphone or GPS watch that allows for the recording of heart rate during exercise.

Aims, Objectives, methods, tasks and deliverables

The following details the aims, objectives, methods, tasks and deliverables;

Aim: To establish whether the technological aspects of Activity Tracking Technology (ATT) have an impact, either negatively or positively, on a user.

Objective 1: Identify whether the use of ATT has an impact, either positively or negatively, on an online running community.

Objective 2: Identify the factors that will drive a user to choose one ATT over another, e.g. complexity of use, reliability, usefulness, and personal aims.

Objective 3: Identify the factors that impede the use of ATT, e.g. complexity of use, reliability, usefulness, personal aims.

Objective 4: Investigate why some runners do not use ATT, including those that stop using it, e.g. type of runner (competitive vs participant, racer vs leisure), personal goals, age, and demographics.

Objective 5: Investigate the use of ATT and modern technology by fitness rewards providers, and online running club specialists.

s for the different stakeholders such as ATT developers, fitness rewards providers, health professionals and online running clubs, detailing the key aspects that would lead to the successful adoption and continued use of ATT.

      Methods: Survey, interviews, review

      Techniques: Questionnaires, interviews, literature review

Tasks: Questionnaires: Identify sample set of responders for pilot questionnaire, create pilot questionnaire, publicise pilot questionnaire, publish questionnaire, review results, amend question set, create questionnaire, publicise and publish questionnaire, close questionnaire, review results.

Write second questionnaire for fitness rewards companies and SMEs, send questionnaire via email, collate responses, review results.

Interviews: Identify interviewees, design question set, organise interviews, hold interviews, review results.

Literature review: search online sources, critically assess relevance literature and discard or retain, write literature review.

Method(s) and techniques selected

The primary method of gathering the research data was a questionnaire advertised through social media and a smaller series of interviews with fitness rewards providers to the community and senior members of the community.

Note: The interviews replace the open question questionnaire for those individuals.

Samples

A questionnaire into individual use of ATT, was advertised to the UKRUNCHAT online running community, specifically on Twitter. At the time of writing the community is 46,600 followers. The accessible population is made up of those followers that are individual runners, and not fellow groups, companies or organisations such as sporting goods manufacturers and races. The exact number of individuals in the community is unknown, with the estimation offered by the UKRUNCHAT founder and administrators as being approximately 30,000, or between 70-75% of their total following. Of that number, 1,200 – 1,500 members are active on a weekly basis. It is hoped to receive 80% of the active membership (approx. 1,200 responses) to the survey.

Four Fitness Rewards Providers were identified after using a Twitter Poll of UKRUNCHAT members online and agreed to be part of the study. These were:

  • Fitness Rewards
  • Vitality
  • Running Heroes
  • Bounts

Three (Fitness Rewards, Bounts and Running Heroes) received a set of open ended questions specifically targeting their members, and their strategy to better understand the perspective of the Health and Fitness Market on ATT usage. The fourth (Vitality) was a phone interview with Head of Research and Development, Tom Davis conducted on Tuesday 2nd August 2016. Further to their initial response, Fitness Rewards and Running Heroes agreed to a brief telephone interview to discuss their answers. Bounts did not respond to the questions or further emails.

Further interviews were conducted with the founding members of the UKRUNCHAT community, the administrators, and their subject matter experts including Physical Trainers (PTs), doctor (GP), sports psychologist and coaches.

Data Analysis Techniques

Quantitative Analysis

The analysis of the large sample set will take the form of standard descriptive statistics to show:

  • Demographics of the sample set
  • ATT Usage
  • Comparisons between combined data sets (e.g., length of time running vs ATT usage, length of time running vs frequency of activity, gender vs ATT usage and frequency of activity, age vs ATT usage and frequency of activity)

This data will be represented using several graphing techniques including distributed bar charts to show individual statistics, such as basic demographics.

Inferential statistical methods, will be used. Most notably scatter graphs to show the comparisons of one or more statistics and radar charts to better illustrate runner types when describing ATT users (those that do not use ATT, those reliant on ATT to prompt activity, those that do not rely on ATT, those that stopped using ATT).

Qualitative Analysis

Given the nature of the qualitative data to be returned by the set of interviewees and survey respondents, thematic analysis was used to create a coded framework for each of the respondents. The consensus framework was then created and each theme scored based on its appearance in each of the interviews.

Only the consensus framework is shown in the Results section.

Results

The primary research carried out was in the form of a questionnaire to determine the use of ATT in the UKRUNCHAT community, an online running community of 46,000 on Twitter. The survey was originally piloted to 25 of the community administrators and prominent members for revisions and further ideas before being published to the wider community with minor changes.

The survey ran on the online platform SurveyMonkey for 6 weeks from 15th August to 30th September 2016. The survey was advertised daily on the UKRUNCHAT Twitter account and during the bi-weekly UKRUNCHAT HOUR forums, as these events gain the largest audience.

The survey received 1,147 responses, or 69% of the active community members.

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The sample is predominantly over 30 years of age (85.77%), with 55.74% male 44.26% female representation.  Several factors were investigated alongside the use/disuse of ATT, namely being a member of a running club (36.57%), being a member of a rewards scheme (26.76%), and the type of runner (run to win 9.79%, run to finish 38.72%, just run 51.49%) as it was hypothesised that they may be underlying factors for prolonged and specific use of ATT.

60.21% of respondents have been running for less than 5 years, the years where ATT has evolved and improved, whilst the remaining 39.79% would have started running before ATT became widespread and sophisticated.

A clear majority of the respondents use ATT (96.40%) and of those 74.95% use the brand, Garmin.

When asked about the reason they chose their ATT the top reasons were not technical

  • I have used this brand before 31.97%,
  • personal recommendation 29.01% and
  • cost 19.00%

However, the top reasons that the users like their device are all technical

  • Ease of use 79.00%,
  • connectivity to GPS 56.98%, and
  • features 45.24%

with other technical reasons such as the ability to data share, the data content, reliability and battery life all receiving around the 30% to 40% mark.

99.16% of the respondents track distance, with average pace (90.51%), activity time (79.16%) and GPS route (59.35%) scoring highly showing that the variety of trackable data is important to the users.

Of this 76.44% simply track activity, whilst 61.82% use ATT to set and track against goals, 50.19% use ATT as a motivator to exercise, and 11.73% use ATT to challenge themselves and others in competition (gamification). Reliability, and battery life is listed by 66.76% as being the most important feature of ATT, with ease of use (27.27%).

80.45% say that they upload their data to a website, and 61.71% state they share this data with others. Given that data sharing being a factor in choosing a device  was only stated by 17.52% and only 11.73% stating they share for the purposes of gamification suggests that the technology used to upload and share data is reliable and easy to use, and therefore even though it is not a main reason for choosing the ATT it is used.

The personal reasons for using ATT varies, with many people using the device for more than one purpose, suggesting that the ATT needs to fit with the individual’s fitness lifestyle

  • tracking long term progress 77.81%,
  • track short term progress 56.45%,
  • motivation to train harder 50.42%,
  • motivation to train more regularly 50.42%,
  • sharing data with others 36.16%

Only 26.76% link their ATT to a fitness reward scheme and only 17.93%, find the offer of rewards based on evidencing their activity is an incentive to run/exercise, suggesting that this is not a main reason for using ATT within the community, and the rewards themselves are insufficient as means of motivation to prompt activity.

Regarding reliability, 66.79% of respondents stated that their ATT rarely fails, with a further 22.96% stating that it never fails. When the technology does fail, 41.64% said it affects their motivation but only 8.27% said it would stop them running. This suggests that whilst ATT is important to many runners in the community, and has many features that they use, even if those were not the reason for purchasing the ATT, that ATT is not essential to their activity levels.

Mapping of Factors for choosing, not choosing, using and stopping use of ATT

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Community Specialist Interviews/Survey

Ten senior members of the UKRUNCHAT community were contacted for interview. The interviews took place from late September to mid-November with the idea of gaining their opinion on their personal use of ATT, and the use within the community and by the adminstrators.

  • Senior administrators (also experienced marathon and ultramarathon runners)
  • The founders of the community
  • Professional Trainers
  • Community GP

Prior to the results of the runner survey being known and shared, the interviews consisted of open questions on the use of technology by the running community as well as their own experience of using ATT. To analyse the data gathered from these interviews an inductive approach was adopted and a thematic content analysis completed to create a coding framework. The transcripts were then condensed to achieve the final consensus coding framework below.

Results

Final Common Coding Framework

The final coding framework was produced by analysing the themes in the individual interview transcripts with the senior UKRUNCHAT community members, condensing the results into themes that can then be applied to interviews then scored based on their appearance as a theme in each of the interviews.

Theme/Respondent 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Total /10
Evolution of personal use/need x x x x x x x x x 9
Data sharing is easy x x x x x x x x x 9
ATT is a useful tool to track based on personal targets x x x x x x x x 8
Used as community motivator for gamification x x x x x x x x 8
Interoperability with other systems and services are used x x x x x x x 7
Personal Preference to run tracked x x x x x 5
Multi-functional x x x x x 5
Social media engagement x x x x x 5
ATT used habitually but not overriding the desire to exercise x x x x 4
Ease of use x x x x 4
The personal fit of the device x x x 3
Affects the mindset and motivation x x 3
Not always reliable, depends on ATT supplier x x x 3
Best of breed needed until a superior all-rounder can be developed x x 2
Data sharing and tracking adds pressure x x 2
Reliable x x 2
Numerous barriers – cost, and not wanting to share exercise x x 2
Mostly reliable but with limitations, and failures can be terrible based on timing x 1
Takes the fun out of running x 1
Online running communities such as UKRunChat have been brought about by the rise in related technology x 1
Overriding reasons not to use ATT x 1
Privacy Concerns x 1
Mostly reliable but with limitations, sometimes complex and non-intuitive x 1
Future of ATT? x 1

Conclusions

The senior community members considered both their own personal use of ATT as well as its use by the wider UKRUNCHAT community. 80% agreed that ATT is a useful tool to track progress against personal targets and that a user’s relationship with ATT evolves alongside changes in their tracking needs and fitness aims. This follows with an understanding that ATT needs to “fit” with the user’s lifestyle and fitness goals. Whilst an entry level application, for example a Couch to 5K phone application used to simply record entered distances and times, is chosen when a user starts running, this is soon replaced when the 5K goal is reached. A device with more features is then chosen, say a GPS watch that will allow for the automatic tracking of a run route, and real time updates of time, distance, and pace and splits.

Much like the Fitness Rewards providers and the community wide survey, the senior community members agree that the way that ATT connects with other devices, such as a watch and phone, and applications, such a data sharing websites like Strava, Garmin Connect, and Nike+ is part of its appeal to the users. Five of the six interviewed listed the ease of data sharing as a theme when discussing the technology. This could be linked to the use by the community administrators to engage in gamification, by using tracking site and application Endomondo, to increase activity and community involvement. Monthly challenges between the two teams (red and blue) for total team distance or total hours of activity attract a lot of involvement with hundreds of community members tracking their activity on this way.

Of the areas that the senior community members differed included their understanding and experience of reliability of the technology. Two of the five described ATT as being reliable, whilst two said it was mostly reliable but can potentially be complex and one stated that the technology is mostly reliable but that the timing of failures can be terrible. ATT can also be seen in a negative manner. The burden of data sharing can add pressure to the user, this can stop them from using it, as they feel intimidated by having to be compared to others. Privacy concerns of the data is also listed as a reason why runners do not necessarily take on ATT as a tool. This theme of privacy is mentioned again with the Fitness Rewards Providers.

Results – Fitness Rewards Providers

Of the four fitness rewards providers listed by the #UKRUNCHAT community in a Twitter poll, three responded to the interview request (Fitness Rewards (FR), Running Heroes (RH) and Vitality (V). The omission was Bounts).  Prior to the results of the runner survey being known and shared, the interviews consisted of open questions on the use of technology by the company and their members (the running community). To analyse the data gathered from these interviews an inductive approach was adopted and a thematic content analysis completed to create a coding framework.

Final Common Coding Framework

Theme FR RH V Total
Interoperability and automatic connectivity and data gathering x x x 3
Vast majority of users use ATT x x 2
Personal Fit of technology and lifestyle x x 2
Use of social media is norm x x 2
Privacy Concerns x x 2
Prompts changes in behaviour x 1
Use linked to ultimate goal x 1
Multiple activity types can be tracked x 1
Ease of use x 1

Conclusions

The Fitness Rewards Providers are using ATT from a business perspective and their responses show this. This explains why the theme that achieved full consensus was that of interoperability, or the interconnectedness of systems and technology that allow for data sharing, collection and analysis. The Fitness Rewards Providers make full use of ATT and its ability to easily share tracked activity from many types of device (most brands of GPS watches and numerous phone applications), as well as being at the forefront of new technologies such as using swipe cards at gyms to track their members.

Where known, the Fitness Reward Providers acknowledge that a clear majority of their users (90% for Fitness Rewards and 97% for running heroes) make use of ATT to tracking their activity, tracking multiple and varied activities, after choosing ATT that fits their lifestyle. The use of social media is the norm for communication between the providers and their members, as it allows them to reach more of their members at once via Twitter and Facebook. The providers believe that the main cause for people not adopting ATT is privacy concerns, with Vitality (V) believing that members stop using ATT once they have achieved their personal fitness goal.

Overall Conclusions

Of course, I am working on these, but as you can see from the above results and draft conclusions there are some interesting findings. The main being a little obvious, once you take out variables that I believed would cause people to use ATT more (being part of a fitness rewards scheme, part of a running club), that whilst virtually everyone uses ATT (97%) to track their running progress, and 40% state that their motivation to run is impacted by ATT that if it fails only 8% say it would stop them running. So whilst the use of Activity Tracking Technology has become habitual for modern runners technological failures are insufficient to stop them running.

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