How self-tracking and sports apps manage to actually change human behavior

selftracking_sportsSelf-tracking has a long history in the area of sports. It’s therefore not surprising that a large number of the most popular apps are found in the sports market. For instance, apps for runners represent one of the most popular app categories in the various app stores. Currently over 100 million sports apps are downloaded. Added to which, this is a market that is developing at a very fast pace. Second-generation running apps can already be found in the app stores. An important difference with the first generation is that a shift has taken place from tracking to effecting behavioral change. Thus, running apps are perfectly aligned with the current trend in Silicon Valley: how can you permanently change human behavior?

Jogging is great because it does not seem to take a lot of commitment. It does not take up much time, few appointments have to be made and the material costs are negligible. This is one of the reasons why running is seeing a quick uptick in popularity in the current era of overbooked agendas, zapping and whatsapping. A drawback is that the lack of commitment can cause people to drop it more quickly. The motivation to continue running or even go outside is easily lost.

The second generation of running apps: enhanced running

The first generation of running apps was strongly driven by technology: anything the smartphone could do became a feature. Distance, speed, route, and sometimes the pulse and a calculation of the number of calories burned. The underlying idea was that the numbers tell the tale. However, virtually nobody actually makes the transition from intelligence to behavior(al change). This is something that the second wave of running apps is trying to achieve: to actually and permanently change behavior. I call these apps ‘enhanced running apps’. They offer more than the existing apps and sportswatches: the new instruments are the ability to set targets, social validation, gamification and conceptualization. These instruments do not just cover running, but every domain in which changes in behavior are required: from losing weight to adopting healthy work habits, from learning to stick to a therapy to quitting smoking. All these apps are powered by the strongly improved sensors and computational power of smartphones (and soon wearable devices such as Google Glass).


Possibly the most corny aspect of these instruments is that they create distraction. Many people listen to music when running, but things do not stop there. Users can listen to stories on the way or even a series of stories, as a new variant of a radio play. The introduction of Google Glass even allows them to watch entire television series. Tailor-made content relevant to runners. You start running because you want to know how the story ends. Cliffhangers will take on a completely new role.

An example: Story Running by Runtastic



Gaming goes well beyond gamification. It transforms running into one of the video games we know from the PlayStation and Xbox. Runners have to complete missions, dodge enemies, perform strategic operations, hunt for treasures or found a nation. The entire game process is determined by your running behavior. The objective is to reach the next level, and that is something that motivates people. Applying gaming to Google Glass, you will literally enter a 3D ‘reality’; with the new augmented reality capabilities, the sky is the limit.

Examples: Zombies, run! will also introduce a running game shortly


Setting objectives

This is almost the simplest of instruments: challenge runners to set themselves an objective and achieve it. This could involve running 300 kilometers in the space of a month, running 5 kilometers within half an hour or running longer this week than the previous week. If you link an objective to other objectives, the result almost looks like a traditional match: who of us two or which member of our group is capable of running the greatest distance? Objectives that have been linked to events often produce the best results, e.g. during the preparations for the Rotterdam marathon or the Damloop in Amsterdam.

Examples: Runkeeper, Nike Plus and

Social validation

Research shows that peer pressure or it positive variant, social validation, make up one of the most powerful instruments for effecting behavioral change. Examples are the group sessions by Alcoholics Anonymous and group-based training. The digital variant of this is now starting to gain traction. Live encouragements via social media, virtual training groups and following up on tips from followers or following running routes created by fans. The concept of “running alone yet together” is on the rise. With Google Glass, this concept will see a major boost, with ghosting (running against a projected opponent) taking the lead.

Example: Nike Plus

Enhanced running apps are in their infancy

It is extremely difficult to change human behavior. The most difficult thing for this new breed of apps is to actually motivate people to start using them. In this connection, the above instruments only form the beginning of a new wave of apps that look beyond data and statistics and opt for a tacit approach.

I expect a lot more from these tacit ways of encouraging people, e.g. using music (or video, in the case of Google Glass). The best enhanced running apps will intelligently combine the instruments we discussed and only use existing training dogmas as the basis for their game, concept, objective or social interaction. In this context, running will again form the test case for other areas, not just in terms of sports. It will be used for social purposes and to promote health and well-being.

GlassFit screenshot