I was encouraged to purchase a Fitbug as part of the healthcare scheme I’m a member of. The more I walk around, the more benefits I get from the scheme. Of course this makes sense – a fitter, healthier, more active me is less likely to have expensive healthcare requirements.

I’d been curious about the whole wearable fitness device market for some time, after seeing friends with Nike Plus gadgets and Fitbits. So the extra incentive of a healthcare bonus was enough for me to take the plunge.

I bought the Fitbug Air, which is a simple pedometer that can sync to an iPhone or iPad via Bluetooth. It’s a simple gadget with an LCD and three buttons on the front. It comes with a lanyard and a belt clip. The Air comes with a subscription to the Fitbug website, where you can track your daily calorie intake, add other exercises, set goals, and review previous activity. There’s an iOS app that lets you review basic information and sync your device’s data to the website, and there’s also a simple website that walks you through the Fitbug setup.

Fitbug Air

As a motivator to encourage more exercise, it definitely works. If you get toward the end of the day and your steps are measured in the hundreds rather than the thousands, you know you’ve been very lazy and it’s time to go for a walk.

In theory, the device is simple enough to just leave in your pocket and ignore. In practice, there are a few problems with this approach.

When in the pocket, the buttons have the tendency to get pushed accidentally if you lean against a desk, kneel in tight jeans, or have a shoulder bag. You then have to figure out which button was pressed. For example, it’s possible to accidentally alter your stride length, which throws out the measurements. This is exacerbated by the fact that the device comes with no useful documentation for the buttons. There’s various modes (for example, viewing historical data), but you have to work it all out for yourself.

The device is supposed to automatically sync via bluetooth to the iOS app whenever there’s been activity in a (configurable) 30 minute period. In practice, the sync stops working unless you restart the iOS app occasionally. Here, for example, the Fitbug stopped uploading for a couple of days, until I checked the app and kicked it:

Fitbug app

The app is supposed to support multiple devices (only one device in the UI, but multiple devices can sync to the website), so that several people can use Fitbugs without everyone having to own an iOS device. It took a call from the (extremely helpful and friendly) Fitbug support team to get this working for me.

Speaking of multiple devices, the second device I received shipped with a spare battery and other bits and pieces. I contacted Fitbug to ask why the first device didn’t come with this, but have yet to hear back.

You also can’t update nutrition information through the app, which makes logging data on the move during the day hard work. You can use the website, but it’s not entirely mobile-friendly.

The Fitbug website is schizophrenic. When I started using it, there were two versions of the site; an old version and a new one “with a bit of KiK”. I’ve no idea what “KiK” is, and it’s not documented anywhere.

Fitbug websites

The “new” site is pretty, and the infographic-style presentation of information is nice, although much of the terminology isn’t explained. For example, “you’ve hit pink!” on the nutrition section presumably means you’ve eaten the right amount.

Unfortunately, despite all the work that’s been done on the shiny new site, when you receive your weekly Fitbug update email, and click for the progress report, it takes you to the old-style website. This means customers have to be familiar navigating around both sites.

As if two sites weren’t enough, with the recent release of the Orb, Fitbug has replaced their new site with a new new landing page, which is one of the most buggy website implementations you’re ever likely to see. Check out the placement of the login/register buttons in the top-right of this screenshot for example:

Fitbug new new site

If you resize the browser window, making it narrower and then wider again repeatedly, those icons gradually move off the top of the page.

One nice feature of the Fitbug site is that it frequently asks you for feedback. I must have filed a dozen bugs by now, including suggestions for usability tweaks. Unfortunately, over the course of the last few months I haven’t seen any changes as a result of this feedback, so I’ve stopped submitting any.

At this point, you might be forgiven for thinking that as a new entrant to the market, Fitbug are still working out a few teething troubles. But surprisingly Fitbug has been around since 2005, two years ahead of better-known competitors such as Fitbit. So it’s somewhat disappointing that they are not much further ahead. I don’t mean to belittle the challenges of building an integrated hardware and software business, including mobile apps, an extensive website, and partnerships, but there just seem to be rather a lot of loose ends and a lack of polish. This is a booming industry, with fierce and rapidly-evolving competition.

Despite all the glitches and issues, I’ll still be using the Fitbug and, on the whole, I’m glad I’ve got it. I’m definitely walking more, and the website calorie counter provides a useful motivational tool – when you see your daily calorific intake, it provides additional motivation to take it easy on the snacks or to adjust your diet.

Now that I’ve got into fitness tracking device ownership, I’d like to try out alternative devices and apps. Unfortunately, I can’t (or at least, not without continuing to use the Fitbug as well). The sensible way to manage activity measurements would have been for healthcare providers to have an open API that any device can talk to, so that consumers can pick which pedometer they want to use. What’s happened instead is that healthcare providers only recognise one supplier, locking out choice and stifling innovation. It’s a familiar story in the technology world, and companies never seem to learn the lessons of the past. It’s not necessarily Fitbug’s fault, but I’d be a little more lenient toward them if they applied a little more polish to their offering.

Right, I’m off for a walk.

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