Scouting your Health with Scanadu

A while ago, I posted about the XPrize being offered for the development of a Tricorder-like health-tracking device. In the last few weeks, one promising entrant, the Scanadu Scout, has raised $1.3 million through Indiegogo.

The Scanadu Scout is a small, handheld, disc-shaped device that when placed against your forehead is able to measure your pulse, temperature, oximetry, heart rate variability, pulse wave transit time, stress and even perform an ECG. It connects wireless with a smartphone which is able to track your data over time.

Pulse wave what?

Now if your eyes glazed over as you read that list of variables, you’re not alone. What exactly do these measurements mean and will the average person be able to comprehend all but the simplest of them? With a little research, here’s what I found.

Pulse oximetry measures the level of oxygen in a person’s blood and is generally used during operations, emergency and intensive care. However, it can also be used to detect medical conditions such as pneumonia, anemia, lung cancer and heart failure.

Pulse wave transit time provides a continuous reading for blood pressure. Easy enough.

Heart rate variability is a measure of how much the beat to beat interval of your heart rate varies. This is a good thing, and in fact, reduced heart rate variability is the thing to watch out for. It can be associated with diabetic neuropathy, heart failure, susceptibility to SIDS. It has also been related to increased stress levels, emotional anxiety and PTSD, says Wikipedia.

A Picture of Health or TMI?

Great, so now you can tell if you’re stressed out! Or rather, are you going to start stressing out about diabetic neuropathy and heart failure? Even with trackers as straightforward as the Fitbit, it’s a complex task trying to derive insight from the data. How are users to parse and understand what the Scanadu Scout will tell them?

On the other hand, having a picture of your general health can be vital. As a child growing up in Dubai, there were many times when a doctor’s visit culminated in a blood test. This was a first step to diagnosing non-obvious illnesses.

The test provides some insight into whether an illness is serious, but more importantly, the collective blood reports provide a narrative picture of your health.

On moving to the US, I was shocked when a coworker went through a year of constant flu-like illness without being offered a single blood test. When he finally got one, they found that his white blood cell counts were through the roof, and he was diagnosed with leukemia. A simple blood test early on could have put this friend on a path to recovery much earlier.

Understanding the data

So I certainly see the value of having access to such information, but I’m also eager to see how Scanadu handles educating their users on what the information actually means for them. We’ve all gone through the experience of looking up a symptom on the internet to find a horrifying list of diseases we might have.  A thoughtful approach will be essential to  provide users insight that is useful without causing undue stress. And at the same time, users will have to consider whether they can handle tracking their health without turning into hypochondriacs!

What do you think? Is ignorance bliss? Or would you rather get a heads up from one of these new devices? Let me know in the comments.

The Magical Vs. The Hackable

Today I read a great article on Make  by Gregory Hill about the differences between a magical and a hackable system. On a complete system like a computer with full-blown Windows, Mac or Linux OS, you can download and install millions of programs and learn how to program, how to make a website, how to put up a blog etc… You can create. This is a hackable system. Most programmers got their start messing around with their own computer as kids or teenagers.

Kids playing with Ipad

Photo by iChris

On a tablet or smartphone however, the magical experience separates us from the nuts and bolts.

From the article, “tablets strike us with awe by their magic, seven sensors that can help track our every movement, providing us with detailed data about our daily lives. This is cool, but creates an illusionary distance between us and the technology that drives these experiences.”

To write an app for your tablet, you need to get a real computer. Unless you have a keyboard, even typing a blog post is a pain. What it does best is allow you to consume what others have created. I find that kind of sad.

The Hardware Perspective

Inside a desktop computerThe magical vs. hackable comparison is true of hardware as well. Desktop computers are inherently hackable systems. Take off a screw or two and wow, you’re looking at the innards of your computer.

You can see the drives, the RAM, how they connect. You can see how easy it might be to swap one out for a bigger, better, faster version. For this reason, I still have a desktop computer. I love that you can keep them going by swapping out parts as needed.

Move to the laptop and popping it open and swapping out parts gets a bit rougher, it’s a tight spot in there. The slicker and skinnier the laptop, the harder it is to take apart and put back. But move now, to tablets, and you’re completely out of luck. At best, you can swap out the miniSD card.

The Next Gen

What does this mean for you? Well for one, think about how ditching the hackable system for a magical one will affect your ability to create – whether it’s writing or photo processing or coding. But more importantly, if you are buying a computer for a student, consider getting them a “hackable” system so they might be inspired to create instead of consuming, to hack instead of replacing every two years. You may think they are “not the type to do that stuff” but none of us were the type until the day we decided to try. Had we been holding a shiny, magical tablet at the time, we may not have gotten very far.

Change is Good – Keeps you Fresh

As you may have noticed, I haven’t posted anything in a while, so a brief update may be in order. In the last three months, I graduated from UC San Diego with a master’s degree, got a job at Fitbit in San Francisco, and moved from San Diego to Oakland. Lots of exciting changes! With very little time to write for the site. But I’m hoping to turn that around now that things are settling a bit.


Fitbit FlexA bit about Fitbit, I’ve posted about them before and it was my interest in their products that led me to apply to work there. The Fitbit tracks your daily activity using sensors such as accelerometers and altimeters. The data is tracked in a small device you wear in your pocket or on your wrist and synced to a website and mobile app.

Changing Behavior

I got my Fitbit from the company when I joined so I didn’t buy it with the intent to change my behavior as most consumers probably do. Still, I definitely find myself making different choices because of the Fitbit, which is amazing because changing behavior is difficult stuff! Harder than changing cities and changing jobs, take it from me.

These days, if I have to choose between multiple trips carrying groceries or going the long way round, I feel the extra effort isn’t “wasted” because the Fitbit is counting. Logically, I know it’s good for my health whether the Fitbit is counting or not, but somehow when you can’t see it, it doesn’t seem real and tangible. And it does feel like wasted time. I’m the kind of person that walks the hypotenuse because it’s the shortest distance.

Easy Peasy

Another thing I enjoy about the Fitbit is the minimal maintenance of the product. It syncs wirelessly with your computer without you having to do anything. It needs charging once every week or two! I’ve posted before about how charging all your various devices can be a real pain and offset the benefits of the device itself. As described in that post, low power wireless technologies can change that and the Fitbit takes advantage of this by using Bluetooth Low Energy. It also has a dead simple interface that ensures that any user can get going without having to “learn” how to use it.

So that’s where I work right now, writing firmware for Fitbit’s next great products! And I hope to get back to writing some articles for the site as well. Thanks for reading.

5 Reasons Embedded Systems Designers Should Embrace HCI

As an embedded software engineer who is interested in bringing HCI design practice to embedded devices, I often hear people say, “Oh but we don’t have a display on our device, so I’m not sure we need that”. Somehow, the embedded systems community seems to have decided that well designed interactions only apply to software with a GUI. I’d like to argue that’s not true. In fact, embedded devices not only need good interaction design, but they need it more than traditional (computer-based) software.

1. Embedded devices can’t fall back on default interactions

Wacom CintiqTraditional software solutions can always fall back to the screen/keyboard/mouse interaction. For example, when developing image editing software, you can always start with a mouse and keyboard interface, despite the fact that a tablet interface may be better.

But embedded devices are almost defined by their lack of mouse and keyboard. The embedded designer has no default interaction, they need to make the difficult choices up front about what form of input they can support and how they can relay feedback or information.

The embedded designer has no default interaction, they need to make the difficult choices up front.

A very simple example of this is designing a device that uses WiFi for connectivity. Entering a WEP key is challenging under any circumstances, imagine how much more so without a real keyboard. Is it even possible without a display?

2. Embedded devices go everywhere

Fitbit OneThis means they are exposed to the elements, challenging lighting conditions and portability constraints in ways that regular software is not. For e.g. wearable fitness devices often get ruined by sweat which can be quite corrosive to metals. The latest offerings, such as the Fitbit One, are now sweatproof and rainproof, but you can imagine in the early devices, the software developers had to contend with false readings due to moisture on the sensor.

3. Embedded devices are not the center of attention

Of course, they can be. Certainly, the latest phones and tablets garner a lot of attention. But a vast majority of embedded devices have to operate in a context where the user has other tasks and goals taking their attention. Attention is an increasingly precious and scarce resource as more and more of our devices compete for it. A well-designed device should work well in the background, and capture your attention judiciously, if at all.

A well-designed device should work well in the background, and capture your attention judiciously, if at all.

Think about car entertainment systems, they’re best when easily operated, preferably without even having to glance at them, because the user’s main goal is driving, not playing music. In fact, to avoid users taking their hands off the wheel, most newer vehicles provide controls embedded in the steering wheel itself.

4. Embedded devices want you to twist them, pull them, bop them

Remember that old game, Bop It? Twisting, pulling, yes even bopping are affordances. If you haven’t heard the term, Wikipedia says, “An affordance is a quality of an object, or an environment, which allows an individual to perform an action. For example, a knob affords twisting, and perhaps pushing, while a cord affords pulling.”

Keyboards and mice have some affordances but they’ve been well explored. Embedded devices have all sorts of great new affordances, because they’re not tied to a particular form.  They can take advantage of the many ways that we interact with the natural world around us.

Embedded devices enable a whole new universe of interactions that are unexplored solely because the keyboard and mouse didn’t afford them.

A company called Blast Motion creates pucks that can be embedded into golf clubs and tennis rackets to analyze your swing. The interface is simply swinging your golf club. Pinch-to-zoom and multi-touch didn’t really become popular until you had to use your hand to interact with your iPhone. Embedded devices enable a whole new universe of interactions that are unexplored solely because the keyboard and mouse didn’t afford them.

5. Customers care.

Finally, embedded designers should care because their customers do. Back in the mid 2000s, everyone thought the cellphone market in the US was saturated, and the only way to sell phones was to make ultra low cost versions for China and India. Then, Apple came out with the first iPhone in 2007, and all of a sudden, everyone was willing to pay $499 for a cellphone.

Actions that were frustrating before seemed effortless, intuitive… fun, even.

Why? There was nothing special about the hardware and software, technologically speaking. What was special was the interaction experience it gave users. Actions that were frustrating before seemed effortless, intuitive… fun, even. Do you know how many grandparents are happy to use an iPhone? Grandparents! The very same ones that you spend hours setting up Blu-ray players and digital frames for every Christmas.

So, what now?

Well, that’s the longest rant yet. But I absolutely believe that embedded devices are the next frontier for computing. Low power networking, sensing technologies and fast processors are converging right now making a lot of amazing products possible. But these products won’t go far unless we take the next step.

The only way to move the product from the hands of a few early adopters to the masses is to learn about interaction design, to think about users, their context and goals, and iterate the design until the product is an absolute delight to use.

To start, Don Norman’s excellent book The Design of Everyday Things will get you to look at everything around you as a designed interface.
The Interaction Design Encyclopedia is a great resource explaining the terms and concepts.
Scott Klemmer, Stanford professor and HCI star, has a free HCI course on Coursera.
Are you going to start thinking about how to design interactions with your product? Post your thoughts below!

The Star Trek Tricorder – Almost Here?

It’s amazing to me how many of our new inventions have their roots in science fiction. The original flip-phones look very similar to the Star Trek communicator. Gestural interfaces entered our consciousness through Minority Report. If you remember the Tricorder from Star Trek, it was a device that could diagnose patients with a simple wave. That too, may be a reality soon, in some capacity.

The Tricorder X Prize

In January of this year, the X Prize Foundation started a $10 million competition to build a real Tricorder. With the current convergence of innovations in sensors, wireless communication, and high powered processors, the Tricorder may very well be possible today. The foundation, funded by Qualcomm, created a set of requirements for the competition. The Tricorder must be able to diagnose a set of conditions such as diabetes, anaemia, etc. In addition, it must be simple enough for a regular consumer and weigh no more than 5 pounds.

These last two limits are crucial. By making the device simple and portable, it enables a wide audience of regular people to take control of their health. Marginalized users, such as caregivers in rural areas, can take advantage of medical technology more advanced than what many hospitals have access to. Home users could determine whether a visit to an ER is necessary, diagnosing issues such as a heart attack or stroke that may require immediate attention. Of course the device currently needs more that just a wave to work, but nothing invasive.

To the cloud

The next step, of course, is to take that data to the cloud. Data-mining algorithms could then find new patterns of disease detection and prevention. What does that mean to you? Well, on a personal level, it could detect your personal patterns that lead to migraine, stroke, or diabetes. On a global level, it could find new unnoticed symptoms before, during and after a disease. It could find correlations between symptoms that lead to a new understanding of certain conditions.

Naturally, there will be many privacy issues to consider, and of course at first the Tricorder can only collect certain metrics. It won’t be able to tell if you are depressed or itchy, for example. Already, many people in the Quantified Self movement are tracking many of their own personal metrics, so a device like the Tricorder would be invaluable to them. But that’s a story for another day.

What about you? Ready to be diagnosed by a Tricorder?
Or still prefer the cold, long wait in your doctor’s waiting room?
Let me know in the comments.

Lean Startup is User Design for Your Business Idea

I had a sudden epiphany yesterday that I’d like to share! Lately, I’ve been reading up about the Lean Startup movement. Lean Startup, pioneered by Eric Ries, is a business model that involves prototyping and testing one’s hypotheses early on, to avoid the high cost of failure.

The premise is simple, you test your intuitions about your idea, your customers and your business plan, before you even start work on implementing the solution. This way you can find the flaws, or even that the original idea is a no-go, early on rather than after you’ve spent your life savings developing it.

Parallels with HCI

So last night, I was watching a bunch of Lean Startup videos online from Ignite, and right after watching these videos, I switched tracks and started watching some lectures on HCI. Scott Klemmer, HCI star and soon-to-be UCSD professor has started a free online course on Coursera. Immediately, I realized the parallels between the two methodologies. HCI and UX recommend prototyping to test ideas, tight design iterations to learn from and change your interface, and developing rich customer personas.

It occurred to me then, that Lean Startup is essentially applying HCI and UX concepts to startups. The product you are designing is your business, including all its components – the solution, who you think your customer is, how you plan to target them , and how you intend to make money. You test all the assumptions you make about who your customer is, what they want and whether your solution provides it.

Just as the developer is not a good judge of an intuitive interface, the entrepreneur is often not the best judge of whether customers will flock to their solution over others. Basically, your customer is your user and the business model you present them with is their interface to your solution.

Other Thoughts

Today, I wake up and find this article from Smashing Magazine posted by my friend, Matt Hong. Clearly, I’m not the only one to see the parallels. The author, Tomer Sharon, goes one step further to say that Lean Startup is just great packaging for UX principles. Having just been introduced to the Lean Startup movement, I can’t verify that, but I can definitely see the similarities. It’s also what draws me to the Lean Startup methodology.

Do you see similarities between the ideas? If you haven’t heard much about one or both, head over and read the article at Smashing magazine.
What are some other HCI concepts that haven’t been applied to the design of a business?

Thumbnail and front page images courtesy of Flickr users betseyweber and krawcowicz respectively.