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on tech innovation in health and fitness and beyond

Last week at the Consumer Electronics Show I attended two Summits about the convergence of technology and health/fitness/wellness.  So many of the innovations introduced there were exciting and intriguing.   I wanted to share my takeaways about these innovations because they speak to issues that are relevant to all companies which relate to technology in some way (and, these days, what companies don’t?).

I attended The Digital Health Summit, which covered how “health care companies are using services, devices, and communication technologies to put consumers in the driver’s seat,” and the Sports and Fitness Tech Summit, which showcased “devices that monitor fitness output and other gadgets that help keep people connected and safer in the outdoors.”  I also spent quite a bit of time at the Expos for these Summits on the show floor.

Presenting companies included Ant+ (a wireless chip-based platform which enables the collection, automatic transfer and tracking of sensor data for monitoring of personal wellness information), EA Sports Active (a video-gaming platform for the Wii which features exercise games, a heart-rate monitor, and virtual personal trainer), United Health Group (a leading healthcare company which has been leading developments in digital medical health solutions), Qualcomm, and more.

They introduced some real innovative devices (GPS-enabled goggles with a head-mounted display system) and services (one-touch phone system which connects callers directly with emergency response personnel who have your personal profile at their disposal).

Three principles about innovation came to mind as I listened to speakers and booth representatives hawk their wares and share their visions:

1.  It’s about the user, not the technology.

This may be an obvious statement, and a truism which has applied to technology for years.  But nowhere is it clearer than in the convergence of technology and health/fitness/wellness.

This is not only because health/fitness/wellness is a part of everyone’s lives, not just early adopters of technology.  But also a person’s health is probably the most personal aspect of his/her life – it truly is “all about me.”  People need to understand what these new products and platforms mean to them.

Applications which were previously impossible have no value if it isn’t clear how they benefit the user.  Companies can’t assume people know that monitoring your stress response via heart rate and biorhythms, for example, is a helpful way to improve your health whether you’re exercising or not.  And adding new innovative features can actually backfire if it makes using the device more complex — or simply seem so.

Even though digital health/fitness/wellness is becoming more mainstream, I’m still seeing too many companies talking about technology instead of how that technology benefits the user.

2.  Integration, integration, integration. Just as the three most important things about real estate are location, location, location, integration is the key to digital health/fitness/wellness.

There are two aspects of integration which are important.  First is the integration of products, services, and software.  The forces which led to the integration of cell phones, PDAs, cameras/camcorders, and online services need to be applied to health/fitness/wellness.

I saw many standalone devices which should have been integrated – e.g., a sleep monitoring device and a sound machine which emits sounds to improve sleep patterns; waterproof headphones designed for swimmers and goggles with a heart-rate display.  Developing integrated solutions is the way for companies to make using these products and platforms easy and convenient.

Integration into consumers’ lifestyles is also important. Companies need to integrate their offerings into existing products and take advantage of people’s existing attitudes and behaviors to speed mainstream adoption.  That means making solutions mobile and device-/platform-agnostic.  It also means partnering with companies that already have relationships with target consumers.

Sometimes technological innovation can seem like the Wild West, with companies seeking out new territories to claim and own.  But companies which pioneer isolated advancements are actually hurting themselves – success will come to those who play well with others and make their offerings easy to adopt.

3.  Make health a lifestyle not an occurrence. It was interesting to compare the two Summits I attended.  At The Digital Health Summit, the emphasis was on healthcare – improving the delivery of medical services.  The Sports and Fitness Tech Summit focused on exercise – improving the sport and fitness experience.  In my mind, the real opportunity exists in the combination of the two.

Right now, healthcare is episodic – you go to a doctor’s appointment, you get a medical test, you take a medicine – as is fitness – you go to the gym, you make a healthy meal, you step on the scale.  Both need to become regular ongoing everyday activities – people need to live healthier lives every day.  “Healthcare,” that is caring for one’s health, is primarily about being active and keeping fit.

So companies need to rethink what business they’re in, applying a broader lens to the value of their offerings and designing, developing, and marketing them with the lifestyle in mind.

As I stated at the beginning of this post, I think these innovation principles are important for companies in any category:

  • It’s about the user, not the technology, means all companies need to put their target audience at the center of their innovation and they should think about how they can educate and inspire people to use new technologies.
  • Integration is key for any new development.  Seamless, simple solutions win in this ever-increasingly complex and wired world we live in.
  • Developing for lifestyles, instead of occurrences, makes for greater meaning, impact, and value – for the user and for the company.

P.S. A couple of related items to check out:

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