We’re six weeks into our new project and it is about time for my first blog post. 

In this post, I will share some of my experiences with setting up the device, getting started, and seeing my first results. I’ve been observing my progress over these past few weeks with fascination. I want to share with you why. 

Click-to-agree

The most stressful moment I experienced thus far in the project happened when I was setting up an account and linking it with my device. There were so many conditions to agree with. Of course I knew what I was getting into, as I often use these kinds of devices and apps as examples when I explain the difficulties with online consent. I had even read parts of these Terms & Conditions already in preparation for a lecture I gave some time ago. However, now that I was looking at them again, for myself, I felt the weight of the decisions I had to make. 

I felt it would not suffice to proceed with the good old ‘click-to-agree’

I read all of the information the app linked to. This cost me much more time than I anticipated, and working as a consent-researcher sadly did not help to speed up the process. Perhaps if I would have used this device by and for myself, privately, I might not have gone to this extent. However, I felt it would not suffice to proceed with the good old ‘click-to-agree’ in this case. 

Click-to-agree consent, or ‘clickwrap’ consent, is a consent process I encounter several times a day. Designed to fulfill the requirements of data protection law, these processes need to be clicked through to reach a certain service, be it a website, or an app. They often offer hyperlinks to Terms of Agreement and Conditions of Use of the service, which the user agrees to have read before clicking ‘Agree’. Research shows this is often not the case, however, and that consent is often not informed. I think I speak for (almost) everyone when I say: I’ve been there. Who has the time to read all of these complicated documents? Recent studies show different estimates; but on average it would take you 250 hours per year to do so.[1]

Even if you would spend these hours reading the information, there is no guarantee that your consent will then be informed. There is a crucial difference between getting information, and being informed. Whereas providing information to a user ticks the legal condition of informing, it does not mean that you can automatically assume the user to make an informed decision. This is a difficult issue for developers of mobile health services. Other issues with online consent include consent overload and information overload (the overkill in amount of decisions, or information), consent desensitization (the decline in interest users develop for the information or consent process), and the all-or-nothing nature of the decision. Something I experienced in getting started with this device, is the difficulty to determine trustworthiness of the service. How do I determine whether this service is trustworthy?

Online consent issues

As I was already a little nervous about the idea of collecting and storing this much personal data, I wanted to make sure the device and service were worthy of my trust. Reading all of the terms did not help me much, however. How to determine what all of these conditions mean for me, as an individual, and for my personal data? This a challenge. I found it difficult to visualize what my clicking ‘agree’ would actually entail. So, finally, I resorted to my usual solution: make a bunch of print screens to log the process for myself, and just continue. A point that many users will ultimately reach – one at which you just give in to having to click ‘Agree’ a couple of times, in order to get to the service you set out to use.

The mere instrumentality of clicking ‘Agree’, as a means to get to the service I want to use, seems troubling to me. What if I agree only partially? Or what if I’m not actually sure whether I agree? Ticking a box then doesn’t seem to cover what it means to give meaningful consent to something – especially if I’m ticking it just to be done with this stage.

In any way, I had now completed it. I was ready for the next phase: using the device. And this is where things got really interesting. 

A “shaky” start

Having finally set up the device, and having found a spot on my wrist where it sits most comfortably, I was finally ready to start using it. The effects were instant. I cannot tell you how many times I shook my wrist to turn on the screen (a fun feature in itself) and check the numbers. Have I made progress today? Did the device register I just vacuumed the living room? Did it notice that I just ran upstairs to get a book? How’s my heartrate after cycling to the train station? Then, once on the train, does my rate go down immediately? How many calories did I just burn? Does shaking my arm to check the screen count as activity? You get the point. 

It must’ve looked pretty silly. During the first few days I quickly noticed I became very focused on these outcomes. This focus was aided by the green celebratory badges I receive in the app, every time I completed a daily or weekly goal. Not to mention the emails with fun achievements (“Nice! You’ve climbed 10 floors! You’re taking home the first badge – the Happy Hill!”) to motivate you to continue. 

I sometimes run up and down the stairs in the evening, to make sure I complete all daily goals

I’m not proud to admit that even now, six weeks in, I sometimes run up and down the stairs in the evening, to make sure I complete all daily goals. Only then do I receive an animated burst of confetti on my app. I feel disappointment when I’ve had a nice run outside, but my device hasn’t registered my activity points. Yes, the weather was lovely, and the scenery was pretty, but it doesn’t count for my weekly total.

As fascinating as I think it is to see my own behavior change like this – it does cause me to feel some discomfort. On the one hand it feels like a fun game, to make sure you complete your goals and end your day satisfied with your achievements. On the other hand I am surprised I let myself be influenced to run up and down the stairs at 23:45 PM by a little object I carry around on my wrist. An object that, even though I am tired and want to go to sleep, makes me feel like I am wasting my other achievements if I don’t complete the last one and see the confetti. 

Four weeks into the project, I tell myself I will surely get a better grip on this behavior, when the novelty effect of the device starts to wear off. I really hope it’s true. Perhaps then the device will also start to feel more like it’s a part of me, which it really isn’t yet. It just sits there on my wrist, making me run around, getting me to try to win badges. If you would’ve told me this 7 weeks ago, I wouldn’t have believed you. And yet… 

I can’t wait to read about Elcin’s experiences next. Perhaps she will even be able to tell me why I’m having these feelings… 

Want to read more about this project? Read our Manifesto >here<

NB: The views here expressed are mine. They do not represent the views of our research group, affiliated parties, or the TU/e.

Header: © Iris Loosman