Thursday, March 22News That Matters

Fitbit will start tracking your period in an attempt to add more value to Fitbit

Fitbit’s new smartwatch Versa isn’t being overtly marketed at women; doing that might alienate its male customers, who currently make up more than half of Fitbit’s user base. But today’s Versa launch coincides with plans for a new app feature that is very clearly aimed at women: period tracking. It’s yet another attempt by Fitbit to draw users into its ecosystem as the company struggles to maintain its lead in the wearable market.

Here’s how Fitbit’s period-tracking feature is supposed to work when it rolls out this spring: it’s free and will work not only on the Versa watch, but on the Fitbit Ionic watch and in the mobile app as well. If you indicate during the Fitbit onboarding process that you’re female, the app will ask if you want to opt in to tracking your menstrual cycle. Once you do that and begin telling the app when your period starts and ends, the app will show your predicted period week as pink, and your predicted fertile window as blue.

You won’t be able to manually annotate anything in the app, but it will ask you to tap on a series of icons describing premenstrual symptoms, the consistency of your bodily fluids, whether you have headaches or acne, your sexual activity, and more. If you happen to become pregnant or you take the morning-after pill — both period disruptors — the app will want to know that, too.

This is all supposed to help inform its users, who, Fitbit says, had been requesting period tracking as a “top five” feature for a while. And maybe in the not-so-far future, this could help people spot patterns around their periods and other health metrics (though Fitbit won’t account for things like heart rate data in the early versions of its period-tracking feature).

But Fitbit is also saying this isn’t meant to be a conception or contraception aid, and in a lot of ways it’s still not clear what its long-term goals are in gathering this data. Will this data eventually lead to more serious fertility tracking or feed into the company’s corporate health initiatives? Unclear. It’s all part of the “holistic picture” for health and fitness, the company says.

In the near-term, Fitbit thinks it can help users at least spot individual patterns over time. “The period can be the canary in the coalmine,” said Dr. Katharine White, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Boston University’s School of Medicine. White teamed up with Fitbit to help design this portion of the app and create some of the medical content that will publish along with it.

“The app not only lets you record the days that you bleed but how heavy the flow is. So if your period is heavier for longer than it should be, it could be a fibroid,” White said, as an example of how period-tracking can add value. She later added that menstrual cycles are part of a category that is “underresearched at a large population level.”

For Fitbit, though, that value-add needs to come quick. Fitbit has found itself muddling through a transition period over the past year, just reported dismal holiday earnings, and is no longer the top wearable maker in the US. It now wants to get into more serious health tracking. Presumably, the stickier you make a digital health app, and the more stuff people start pouring into it, the more inclined they are to keep using your product. The question is whether a feature like menstrual cycle tracking is really going to add that much value to Fitbit or whether it’s a desperate attempt to catch up to apps — including Apple’s Health app — that have been doing this for years.

There’s no doubt that there is a market for these kinds of apps, despite how inaccurate some of the fertility-focused ones are. There are more than 2,000 OB-GYN-related apps available in app stores, and Fitbit says that 24 percent of US adult women use some kind of period-tracking app today. Again, this has been a top-requested feature from Fitbit’s user base. The company wanted to address the needs of female users. Thankfully, it went about it in a more thoughtful way than just pinking and shrinking a smartwatch.

Aside from streamlining app features — Fitbit users now don’t have to open up a separate period-tracking app, if they’re into this sort of thing — Fitbit isn’t coming out with the kind of pitch that differentiates it from other period-tracking apps. Period-tracking app Clue has cultivated a loyal fan base, and with good reason: as The Cut points out, the app lets users track “up to 31 possible categories, including cravings, digestion, hair, skin, emotions, motivation, sex, and somewhat curiously, one called ‘party.’” When PayPal co-founder Max Levchin launched fertility-focused app Glow back in 2013, he launched with it a kind of mutual insurance fund that’s supposed to help pay for fertility treatments if a person didn’t get pregnant within 10 months of using the app.

Then there’s Apple. Apple launched menstruation tracking in its Health app back in 2015, and other apps (like Clue) can also share data to Apple’s HealthKit. Fitbit doesn’t share data with HealthKit.

If anything, it seems Fitbit is being careful not to define the feature’s purpose out of the gate because of the controversy surrounding fertility-tracking apps and gadgets. The Fitbit app will show users their period weeks and likely fertile windows, and yet, Conor Heneghan, Fitbit’s lead research scientist, said, “We’re definitely not trying to say we can predict ovulation or fertile periods at [launch] time.”

“The one area both patients and doctors really need to be careful on, is when [an app] is used for contraception, whether natural family planning or fertility awareness. Because that can literally affect a woman’s whole life,” said Nathaniel DeNicola, a member of the faculty at George Washington University Hospital and co-chair of the telehealth task force for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. (DeNicola was not briefed on the Fitbit news.) “There have been some apps marketed solely as a contraceptive device, which could be misrepresenting their effectiveness.”

So, version one of this feature really just looks like it will be your basic period-tracking app. Fitbit almost certainly has grander plans in mind for what it intends to do with all of this info, but right now it’s all about “educating people simply on what ‘fertility’ means,” as White said. Maybe that’s all Fitbit needs if its users decide that it’s just easier to do all of this period logging in Fitbit’s app, right next to their steps and sleep and calories and everything else.

Or maybe this is really just another tactic for Fitbit to keep a large portion of its user base coming back to its app month after month, even if its hardware sales are dwindling.

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