The quantified self: are we measuring too much? Luke Richards takes a dive into the murky waters of life-logging

measuring the depth of a swimming pool

Ah, the irony. I sit down to research this piece and in no time I’m overloaded with stats about how we have surpassed the era of Big Data to reach Peak Data…

  • ‘More than 98% of the world’s information is now stored digitally’ says The Atlantic.
  • ‘In 2015 alone, customers, employees, and other users created about 7.9 zettabytes of data globally – and that number is expected to reach 35 zettabytes in 2020’ announces Information Week.
  • ‘60 to 73% of the data being collected is never successfully used for any strategic purpose’ reports Forrester.

In the context of UX, this boom in data through the last decade has been easy to observe and questions about Big Data and Peak Data are unsurprising.

Our sector is driven by having a better understanding of the actual interactions users have with the digital platforms they use. If we can observe responses (e.g. clicks) of a vast number of individuals as they move through a digital journey, we can then better ensure websites, apps, etc. are optimised for a seamless efficient experience.

The more data we have to pore over, the better job we can do – assuming we can process it all.

This data wave has been unleashed by an increasing dependency on digital platforms across all global regions. Some areas have seen the rise of personal computers and laptops give way to mobile phones and tablets. Other countries have jumped straight to mobile. More people are coming online (now pushing 50% of the global population according Internet Live Stats) and more people are simply doing more stuff via digital touchpoints.

The data this generates is significant to businesses, developers, marketers and of course UXers. But the individuals who are using digital platforms have an increased access to data too – and it has its appeal.

What data means to us

We love that our mobile devices and wearables can track the steps we take each day and tell us how many calories we burn. We share things online and experience short bursts of excitement and satisfaction when we see the ‘likes’ flood in on Facebook or the retweets proliferate on Twitter. We yearn for swipes on Tinder and matches on Match.com.

While businesses seek to know more about us, we seek to know more about us.

The Internet of Things and proliferation of 5G technologies are set to give individuals even more access to data about ourselves – how much electricity we are consuming, how much milk the household is drinking, what media Alexa is delivering to us. If businesses are at Peak Data, are we as individuals at Peak Data too?

In an article over at Fast Company, Bob Nease writes: “You can have too much data. In fact, sometimes having more data can actually make things worse, leading us to act in ways that can be counterproductive.”

Nease highlights that the field of medicine, massive amounts of data are increasingly leading to “incidental findings” – problems discovered while treating other issues. These can then lead to intuitive procedures or – what I view as – “over-actions”. Doctors are not in the business of inaction, so they will seek to prescribe something as it is easier to justify taking action than not.

The difference between medicine and UX is clear, UXers often have the time and capacity to experiment and test whether the data they’ve discovered is leading to the best possible improvements to a system.

Doctors, of course, usually don’t have that luxury. Without that, we can often fall back on human biases. Where do individual consumers sit, then, in the scheme of being able to use the data they access in order to live healthier, or to save on electricity usage, or to make better connections online?

It is already quite easy to see how complex life can become. In the world of calorie counting, the changes we make may be straightforward in theory, but tough to action. When it comes to electricity usage, it would appear that automated systems and remote (out-of-home) controls will help users best cut down on energy use should the data imply that they need to.

Computer love

As for making better connections online, self-confessed data head Amy Webb delves into this in her TED talk How I hacked online dating.

For Webb, online dating appeals to her. It is algorithmic and based on data that its users input. But she quickly realises how superficial some of these data points are – leading to a great number of dates, but zero proper matches. Her first hack, then, is to write her own data points. This leads her to her Prince Charming, or so she thinks. But of course just because he ticks her newly formulated data boxes – it doesn’t mean she is what he wants from a date.

The next hack is for Webb to understand the competition; who are the women attracted to the men she wants to marry? This data showed that on average the biographies of other women were just 97 words long. Surprisingly, they were actually non-specific about superficial things like favourite movies (Webb admits that whether a potential match loves The English Patient as much as she does is ultimately not important).

Simply, they are more likely to include sentences signalling approachability and fun. The result, Webb now had the data to make a super profile and, indeed, she got a date – a man who would later become her husband and father to her child.

Webb concludes: “There is an algorithm for love. It’s just not the ones that we’re being presented with online. In fact, it’s something that you write yourself. So whether you’re looking for a husband or a wife or you’re trying to find your passion or you’re trying to start a business, all you have to really do is figure out your own framework and play by your own rules.”

As Webb highlights, what is useful data in the context of online dating is ultimately a personal choice. The information is available, but it takes a period of processing to action that data successfully. Unlike businesses, aside from technology and a few friends and family, individuals only have themselves to process data – and there is some trial and error involved.

Are we measuring too much?

I don’t think Nease and Webb would agree and nor, I think, do I. As it can in business and UX, data can enrich the lives of us as individuals. But we are still learning what is useful and what is not from all that is now accessible to us – and we still need the time, assistance and the cognition to ignore our biases if we are to use that data to make the changes which are truly worthwhile.

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Main image by Miguel A. Amutio

Luke Richards is a freelance writer based in Plymouth. He specialises in covering areas where technology and digital have surprising and positive effects on society, culture, and business. He can be found on Twitter @myyada.

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