In the midst of a running conversation with a couple colleagues about a stress-tracking device, and tracking, I thought I would open up the topic a little. Trackers and tracking are a commonplace among social tools. Badges and achievements, leaderboards, social games — all, and more, make some use of user progress and activity tracking.
The device in question, and which sparked this time-out, is a tracker for stress levels. Physical stress levels. My concern was that any kind of device that tracks stress levels could in fact cause and reinforce stress, if the user were to become obsessive about his/her stress level measurements. The numbers, in other words, become an object of focus. I can see that an instrument that measures stress in real time, and which displays stress in real time, might be a stress-inducing accessory.
I would want to dim the display, at least.
Step back for a moment then. What are these things we track? States, right? Quantifiable measurements of personal, or individual, state. Measured in numerical terms; counted; compared against past metrics in order to obtain a progress metric; compared perhaps to others to make the number relative. Absolute numbers, relative numbers.
Absolute numbers are meaningless. It is relative numbers that matter. Absolute numbers are just numbers. Relative numbers are numbers that count. Absolute numbers are an identity; relative numbers are a difference.
What interests us is the difference, not the number.
I am not much of a tracker, personally. I know some who are. My sense of the tracking instinct ( ) is that it takes some pleasure and comfort, some pride and joy, in counting and in making progress. The numbers allow the tracker to follow his/her own progress. Numbers then, are really not the point: the point is evidence, proof. Evidence of an outcome — having run faster, longer, having lost weight, etc — of activity over which the individual has control.
Tracking is control. By proxy. The number is the proxy. Proxy for control.
I would like to know if this resonates with people. If it’s the case that the numbers enjoyed by tracker types are in fact stand in for something else, be it control, success, pride, incentive, motive, etc, then there’s more to do with the tracking interface and experience than is self evident.