There follows, dear reader, a tale of consumer woe. A story so imbued with terror and despair that I strongly suggest you find a settee to hide behind… just in case it becomes too much. This story will make childhood memories of Dr. Who battling giant maggots and even the daleks seem like a pleasant stroll in the park. In short – think carefully before continuing to read this blog entry.
Too much? Too hyperbolic?
Perhaps. But you’re here now, so you might as well keep going, no?
As regular visitors will know, I like to go hiking, take the occasional (these days, very occasional) run, and generally try and keep as active as my boredom threshold will permit. To encourage this rare glimpse of common sense, by long suffering wife Mrs E. bought me a FitBit for Christmas a year or so ago. It was only the basic model – a Flex – but it suited my inner geek perfectly. Essentially just an electronic pedometer, it fits into a silicone wristband and counts how many rapid changes of direction it is subjected to, via an accelerometer. It makes a reasonable assumption that this is due to your arm swinging as you walk and counts (approximately) how many steps you’ve taken as a consequence.
Being electronic, and this being the glorious age of the post-necessary computer, it can connect via BlueTooth and has an online application to run software that allows you to configure whether you’ve put the strap on your dominant or non-dominant arm. I’m guessing it uses some weird algorithm to try and assess whether the accelerometer reading is from a legitimate walk-induced arm swing, or because you’re taking an unhealthy interest in the glossy adverts in this month’s Vogue.
Assuming the user is actually earnest about measuring performance, it even allows you to calibrate it so it more accurately infers kilometres covered based on average step length. I went to the trouble of walking a few laps of the local racetrack to make sure I properly calibrated mine.
It comes with a non-accessible rechargeable battery that is refreshed by placing the device in a special “pigtail” USB cable. The battery lasts about a week, and by and large I loved the thing. I set a goal of 8km a day, and the little gizmo dutifully told me how well I was doing for several weeks with little issue. At this point though, the weekly removal and reinsertion of the device into the silicone wrist strap caused the latter to split. It wasn’t a very good design and it was entirely predictable this would occur. After discovering that a replacement strap was $30 for three (they obviously expected one to be insufficient!), I did what any sensible person would do and bought 10 for $10 off Amazon. This should have been an early warning, but I pressed on, assuming that the technology would be much better than the wrist band in which it was housed. By the way, my $1 replacement wristband lasted over a year and is still going strong.
Now, there’s a phrase in product management: “fit for use”. I’m no lawyer, but the general principle is that if you’re selling a product to perform some function, it should fundamentally be able to do that under reasonable circumstances. This gives rise to such witticisms as “it was as much use as a chocolate fireguard/teapot”. It’s not unreasonable you might think for a fitness device costing over $100 to last more than 18 months – especially when subjected to nothing more strenuous than typing a few emails, a daily lunchtime walk and a weekly 90 minute hike.
But no – after just 18 months, my FitBit refused to hold a charge. One day it was fine, the next it decided the internal battery was exhausted and it would not recharge. Again, I turned to the internet and discovered that the device was prone to problems related to charging. Mostly these revolved around dirty (sweaty?) electrical contacts and the advice was to use a cocktail stick, a Q-tip and a drop of solvent to clean up the contacts. Again, I should have smelt a problem when FitBit’s own FAQs referred to a customer’s video and suggestions of how to do this. The procedure even included a device reset just to make sure. They seemed to be in denial themselves and relied on self-help from customers rather than an official procedure for what was plainly a weak spot in the design. Not hard to realise people buying fitness trackers might get sweaty and grimy…
I’d had cause to reset the device before, and as I experimented this time I discovered that the device would indeed charge fully… just not hold the charge once removed from the power source. I even learnt that the mysterious LED light pattern it showed when first put into the power port meant “cold boot” inferring it had indeed been starved of power as soon as it was disconnected. The battery was undoubtedly buggered.
The internet – untrustworthy source that it is – suggested that FitBit had great customer service and a few people with similar sounding problems were effusive about how well treated FitBit had made them feel, and how readily they had replaced their faulty devices.
I was of course aware that my device was out of its 12 month warranty, though arguably not out of its “reasonable lifespan”. Nothing ventured nothing gained, so I dropped them an email. I explained the situation, how long I’d had the device and all the things I’d tried that had led me to the conclusion it was parrot-like, and had shuffled off its mortal coil. It’s was dead Jim, as proven and previously documented.
After a couple of days, I got a friendly reply asking me to try the things on their customer’s “how to clean the contacts” video – despite me having pointedly said I’d already done that in an apparently fruitless attempt to avoid this predictable unthinking reply.
So – I repeated that I’d already done the procedure prior to interrupting their slumber, added some more details about the LED diagnostic pattern to prove I knew what I was about, and asked them to agree that they had designed the device to last more than 18 months. (i.e. I asked them to choose between “faulty manufacture” and “faulty design”).
Again a friendly reply thanking me for self-diagnosing and agreeing that something seemed wrong with the device. Now they asked how long I’d had the thing. For the third time I told them EIGHTEEN MONTHS… see? Like all the other times I told you!
“Ah,” came back the next polite reply. “That would be outside the 12 month warranty then.”
No shit, Sherlock! So you can count at least? I had never denied it was out of warranty, merely that an 18 month battery life on a non-replaceable part seemed to imply it wasn’t fit for use. If it had been $30, or the battery could be replaced I might have just shrugged at 18 months, but this was over $100 and I was feeling slighted.
The coup de grace though was when they assured me I was a valued member of “the family” and they then made me an offer I found trivial to refuse… they offered me 25% off a purchase of a new FitBit – but only from their online store. A quick check showed that this 25% brought the price back down to the local street price a new purchase would be anywhere else. Woo-hoo, great bargain!! Thanks for nothing.
After some rewrites, I managed to send a reasonably polite email thanking them for a great concept poorly implemented, and told them I’d no longer be using their products. Especially when it turned out that my iPhone (always in my pocket) has a link to the FitBit app, and FOR FREE keeps my steps updated anyway. In fact it also measures height gained (translated into “steps ascended”) that my FitBit did not. Did I mention it was free?
To add insult to injury FitBit then sent me another email to ask if I’d made up my mind as the 25% offer was time-limited!
So – if you’re thinking of buying wearable technology… consider carefully whether FitBit is the one for you. Check out what your phone offers. Depending on the sophistication of your needs, you may find it already does what you need… for free. Don’t get me wrong – I love the concept of wearable technology, and applaud FitBit for being one of its pioneers. Their physical design has undeniably improved over the last couple of years, but their attitude of dropping you like a hot brick once their manufacturing choices (crappy battery supplier) let you down leaves a lot to be desired. That plus the fact that the strap can fail and fling your expensive device to the four winds at any time means I’ll likely look to other manufacturers if I ever decide my phone’s not providing me with enough spurious data on my daily activity.
Rant over – you can come out from behind the settee now. I’m off to yoga…