PhD Thesis: The Self-Tracker’s Journey: situated engagement and non-engagement with personal informatics systems over time

My PhD thesis is now available to download.

Almost one quarter of adults fail to meet physical activity guidelines: activity tracking systems promise a solution, by supporting people to be more active by quantifying their steps and utilising behaviour change techniques. Results on the effectiveness of these technologies sometimes show benefits, but little is known about how people use them over a longer time and what impact they might have on one’s physical activity even after they have been abandoned.

Relying on rich, explorative, qualitative research, this thesis examines use and non-use, of activity trackers over time and the influence they have on users’ attitudes and behaviours. Firstly, a longitudinal mixed-method study, lasting over one year, was conducted with new tracker users to understand use and behavioural impacts over time. Secondly, a comparative interview study with existing and previous users in two, culturally and physically different, urban settings allowed us to uncover further contextual factors. A combined bottom-up thematic analysis of the data from all 98 participants revealed the steps of “the self-tracker’s journey”, from initial motivations and use, to engagement over time, and the affective and behavioural outcomes of use.

Therefore, this thesis makes three contributions to knowledge, to design, and to research practice, respectively. Firstly, our knowledge contribution shows (a) how positive outcomes from use can come beyond the period of use, providing a better understanding of phases of tracking. It also shows (b) how there can be negative outcomes, especially when people become over reliant or obsessed with their tracker. Secondly, our findings have implications for how tracking systems should be designed to better support tracking over time, while avoiding negative consequences. Thirdly, this thesis contributes to research practice by highlighting the importance of considering context of use, use over time, and impacts beyond use of these technologies and engagement with data per se.

Harrison, D. (2020). The Self-Tracker’s Journey: situated engagement and non-engagement with personal informatics systems over time (Doctoral dissertation, UCL (University College London)).

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