Looking to lose weight? Got a smart phone? As I discussed in my first blog post, there’s no shortage of apps available aimed to help you do just that. The challenge is to determine which one will work best for you. This week I’m going to explore different iPhone apps available for tracking calories, and discuss their strengths and weaknesses based on both app usability and app functionality. I’m also going to take a slightly different approach with this week’s post – I’m going to review the apps over several separate posts, followed by a summary of all the apps I cover. Throughout the week, I welcome comments from anyone who has used these apps or others – I’d like to know what has worked for you and why!
First, let’s take a brief look at iPhone app usability – guidelines that app developers are advised to follow in order to make it simple for us, the users, to use the app as intended. For example, is there a title or header on each screen to let you know what that screen does? Are the buttons large enough? How many screens do you need to tap through to enter a food that you’ve eaten? After you’ve entered data, does the app indicate that it is saving the information, keeping you apprised of the app’s status? If you make a mistake, can you correct it?
Utility refers to the app’s functions. For apps that track your food intake, the obvious basic requirement is allowing you to enter the various foods you’ve eaten throughout the day and count up the calories from those foods to provide you with a total amount of energy you’ve consumed. Does the app determine a recommended energy intake for you based on appropriate measures and compare your intake to the recommendation? Can you also enter your activities throughout the day to determine your energy expenditure? Does it take this into consideration when comparing to your goals? What other information does the app track (carbohydrate or fat intake)? Can you view a graph of intake over time?
I’d also like to take the evaluation of utility one step further, and discuss the apps’ ability to help with behaviour change within a complex systems perpective. As I discussed in last week’s post, self-monitoring is a form of feedback that can be an effective tool to support weight loss. Feedback loops are one of the defining characteristics of complex adaptive systems. They represent the system’s interconnectivity, allowing the system to change its functions in order to achieve a desired outcome. Mobile apps have the potential to provide valuable information about our behaviour. But in order to function effectively as feedback, the information tracked by the app must be able to elicit change. Additionally, to qualify as feedback, the information must also be self-determined and adaptable.(1) I’ll revisit these concepts in my summary after reviewing all of the apps.
I’ll begin the review with the most downloaded free app in the Health and Fitness category: Lose It! Overall the app is straight-forward to use. It allows the user to track both food intake as well as time spent in different physical activities. When you open the app on a new day, it defaults to the correct date, allowing you to begin entering food or exercise right away. It follows the convention of other native iPhone apps using a “+” to add new foods or activities. To help speed up future entry, you have the option of selecting foods you’ve consumed previously or even an entire meal. The same option is available for exercise. The touch interfaces are easily identified and reasonably sized. Visually, the app is neat and tidy without any distracting colours or animations. If you need help using the app, there is a FAQ section. And there’s always an exit (“cancel” button) if you need to go back to the previous screen.
The process to add a food does require tapping through several screens, and I do think that it would be possible to streamline this aspect of the app’s function. When you first tap the “+” to add a new food, you first need to choose which meal (breakfast, lunch, dinner or snack) on the next screen. Once you’ve selected the meal, you then choose if you wish to search the database or select a previous food, a previous meal, or from a recipe that you’ve entered, or a brand name food. Tapping “search” opens a text entry screen, and when you type the item you’re search for, you’re given a screen with an often long list of foods to select. Upon selecting a food, you’re prompted to choose the serving. Selecting a serving size adds the food to your diary. You can also instead cancel at this point, which takes you to the result list. Canceling again returns you back to your log page, or going back allows you to re-type your key word in the search box. In total this is a minimum of 5 screens to tap responses on in order to add a new food. One option might be to automatically time stamp the entry to avoid the need to select which meal it is. However, sometimes you may choose not to enter a meal right away, so there would need to be an option to over-ride the time stamp.
The detailed food information in the app is provided by the ESHA database. The app sets a daily calorie budget based on your starting weight, goal weight, gender, height, age, and the rate at which you wish to lose weight. As you enter foods and exercises for the day, the app keeps track of your calorie budget – informing you how many calories you are under or over. You can view a bar graph which plots your net caloric balance over a single week. In addition to tracking both energy in and energy out, you can track fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, fiber, sugars, and protein. There is also an option to enter your weight daily, weekly, or according to whatever schedule suits you; again, your changes in weight can also be viewed as a graph over time.
The app also gives you the option to set up an account on LoseIt.com. In addition to syncing your data online, this gives the user additional functionality, including setting up reminders and motivators, scheduled email reports, and the ability to share your progress on Facebook or Twitter. What might be most useful though is the ability to add friends – essentially creating a support group to help you stick with your program.
Given that the app is free, along with following good usability recommendations and providing solid functionality, it is not a surprise it is a popular app. Do you use Lose It!? What features do you find most helpful? What makes this app work for you? I’d love to hear from you.
1. Wheatley, M.J. and M. Kellner-Rogers (1999) What do We Measure and Why? Questions About The Uses of Measurement. Journal for Strategic Performance Measurement.