The power of Personal Informatics

We are living in a world where computing and information processing is going beyond the desktop model of computer interaction to be integrated into the everyday objects we interact with and activities in which we partake. During the course of a day someone ‘experiencing’ this ubiquitous computing may engage with a number of computational devices and services and not even be aware they are doing so.

This model is moving beyond the desktop paradigm, and has more recently been described as ‘everyware’.  When primarily looking at the objects involved, and the way they are networked through wireless technologies, this can then be described as the ‘internet of things’. Everyday objects being networked is a simple concept yet the application is complex, holding huge possibilities. If all objects from our daily routines could be ‘tagged’ with an identifying device we could see untold amounts of information about the product.

These technologies have the potential to redefine the way in which we interact with the physical world and how we gain insights about the actions that make up our daily routines. That greater awareness has the capacity to help us to adjust and moderate our behaviour in a number of positive ways.

Although we are not yet living in a world where our shoes can talk to our socks to tell them they don’t match… ubiquitous computing is without a doubt starting to creep into our lives. Adam Greenfield described it nicely when he wrote of “information processing dissolving into behaviour”. This is definitely the case for the emerging area of ‘Personal Informatics’.

Photo curtosy by:

Photo curtosy of Matt Jones & Tom Coates, from their presentation

Personal Informatics can be characterized as the monitoring and displaying of information about our daily activities through intelligent devices, services and systems. This information allows us to see trends and opportunities for change that we would otherwise miss.  With the rise in network and RFID technology we are pointing to a time where personal informatics can play an important role in our lives. If people can access this information about their daily routines, and interact with their own personal data currently invisible to them: would they make more informed decisions?

One of the greatest values of this new technology is the ease with which it can provide information about specific products and services we use. If household items, personal belongings and new devices could be used to motivate people to make small changes in their lifestyle, the effect could be positive for the entire society. Essentially: what are the possibilities when we help make people aware of their life patterns?

Specific contexts

In our everyday lives we are often engulfed in specific contexts, which makes it difficult to see the bigger picture. Personal Informatics enables us to see relationships in our behaviour we would otherwise miss. Devices such as Nike + and money management software Mint aren’t designed to control your behaviour, but to monitor your actions and display your information. They do it in such a way that it will raise questions and give you the platform to make changes. Many opportunities from personal informatics can happen at a grass roots level. For example if you start monitoring your home energy consumption and realize that you are leaving your lights on more than needed you can instantly change your behaviour.


I see huge potential in the field of personal informatics and it is definitely something that is very exciting in the UX field. There are two areas of challenge within it that really interest me. Firstly: how can these personal insights and data behind your lifestyle be delivered in such a way that it will impact someone on an emotional level. How can you motivate people so they will actually change their actions rather than just turning a blind eye to the reality.

The second is that our lives are already infiltrated with huge amounts of information each day from emails to RSS feeds. So how can the interface for these products, services or software be designed in such a way that the information you receive does not add to the information overload that currently exists. Plus it should not result in people compulsively checking their ‘data’ as so many people currently do with email.


Nike +
Nike + is one of the most commercial and well discussed personal informatics tools currently available. The system is made up of a small chip that you insert in your running shoes, combined with a personal online service. The tangible UI which is imbedded in the sole of your shoes communicates with your Apple iPod (which has pre-loaded software) feeding it with information about your running to help you track your training regime. The system essentially becomes a digital personal trainer. After you have completed your training session you can plug your iPod into your computer and log into your personal Nike + account. What I think has greatly contributed to the success of the Nike + system is that even though you have a personal account you are part of a community. Your web based account allows you to provide training tips and advice to other people and recommend good running routes. By being part of community I really believe that it makes peoples actions feel more valued.

Nike + software, tracking you progress


The Wattson
The Wattson is a new kind of home appliance that is networked to a sensor attached to your home’s electric meter box. Using colours and numbers, the Wattson device displays your energy consumption and stores it on an online database making it easy for you to manage your electricity usage and therefor save money. Not only is the system hugely informative and practical… the device also looks great.

Time will tell…

Personal Informatics is a very powerful idea, and is hugely based on the assumption that people will makes changes if they are given the platform to do so. Time will tell if knowing more about ourselves will empower people to adjust their daily routines, but the early success in such an emerging field sure is exciting and will hopefully bode well for the future!

Eilidh Dickson

Eilidh Dickson, originally from Scotland is curently a student at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design. Prior to moving to Copenhagen Eilidh had a background in Product and Service Design, where she placed strong emphasis on user centered design and the value of experience prototyping. At CIID Eilidh is especially interested in how the use of emerging technologies can be applied to service-orientated systems and is passionate about using her skills as a designer to help address the complex social problems that exist in our society

19 comments on this article

  1. Pingback: Eilidh@johnny holland « Love to learn

  2. “Personal Informatics can be characterized as the monitoring and displaying of information about our daily activities through intelligent devices, services and systems.”

    What is “intelligent” about these devices, services and systems? All I see is data collected in ways it otherwise couldn’t be collected.

  3. This reminds me of how the Wii Fit treats the player if they haven’t played in awhile. Rather than informing the player that they are laxing on their workout routine, it almost berates them. In my experience, it has actually kept me from using the product because I don’t want to be yelled at when all I want to do is some push ups and ski jumps.

    Overall, very interesting article and it will be interesting to see how products and service that monitor us attempt to improve our lifestyles.

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  9. Matt on

    Hi Eilidh – as you (or perhaps the website) took some slide images (the ‘making the invisible visible’ image which incidentally also shows a work called “Nuage Vert’ unmentioned and uncredited) and examples from the presentation Tom Coates and I did on Personal Informatics back in April 2008, it would have been nice to get a mention or a link.

  10. Hi Matt, Sorry i will get that sorted! I had the image saved in an ‘inspiration folder’ on my computer, so when i dug it up for the article i completely forgot to reference it. Will sort it out asap!

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