Fitbit suffers from period pains

A backlash against a Fitbit feature which allows women to track their period has highlighted the need for more diverse technology teams.

In the summer of 2018 Fitbit added “female health tracking” to its application in a bid to help women the world over understand how their menstrual cycle correlates with other data collected by the wearable such as activity and sleep.

But the fitness brand only allows users to log a period for up to 10 days and no more.

Unsurprisingly, female users who wanted to track their period for more than 10 days were not impressed, and although the “average” length of a period is said to be between two and eight days, women with conditions such as endometriosis can bleed for longer.

Surely it would also be useful for those who have conditions which cause their period to last longer to be able to interpret how that impacts all of the other data that Fitbit collects?

The irony is not lost on us – a feature that is meant to help us better understand our health does not cater to those who may need it the most.

In the US the feature is only available for women who are 13 and over, and although it is stated that age restrictions may vary between countries this is yet another barrier which means the feature only caters to the “average” female population.

Symptoms that come along with a woman’s period such as pain, acne or nausea can also be tracked, but women have been objecting to the limited number of options given to describe any discomfort they may be feeling during their time of the month.

Just as an example, when I wrote the above sentence I wrote “bloating” as one of the common symptoms for a period, only to find out this isn’t one of the five “conditions” you can log at the moment.

Go figure.

More conditions are set to be added in the future, according to the Fitbit community boards, and there’s now a discussion on Fitbit’s suggestion board which is urging the brand to extend the number of days the menstrual cycle can be logged, with many women saying the feature is “useless” to them without being able to track their whole period.

This would be my mindset too – surely if your period lasts for longer than 10 days but you can’t log that in the app any predictions the feature has about when your next period would start would be based on false data, and therefore not be accurate?

But this isn’t just about accurately tracking menstrual cycles; as head of diversity and inclusion for the IET Jo Foster suggested to the BBC, this is indicative of wider problems in the technology industry.

There is a lack of diversity in technology teams, despite the effort many are putting in to change this, and it means that the technology being developed both for women and for the general population is not fit for purpose for all of its users.

When seatbelts were first invented many women and children died because they were only tested with male crash test dummies, then Apple invented Apple Health to allow people to keep track of everything health-related and initially didn’t include menstrual cycle tracking at all.

As technology has moved on, more of these problems have surfaced.

Many in the industry are concerned about the development of artificial intelligence (AI) as there is already a trend towards artificially intelligent assistants being characterised as female.

Facial recognition is another example – it is increasingly used in everyday life, now it is even used as a biometric identifier for some phones, but the error rate for facial recognition is much higher for women of colour than it is for white men.

Biases present in society will only be replicated in AI and other future technologies unless the teams developing these technologies changes.

The ability to track your menstrual cycle was one of Fitbit’s most requested features, and since it was launched more than 2.4m users have added it to their Fitbit app.

There may well have been a woman on the development team for Fitbit’s new female health tracking feature, but one woman isn’t enough and much like other bodily functions, not every woman is the same.

Moderators in Fitbit’s discussion page on the topic have called the suggestion “interesting” with one saying: “Let’s see what other members of the Forums have to say about this.”

Discussion is great, and it is opening a lot of people’s eyes to the potential problems of developing tech that doesn’t suit everyone, but as one forum user said: “It can’t be that hard to modify the coding, can it?”

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