Previously, I suggested that other people can be a good source of feedback, among other things, to support self-regulation. Right on queue, two days ago The Eatery was released, the first iPhone app from MassiveHealth. The two biggest differences from other food logging applications out there are:
- You just take a photo of what you are about to eat; you don’t try to semantically tag it in a way that allows for calorie counting or ingredient analysis.
- Other people rate what you eat on a 10-point fit-or-fat scale.
The purpose, like other logging applications, is self-regulation. But the strategy is to support mindfulness, not to provide feedback on progress toward goals. It seems that their inspiration is that if most of the benefit of food diaries comes from recording what you eat, and not from tallying up the calories, why make the interface slow and cumbersome, as it would have to be to estimate calories.
The numeric ratings attached to photos still allow for some aggregation and tracking of progress over time. It generates a graph of average rating by day, which would presumably get more interesting if you starting seeing patterns, like Fridays always being a bad day. (Another app, called MakeIt10
, skips the photos and just does ratings. Its website tagline is, “Counting Calories Sucks.” It only does self-rating, not crowd-sourcing.)
Now, why is it that ratings from other people are needed at all? Why not just self-rate? Presumably the reason is to avoid self-deception. It’s easy to talk ourselves into thinking that what we’re eating is OK, but others who have less vested interest in this dessert being healthy because it uses fruit juice instead of sugar for sweetening will call a spade a spade.
I have yet to use the “friends” feature to integrate my Facebook friends. I’m going to try that, since reviews on the App Store suggest there are more features that will unlock. But our previous research
suggests that your overall Facebook network is not a group that one would want to participate with in an App like this, though perhaps other friends using the app might be a reasonable group to share with.
Right now, I am just getting the wisdom of the anonymous crowd right now. I suspect they may be using some recommender system
techniques to match people with the right raters. At least they have the data that they could use to do so: after you snap a photo, you rate it yourself. And then they prompt to rate some other people’s photos. They could do some pretty quick calibration to figure out whose ratings you tend to agree with when you rate your own and others’ photos, and then ask those people to rate yours.
I probably won’t use thisapp regularly, because improving my eating is not high on my self-improvement list right now. But here are some quick reactions from using it for a couple days:
- Even during the excitement of startup phase, I haven’t remembered to take photos of everything I’ve eaten
- It’s kind of fun to rate other people’s photos. I found myself rating four or five each time I got started and then having to consciously decide to stop. I have received about 20 ratings for each of my four photos, suggesting that other people also find it more fun to rate than to log (or else they’ve hired a bunch of people to rate in the first few days (Mechanical Turk?), to get things rolling.) Just rating others’ photos may be a useful food mindfulness exercise. It would be an interesting experiment to test the impacts of an intervention where people participate as raters for a few minutes every day, and don’t do any food logging for themselves.
- You have to take the ratings with a grain of salt. I posted two photos of the same food, once when I had it for dinner and once when I had it for leftovers. I got overwhelmingly positive ratings once, mostly negative the other time. Admittedly, I wrote the ingredients once and took the picture before eating, so it looked appetizing, while the other time I didn’t write ingredients and took the picture after eating most of it (oops, it looked kind of gross, apologies to my raters). Ratings for a Yoplait lite yogurt were overwhelmingly positive, and I don’t think it’s actually very healthy. One commenter on the TechCrunch blog post about the app complained that he wanted expert evaluations, not the wisdom of his friends or the crowd (or even people who rate the same way I do, though he didn’t say that). But I think the crowd doesn’t have to be perfectly correct for the mindfulness aspect to work, or for the retrospective assessment of eating patterns to work.