Run Or Else motivates by threatening your wallet

Fred Trotter (@fredtrotter) has been working in health IT for years, gaining a reputation as a health software expert. He wrote the first O’Reilly Media book about health IT, “Meaningful Use and Beyond” (click here to read reviews or buy from Amazon), and is a contributor to the O’Reilly Radar blog (@radar). During a recent interview, Fred explained why he built his Run Or Else (@runorelse) running motivation service, who should use it, and how he took advantage of the Health Graph (@healthgraphapi) and RunKeeper Elite in its implementation.

Bill Day: Why did you create Run Or Else?

Fred Trotter: Writing software to help doctors and patients is a worthwhile pursuit. But at some point I realized that if I really wanted to make a difference in healthcare I needed to start coding solutions for people to stay healthy. Run Or Else is my first public experiment with this idea.

BD: What is the “elevator pitch” for why someone should use Run Or Else?

FT: The shortest way I can describe it is “Run Or Else helps motivate people to run consistently”.

Run Or Else is designed for people who would like to be runners, but are not yet. Running as a healthy behavior is only valuable if you do it consistently over long periods of time. But if you do manage to run consistently over long periods of time, the health and lifestyle benefits are enormous.

Run Or Else helps people to run consistently by creating a simple mental hack: Tricking yourself into assuming “I have to run.” With Run Or Else each user chooses a weekly running or walking distance goal, and an amount of money to risk if they do not go that distance. Then they user RunKeeper (or something that feeds the Health Graph distance data) to track their runs. We then use the Health Graph API to download that data and automatically calculate whether a user has kept their self-commitment. If a user has gone their distance, nothing happens. If they have failed, then we charge their Paypal account.

The idea is to make it expensive not to run.

BD: How did you get started using the Health Graph API?

FT: I have been experimenting with it since it first came out. I have been thinking of building something like Run Or Else for a long time. When the Health Graph was released it became obvious that it was the perfect tool for Run Or Else. It solved the really hard problem of gathering the running data on more than one mobile platform (iPhone and Android in particular). The Health Graph hands Run Or Else the right data on a silver platter.

BD: How is using the Health Graph benefiting Run Or Else?

FT: Run Or Else would not be possible without the Health Graph. Well, perhaps it would be possible, but it would really suck.

Let me re-phrase: Without the Health Graph, Run Or Else would not be worth it for me to try and build it. I still would have tried to build something to do with incentivizing healthy behaviors, but I would not have focused on walking and running without the Health Graph.

BD: Which portions of the Health Graph API do you use, and why?

FT: I use the activity history, and I filter it for running, walking, or hiking. All three of these count towards the user’s Run Or Else weekly distance goal.

BD: What do you like about the Health Graph? What would you like to see changed?

FT: The Health Graph is really clean and simple. It provides me with a perfect window into the behaviors that I want to measure.

I believe the “ownership of the data” type issues in the API terms of use really need to change, but that is something that I believe will be addressed. [Editor's note: Shortly before this profile was published, we expanded Health Graph user data export capabilities dramatically to include all activity and measurement data, at least partially addressing Trotter's concerns.]

BD: If you could request any new feature from the Health Graph, what would it be? How would you use it?

FT: Honestly, you guys are moving faster than I am. I was thinking it might be nice to have more “social” features through the API, but then you invited me to beta one of your newer social features, the Healthy button.

BD: Can you tell us why you chose to have an initial RunKeeper Elite-only beta release?

FT: There are several reasons for this.

First we are entirely dependent on the Health Graph. Besides any money we make through the RunKeeper Elite Affiliate Program, the program helps us to be sure that the Health Graph platform as a whole is funded and sustainable.

The second reason is that it puts us in a position to leverage the most advanced features of Health Graph API across all of our users. We want to build the ultimate running motivation application, and to do that we need to build on the ultimate running tracking application and RunKeeper Elite gives us that.

It is also pretty cool that it helps RunKeeper. Our app would not be possible without RunKeeper’s deliberate decision to release a clean and open API for activity tracking apps (among other things). Building and supporting an API like that is expensive, and it is important for us to make sure that RunKeeper has an incentive to keep doing that.

We plan on launching our site for all Health Graph users as soon as we have learned the initial lessons from our Elite users. As we consider the RunKeeper Elite choices, it becomes obvious that for some apps, being RunKeeper Elite-only may be a good long term funding strategy. For us, we are going to make sure that there are eventually features in our app that only RunKeeper Elite users can get. So we will have a parallel freemium business model alongside RunKeeper.

BD: Can you share any future plans for your app? What’s coming next that your users will be excited about? Does the Health Graph play a role in that, and if so, how?

FT: We have grand designs for Run Or Else, but our Elite-only launch was the first time we could get feedback en masse. We will start the next iteration of coding after we’ve accumulated enough feedback from our initial Elite-only users. The Health Graph will always play a significant role in our future plans and several of our “wouldn’t it be cool” ideas are directly tied to Health Graph features that we do not yet leverage.

Again, Run Or Else is entirely dependent on the Health Graph working: There is no “backup plan”, without Health Graph data, we really have no application.

BD: Is there anything else we should know about you or your application?

FT: We are trying to create a system that sustains running motivation, and that means more than just a financial incentive.

The most important tool we give users to sustain their motivation is their status page (you can see my status page by clicking the “demo” link at runorelse.com).

Your status page gives you access to the same underlying data that the RunKeeper interface does, except with one important bias: Your weekly distance is what matters, not your individual runs. So we show much less data then we get from the Health Graph, because we are trying help users track running/walking motivation, rather than just running.

RunKeeper’s FitnessReports will always give a much better display of a user’s detailed running and other health and fitness data. The RunKeeper web interface shows all of the things that a regular runner might care about like pace, path, elevation, etc. This is great for someone who is already running consistently.

With the Run Or Else display of the same data, you are getting a different report card. You are getting a report card that tells you, at a glance, whether or not you are a “runner”. We will be adding features around this display soon, but it is really the second big motivator in the system besides the financial incentive.

Bill Day (@billday) is Platform Evangelist for RunKeeper where he helps developers learn about and use the Health Graph.

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