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Factors to Consider When Purchasing Fitness Tracking Software
By Kirt Nakagawa

If you’re like many athletes, you probably keep records of your training, whether on a clipboard, in a spreadsheet, or scribbled into your daily planner. There are a number of software applications on the market that provide logging capabilities, but how do you decide which one is right for you?

This article describes ten factors to consider when purchasing software for fitness or athletic training. While most of these considerations could apply to any type of software, the examples and reasoning are specific to active people involved with fitness activities.

Here are our top ten considerations, with the top five being the most critical:
  1. User-friendliness - Lets face it, this pretty much trumps all other factors, as well it should. No matter how technologically advanced, slick-sounding, or powerful a piece of software is, if it’s not easy to use, you probably won’t use it. In fact, the chief reason to buy software is to improve your life in some way, and probably the last thing you want to do is spend your time figuring out how it’s supposed to work.

    User-friendly software facilitates the initiation, process, and completion of your work, with a minimum of confusion, in a way that flows. Invariably, the screens have a nice design and are not too “busy” with input boxes, buttons, images, and text. They clearly communicate their function and whether or not any input is required from you. Useful feedback will guide you through the screens, without irritation, distraction, or redundancy.

    You can generally glean software’s user-friendliness from magazine reviews, and even by a careful study of the screenshots on the company’s website or packaging. Obtaining a demo copy of the software, which lets you evaluate the flow, aesthetics, and utility of the application, is especially useful.

    Utility – Irrespective of the features, the software you purchase either needs to solve a problem you are having (for example, trouble getting motivated, disorganized training records, sub-par athletic performance, or recurring injuries) or enhance your fitness or athletic performance. It must provide some benefit to you – some real utility – especially in the achievement of your fitness goals, and it must work on your computer.

    To determine the utility of software, first think about what services you need from your software. Then think about what you would like. For example, if you have been logging your running mileage on paper, you may decide you need software that allows you to easily track your running training, but that you would like a total (maybe on a graph) of your monthly mileage. Software with utility provides all of what you need and much of what you like.

    Always check system requirements before you buy any software, and make sure your system satisfies – or exceeds - the minimum requirements.

    Stability/Performance – Bugs have been a problem since the dawn of computers, but there’s no excuse for unstable software that crashes your system, take minutes to just start up, or produces cryptic messages before unexpectedly shutting down. Even a useful and well-designed application, but with a tendency to crash, will probably frustrate you and drive you away from the computer – leaving you right back where you started: Having some problem needing a solution.

    When it comes to software stability, some sort of verifiable 3rd-party testing certification is preferable to none, but frankly this won’t mean much if the software has bugs that cause you grief. Again, favorable reviews in trade journals, positive word of mouth recommendations, and solid demo programs are good indicators of a product’s stability.

    Support – Does the company stand behind their products? What recourse do you have if you’re having a problem? Do they respond to e-mails in a timely manner? Is there a website, 800 number, e-mail address, or sales office to talk to? Most importantly, can you talk to a human being in a reasonable amount of time?

    If a company’s support system seems weak, beware. (Notice that if the previous considerations in this list are handled well, chances are you will not need much support, if any).

    Price – For a few folks, money is not a problem. For the rest of us, cost is definitely a factor. To some degree, you may get what you pay for, but $80 software is not necessarily twice as good as $40 software. Again, take your time evaluating the alternatives; after all, it’s your money.

    Appropriateness – Given that the software is user-friendly and has utility, it still must match your current level of sophistication, both as an athlete (whether you are a serious recreational athlete, an Olympic hopeful, or a recovering coach potato) and as a computer user.

    For example, fitness tracking software should accommodate tracking all of your fitness activities, whether common ones (like running, biking, or weight training) as well as less common ones (say, synchronized swimming, decathlon, or ice climbing).

    Upgradeability – As you evolve as an athlete, coach, or trainer, the software you purchase today must be able to grow with you. When evaluating an application, think about where you might be in the next year or two. If you move up a level or 2, could the software still support you? Does the vendor offer compatible, more sophisticated applications?

    Aesthetics – Traditionally, aesthetics has been relegated as an afterthought in the software development process, with functionality reigning supreme. In today’s digital age, there is no reason for software to consist of a colorless, monolithic screen, covered with a smear of confusing text.

    Not only should software visuals have an intuitive, user-friendly layout, but also pleasant graphics, with clear and useful text that supports the flow of the application. The better the experience you have when using the software, the more likely you are to use it, and the more benefit you will probably derive from it.

    Security/Privacy – In this day and age, with security violations and privacy concerns, any application you pay for should provide solid evidence that your personal information is secure. For a web-based application, at a minimum, the application should provide password protection and reasonable security documentation.

    Read the company website’s privacy policy. If its long, complicated, or you have to link to a remote site (or worse, you have to write or call and have it sent to you), chances are it’s not in your best interests.

    If you are tracking the development of a competitive or professional athlete, and the training data for your star athlete shows that he or she may be overtrained, this is information you probably don’t want on the internet. In this case, a stand-alone application may make more sense.

  2. Company Reputation/Culture – Do you get the feeling the company wants to collect as much private information about you as possible and sell it to the highest bidder? Or are you treated as someone whose business is genuinely appreciated? Are the company’s employees and management fit? Do they use the software themselves? Here again, information from experienced users is invaluable.
Conclusion: By applying these 10 considerations, you stand to improve your chances of ending up with the software that’s right for you. Enjoy your training and good luck with all your fitness goals.

Kirt Nakagawa has been competing in triathlons since 1993 and marathons since 1990. He is a software developer and founder of Kina Athletic Systems www.Kinasystems.com, an independent software company focusing on building applications for triathletes and distance runners. He can be reached at Kirt@Kinasystems.com or at (505) 884-2004.

Thanks Kirt for sharing your article.

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