Don’t buy a Fitbit if you live in Africa

Unsolicited advice from a fellow African.

Context

First off, I live in the United States, however, both my parents live in Nigeria. Like most millennial children of African families, it should come as no surprise that whenever either of my parents needs some tech help, I or one of my siblings is their goto. Growing up, you’re somehow the cable ‘guy’, the internet technician, the Microsoft Word expert and the portable TV manual, all conveniently wrapped in the form of a human offspring. In my case, it may have worked out for the best considering that I ended up becoming a software engineer.

It’s also important to note that my mum is a fitness junky in her own right, the type who works out religiously 6 out of 7 days of the week. So for the last 2 years she has repeatedly asked me to get her a fitness tracker to aid in her fitness journey — a request I took much pride obliging.

Backtrack

Fitbit Charge 3

Let’s quickly backtrack to 2019 when I got my mum her very first Fitbit, the Fitbit Charge 3. It was a thing of pride both for myself and my mum. I was the thoughtful child who purchased a much desired gift for their parent, and my mum was the proud new owner of an ‘Advanced Fitness Tracker’ device to carry along in her fitness journey. In fact, my mum’s friend, who is also based in Nigeria, liked the idea so much so that she asked that I get her a Fitbit of her own.

Fast-forward less than a year later and both Fitbit were stone cold dead. Neither of them seem to work anymore. Both women ardently alleged that the devices just packed up and stopped working. They’ve tried all avenues available to them, at least one child technician and an actual technician but no one can get the Fitbits to work. Being continents apart, both women relayed the tales of the dead Fitbits to me over the phone. Naturally, as a know-it-all millennial, I assumed it was simply the case of boomers once again accusing the computers of going crazy. So I shrugged it off; I figured I could deal with the situation when next I was home.

Fast-Forward

So now it’s 2020 and it’s time for me to visit Nigeria again (yes, I know, COVID but I followed all the protocols). Prior to leaving the U.S, my mum insists that the last device still doesn’t work and that she wants another chance at her fitness goals. So, I decided to get her a better Fitbit, the Fitbit Sense — the top of the line. Little did I know that the device would be the type of nightmare that humbly reminds one that bad tech isn’t ageist.

Fitbit Sense

So now I’m back home in Nigeria, ready to setup the Fitbit Sense. My very first attempt at set up quickly went up in flames — how does one even turn on this device? Where are the buttons? I did eventually figure out how to turn it on :). Okay, it’s on now, but why is there no starter interface on the device and why is it asking me to “Download the Fitbit app” to get started? My mum already had the Fitbit app installed on her phone so moving forward wasn’t too difficult. Next, I needed to pair with the new Fitbit, which wasn’t unexpected, but the next 1 hour I spent attempting to do just that, was.

While trying to pair, the Fitbit claimed it was capable of pairing via Bluetooth or WiFi, but not without stating that WiFi pairing is faster. Again, my family is a typical Nigerian family, so WiFi isn’t really a thing in our household. However, every smartphone device in our house (and there’s quite a few of them) has its own LTE internet connection provided by a mobile carrier. Considering this, pairing shouldn’t really have been that difficult, but it was. The device repeatedly tried Bluetooth pairing only to fail with the “Unable to update Fitbit” error message and less than helpful troubleshooting tips. All this to say — no, Bluetooth pairing did not work.

After I gave up on Bluetooth pairing, WiFi was the only other option. Since I didn’t actually have WiFi, I tried to think through how I could get the Fitbit app to believe there was a WiFi connection available. At this point I thought maybe I could fool it if I created a hotspot with another smartphone. I tried that too but no luck, not because it was an entirely foolish idea but because the Fitbit app couldn’t even find the hotspot when searching for connections. To confirm that I wasn’t delusional, I tried connecting to the hotspot from my laptop and that worked fine. The Fitbit and I had reached an impasse, so like every good engineer I figured it was time to take a step back and regroup.

Regrouping

A couple days later I was ready to try again. Conveniently, I needed WiFi for my other personal data needs (you know, Netflix), so I decided to get a WiFi device and reattempt the Fitbit pairing. To satisfy my new internet needs, I got a SmileNg device — quick shout-out to SmileNg for the quality connection! With my SmileNg WiFi in hand, I attempted another Fitbit pairing. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work, the Fitbit app still couldn’t find the WiFi connection.

At this point I was out of ideas and the will to keep trying.

Reflections

I’ve done some Googling about my Fitbit chronicles, and it turns out that other folks have had similar issues with the Fitbit Charge 3 dying out of the blue. Some folks online have said they got a replacement from the company. Unfortunately, if you live on the African continent you know already that trying to get a replacement is an ordeal that deserves a separate post.

As a software engineer, I build tech products for a living and so I’ve come to have many opinions about questionable user experience in such products. So back to the Fitbit Sense, which in reality makes little sense :) — a couple usability concerns have plagued me:

  1. Why does the device not even have a base starting state prior to the ‘download app’ call to action? A base state encourages users, it let’s us know that things are well and that my device isn’t broken from the start.
  2. Why do I seemingly need a WiFi connection to update the device? We live in a mobile-first world where data is king for many of the mobile-first populace.
  3. Why are the troubleshooting steps not helpful? This wreaks of a breakdown in usability studies. Or maybe I’m being too harsh here and it’s just the case that all troubleshooting tips are never actually helpful.
  4. This one is a personal dig. Fitbit needs to let go of the non-existent ‘side button’. It doesn’t inspire any confidence — Am I pressing the button now? Am I pressing on it hard enough? Is this even a button? As a user, I found the “side button" on the Fitbit Sense to be unintuitive, and especially dislike that it hardly provides any feedback save the occasional device vibration. For what it’s worth, I’m not the only one who thinks this (ref here).

Although this post is based on anecdotal experiences of using Fitbit in Nigeria, I still stand by my advice that African users who live on the continent shun the brand, at least for now. I say this because as much as tech companies would like us to think that they are building for everyone, the reality is that they aren’t.

African users and contexts aren’t a real priority for these companies; usability takes on a whole new meaning the moment you touch down on the African continent. In reality, the daily lives of African users are vastly different from those of users in the “global west.” There are many factors that make consumer technology on the continent a different ball game entirely, as such, one does not just accidentally build for Africa.

In my opinion, Fitbit has yet to mature to the point of building context-resilient products. As such, I will no longer be purchasing Fitbits for my family who live on the African continent, and I suggest that you don’t either.

Software Engineer type. I care about humanity, the power of people behind technology and “Africa rising”

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