Have you ever used a health app to track your personal data, such as diet, exercise, or menstrual cycle? Did seeing the data make you feel excited and empowered? Or stressed and frustrated?
My colleagues and I are currently investigating a complex and emotional type of self-tracking: fertility. We specifically focus on how women use self-tracking technologies to assist their efforts to conceive. Fertility challenges are not uncommon. Many of these women use fertility apps, but it’s not yet clear how these tools can potentially impact their lives.
Our research shows that women face multiple challenges when self-tracking for fertility, and they respond to the data in different ways. Some may find the experience positive, while others feel overwhelmed or give up altogether.
Different types of engagement with data
The main goal of fertility self-tracking is to detect the ovulation day, because that defines each month’s fertile period. However, there is no unique measure that can precisely identify ovulation, so women track multiple indicators – like temperature, physical symptoms or results from ovulation predictor kits – to estimate this period. Fertility apps aim to facilitate this data collection and reflection.
We chose to first analyze data from an online fertility forum, so we could focus on women’s questions, challenges and concerns. We analyzed 400 threads with more than 1900 posts between 2006 and 2016. In our results, published in November, we categorize women’s experiences with their data into five different types.
Women who are positively engaged with their data see their data and feel excited with their results. They are often learning to track and understand their bodies, which leaves them feeling hopeful and confident. For example, one woman posted: “Do you think I should test again tomorrow and the following 2 days? This is exciting!”
Women in this group tend to increase the amount of data they track over time, so tracking becomes more burdensome. They express a higher level of stress and anxiety when compared to the first type. However, they still have a generally positive experience tracking and viewing data.
For example, one woman felt anxious because she could not follow her precise tracking schedule: “I measure my temperature at 5:30 in the morning. The past 2 days I have been totally exhausted, and I over-slept. Yesterday, I did not measure my temperature until 6:30 and today I did it only at 6:50. Do you think I screwed up my temperature chart?”
For women in this group, tracking begins to occupy much of their attention. They tend to track even more data than the burdened type, often seeing any symptom as a possible measure to track. In this sense, they seem to be consumed with data, often over-tracking, and they express even higher levels of frustration and stress. However, they still believe in tracking and are unwilling to give up on it: “I am searching for any little pain or irregularity to give me hope. You understand how it works!”
This is the most emotionally intense type of engagement. Women with this relationship with data often have been trying to conceive for longer. They tend to express signs of despair, guilt and dependence. They want to stop tracking, but they feel unable to, like the woman who wrote: “I want to stop trying so badly, but I just do not think I can forget about all this. I seriously do not believe I can refrain my brain from thinking ‘today is the 10th day of my cycle, I should have sex, and so on.‘”
In some cases, tracking becomes so emotionally burdensome and the frustration with the negative results becomes so devastating that women decide to stop tracking and trying to conceive, either temporarily or permanently. As one woman wrote: “But after all the stress, constant worrying, tracking temperature, having intercourse on time, visits to doctors, blood tests and medications, I just decided I needed a break.”