Strava made me do it

A look into my use of Strava and how it's positively affected my behaviour over time.

My name is Jon, and I'm a Strava user.

I never thought I could be as fundamentally affected by an app as I have been by Strava. Other apps can affect your behaviour in various ways. Games are designed to be addictive, productivity apps claim to make you more productive, and social apps like Twitter and Instagram adjust the way you perceive the world around you. However Strava - at least for me - trumps other apps because it helps you do something I deem hugely important - it helps you keep fit.

And boy does it do it well.

What is Strava?

As a primer, Strava's an iOS and Android app aimed specifically at runners and cyclists. Using GPS to track your exercise routes, Strava lets users create 'segments', which are user-created, user-edited portions of a designated route where athletes can compete against one another for time.

It's these segments that are the secret sauce for Strava. As a new segment gets created and shared across the user base, athletes who actively ride or run that segment are ranked - based on their speed and time - with friends and strangers alike. Suddenly there's a real competitive edge, but crucially one that applies to not only your peers, but also to yourself.

strava-app

Then, via a lovely and intuitive UI, athletes can compete and interact with one another, continuously striving to better their peers' achievements and their own. Achievements are shown as 'PRs' (Personal Records), which are received as gold, silver or bronze medals for the top three best times on a segment. There's also the legendary status of collecting a KOM or QOM (King/Queen of the Mountain, for cyclists) and the equivalent 'CR' for runners (Course Record). Finally, akin to the dopamine/pleasure centre-stroking concept of Facebook's 'like' button, Strava includes their own version, called 'kudos'.

We've seen this all before, referred to by many as 'gamification'.

(Self) Gamification

Gamification as a concept has been around for some time. According to Wikipedia (highlights my own):

Gamification techniques strive to leverage people's natural desires for socializing, learning, mastery, competition, achievement, status, self-expression, altruism, or closure.

Early gamification strategies use rewards for players who accomplish desired tasks or competition to engage players. Types of rewards include points, achievement badges or levels, the filling of a progress bar, or providing the user with virtual currency.

I think it's fair to say that Strava does all of that and more, with aplomb.

However the real prestige with Strava is its self-gamification. The app has an ability to drive a user to better their own previous results. That's where Strava's real value comes into play.

Designing for behavioural change

Having used Strava for almost 3 years, I'm confident in saying my fitness levels have improved. Commuting daily to and from work ought to be boring and repetitive, but Strava has helped turn each ride into a competition with myself to better my own results. I push myself to go harder and faster. I aim to get more PRs to prove that I'm getting better, and to prove to myself that the pain in my legs and lungs is worth it. Seeing the progression over time makes my desire even stronger.

Lo and behold, 3 years on and I'm still using Strava daily to track and measure my activities. It's got a psychological hold over me; it's push has helped my daily exercise regime become a habit, and my state of mind has improved due to continued exercise. My motivation and diet have improved equally. Arguably I have a sense of motivation that otherwise wouldn't exist, had I not used this app in the first place.

Csikszentmihalyi and Flow

In researching for this article I've come across the work of renowned author Dan Pink, BJ Fogg and others... all in regards to motivation and triggers. However it was the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, referenced in a post by Michael Wu that really got my interest.

Csikszentmihalyi coined a mental state or concept known as 'flow'.

Flow is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where people become totally immersed in what they are doing. People experiencing flow often forget about physical feelings, passage of time, and their ego fades away.

According to Wikipedia Flow theory postulates three conditions that have to be met to achieve a flow state:

  1. One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress. This adds direction and structure to the task.
  2. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows them to adjust their performance to maintain the flow state.
  3. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and their own perceived skills. One must have confidence in one's ability to complete the task at hand.
flow

Source: Globoforce

My relationship with Strava has been one where all points mentioned by Csikszentmihalyi and the quest for flow have been addressed - both during an individual activity but also as a user of the app and its service.

  1. My activity's progress is perfectly matched with my collection of PR's or times per segment.
  2. The immediate feedback is received when I stop recording an activity and see the achievements, times and comparisons to myself and my peers.
  3. As my experience grows, so too does my confidence that I can get faster through better fitness.

I've become so fully immersed in my cycling that as a user I've reached a somewhat perpetual state of being in the zone with using Strava. My motivation and desire have been borne out of my use of the app. Mind you it's not been the reason, but it has undeniably been the agent of change that's helped me attain a higher degree of fitness and a higher state of flow, all from being a simple iOS app on my phone. That's impressive, and a superb example of both behavioural design and well-considered gamification.

Other Opinions

I should temper my glowing endorsement of Strava and highlight that it isn't always regarded as a perfect feel-good app that affects behaviour only in a positive light.

A Masters thesis written by a UCL student in 2012 examines the potentially negative effect Strava can have on cyclists in London whereas the popular cycling site Road.cc ran an article on how Strava is making cycling antisocial.

But perhaps most notable is the lawsuit from 2012 where a Californian cyclist was killed while attempting to win a downhill KOM. The family sued Strava for being responsible for the tragedy... and ultimately lost. The jury deemed that the San Francisco-based startup was not criminally negligent and that the responsibility for the behaviour lay squarely with the (unfortunate) individual and not the app. Either way it's a lesson that sometimes apps can change your behaviour, but sometimes too drastically.

Onwards and upwards

I'll continue to use Strava on a daily basis. It has become a natural extension of most of my physical exercise including my commute, the same commute that has seen me battle any and all weather conditions to simply be out on my bike. Though I can't herald Strava as the singular reason for what is basically a cycling addiction, it's played a major role in my progression into it, and into achieving that perpetual state of flow as described by Csikszentmihalyi's concept. As both a designer and a user, the way it can affect and change my behaviour is fascinating.

If you've not used it, I urge you to give it a shot. You won't regret it.