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Mint.com for Healthy Living – A Start

I found this old post I made from December 2009, using the Mint.com for Health analogy so many have often referenced as what we need for healthy living. The passive and integrated data collection combined with a free and enjoyable user experience made it a no brainer for people to try Mint, in an era where people have fewer fears regarding privacy and security.

But we have no banks, credit cards and or Yodlee when it comes to lifestyle and health. There aren’t VeriFone terminals and ATM machines at every turn, compelling people to passively store data about their behaviors. But the world of Quantified Self devices is growing at breakneck pace, as evidenced at the inaugural Quantified Self Conference last week.

Yes, while you might have already bought your 3rd Fitbit because the first 2 fell off your belt, or you stopped wearing the Zeo sleep tracker because it kept falling off your head onto the pillow, these devices may have already elucidated for you how many steps you DIDN’T get, or how red wine with sulfites before bed could deprive you of deep sleep. And new tools, like Green Goose, could start to make brushing your teeth as trackable as buying gas with your credit card. Food has been harder to track. But, Zipongo, visual recognition tools, barcode scanners and point of sales integrations will continue to change that in a major way.

The fundamental question still remains though: How well does Mint.com help people save money, and have better finances? It helps. Knowing and quantifying is a necessary first step. Making a personalized budget and plan, lays our the roadmap. But models like SaveUp, that create incentives and change default habits, need to be integrated to impact culture.

Similarly, what has long been lacking in the Health & Wellness tech world are models that actually translate all the tracking to individual and cultural action. Few nutrition, exercise and lifestyle tracker sites ever eclipse 10 million users. On the other hand, consider the cultural shifts caused by Groupon and Living Social, in getting folks to try new adventures they might have otherwise not considered (as well as, perhaps, one too many cupcakes). Consider the cultural shift caused by taking Trans Fat out of products. Consider the amount of sugar people still get after an endcap promotion of soda and sugary cereal– even after they tracked their diet for a week.

Mint.com for Health is the start of a good idea, that needs to be joined by systems that allow everyday people to change their own default behavioral economics. From big decisions like choosing to live within walking distance to work (and actually walking), to everyday decisions, like stocking your kitchen with natural, balanced foods and making an informed enjoyable restaurant meal decision.

The final piece of the puzzle that shapes us all, are the friends, family and icons you really trust, and being able to follow those you’re most intrigued by. Self-insight from tracking and a perfect personalized plan can inform how to reshape the right set of default behaviors, while savings (especially super deals) and convenience (especially geo proximity) make them attractive. But, it’s those you follow and love that truly move you.

Since blogging the original post on Mint.com for Health, we’ve learned so much about the hectic pace of people’s modern lives, and can better appreciate why helping people knowingly invest in shaping their own behaviors, in sync with those they care about, is so fundamental to having any impact. I’m excited that Zipongo has an opportunity to contribute to the field, and pull together the key components of living well into a single platform.

Mint.com for Health, circa December 2009

At one time, people just used coin and paper cash to pay for goods and services. They managed their money by what was under their mattress or in their sock drawer. Banks came along and helped them safely store their money–turning cash into a number, rather than just a physical item. Checks changed point-of-purchase behavior, and credit card companies like American Express took things even a step further, truly making money just a number to be used and managed. They even gave instant loans (credit) and used points to reward certain behaviors with the card. AMEX has also been a leader in providing tools to help users analyze their spending and make budgets to monitor the movement of their money.

Intuit recognized the tide of people wanting to track their virtual money digitally. They innovated a common financial language so they could simplify the integration of multiple streams of data with Quicken–from your savings, checking and credit cards to investment accounts–for a complete picture of your financial wellness.

Mint.com recognized that there were still ways to make it even easier for all types of people to consistently track their complete financial picture. First, they did not require any physical software. Second, they made it as simple as entering your username and password for all of your various other online accounts, to load your data to Mint.com. Third, they automatically downloaded the data for you, for free (unlike Quicken), keeping it up to date even in times when you might be busy. Fourth, they improved the re-categorization of data, decreasing the re-coding burden on the user. Fifth, they made intelligent budget and planning recommendations based on your financial flows. And, finally, they made their own money off of referral fees for things that actually helped users–such as identifying a lower interest rate credit card.

With health, we are now on the verge of progressing beyond the era of physical cash. Each day, you and I eat, drink, move, sleep, breathe and destress (or at least, you should). You and I are exposed to environmental elements such as the sun, air and water each day. And many also medicate themselves on a regular basis– be it doctor or self-prescribed.

Have you ever wondered why you have never left your primary care physician’s office with a specific plan for what to eat, what to drink, how to move, how to sleep? CDC says that 70% of disease is preventable, so, you’d think your doctor would give you your unique and specific plan on how to do that. However, we all take these things for granted, as things we picked up in the womb, at birth or during childhood. Further, there is no ledger book for your health behaviors, to help you or your doctor make a plan. It is difficult to assess the short-term cause and effect of your lifestyle behaviors on your headaches, mood or heartburn, if you can’t accurately understand the holistic picture of your lifestyle flows. It’s difficult to prevent obesity, cancer or heart disease, if you’re only partially aware of these complex multiple streams of inputs and outputs on your body.

We are in the early days of non-invasive digital lifestyle tracking, but the innovations are exciting. The arena of physical activity tracking– from Nike/iPod to HopeLab, FitBit and Phillips accelerometers, it is clear that consumers are excited to explore their Movement data stream. Labs and Personal Health Records are also making it easier to track our ‘outcomes’ data, such as your cholesterol. Their are gaps in technology for tracking the Eating data stream, but numerous exciting products are on the horizon for that and all of the other critical lifestyle inputs and outputs. But, with all those credit cards and checking accounts and investment funds, people will need a Mint.com to track their health.

At first blush, people wonder if tracking all of this information is a good thing. At first, people asked a number of questions about Quicken and Mint.com (now both part of the Intuit family) as well. Will it be private and secure? Will it make me feel more guilty about my spending, more stressed and less carefree? Will it force me to be even more plugged-in and less focused on the world around me? Will they make me reliant on them and then charge me large fees?

People have had centuries to acclimate to the concept of tracking their wealth closely, but tracking every aspect health and lifestyle may still feel a bit more personal to people. As such, the same concerns people initially had about Mint.com are even more magnified in this arena, when moving beyond the small percentage of superusers– such as fitness buffs or people in executive health programs.

Nonetheless, Intuit and Mint.com’s experience can be instructive to the Health 2.0 communities innovating both the tracking tools and the platforms aggregating the data:

1) Privacy and security needs to be an early focus of any initiative to track and aggregate health streams. Rare stories of data leaks, ‘identity theft’ in the money world, will occur; if you’re building a health tracking or data aggregator, just do everything you can to make sure the leaks didn’t occur on your platform. Plus, HIPAA laws mandate some basic requirements you should be following from the start; ARRA, GINA and health reform legislation only strengthens those requirements.

2) The ‘guilt’ of tracking is a real cultural concern that requires creativity to address. The last thing we want is a society of people so glued to their contraptions and specific personalized plans that they lose their spontaneity, or capacity to use their own body to sense its own needs. It is critical for tracking, aggregator and recommendation/ planning tools to be adaptive, flexible and supplemental to our inherent senses.

3) Business models should never disincentivize early use of health tracking or aggregator tools. That would obviously defeat the social and business purpose of such tools. Health 2.0 entrepreneurs are taking cues from Google and Mint.com, to find ways to serve the needs paying customers who ultimately foot the bill for users that enjoy the services. For Google, it was advertisers. For Mint.com, is was financial institutions that paid referral fees when people switched to a more suitable financial product. Sometimes, advertising or referrals is not enough. Eventually, consumer apps, like Pandora or Hulu, are forced with questions about whether to charge for premium services. If the product is good enough and provides a value to people they can see, there will be a set of users that will pay for more features–as long as companies don’t get overly eager and charge too much.

When it comes to your finances, knowing is half the battle. The same is true for your health, and it will be an exciting decade of reflection and insight into the way we truly live our own lives.

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