Yafang Li graduated in May with her doctorate. (Courtesy photo)

Three-Minute Thesis Winner: Increasing Employees’ Use of Fitness Trackers

By Becky Kramer

Several years ago, Target made headlines by offering its employees free Fitbits. By nudging its 330,000 US workers to adopt active lifestyles, the retail giant hoped to lower its health insurance costs.

But the benefits were short-lived. Within six months, many Target workers had stopped using the fitness trackers.

“Target wasn’t the only company spending tons of money to give out free fitness trackers. But for most companies, the employee abandonment rate was high,” says Yafang Li (’22 PhD), a recent Carson College of Business doctoral graduate in information systems.

The conundrum intrigued Li, who studies people’s interactions with information technology, including their behavior after adopting a new technology. For her doctoral thesis, “I tried to solve the problem,” she says.

Li’s research on how to keep people using fitness trackers placed first in the college’s Three-Minute Thesis event. Held each spring, the competition requires doctoral students to explain the significance of their research in three minutes or less, using only one, static slide.

“All of us who’ve tried and failed to keep a fitness resolution can relate to Yafang’s thesis work,” says Chuck Munson, PhD program director. “She drew on her background in information systems, applying a research mindset to a common problem.”

Increasing return on investment

Li found that people who developed a strong “identity” around the fitness trackers were most likely to embrace their long-term use. “They came to view the use of a fitness tracker as integral to their sense of self,” she says.

However, even people who didn’t start out with an affinity for exercise could be motivated to keep using their fitness trackers, she says. Training people how to use the devices and offering rewards—either money or points toward a reward—encouraged employees’ long-term use.

A sense of competition also helped. When employees tracked their activity against their past performance or their peers’ performance, their motivation to continue using the fitness trackers increased.

“Providing the device itself doesn’t make the health benefits happen,” Li says. “But with intervention, companies can increase their return on investment from the fitness trackers.”

Li’s research has broader implications. People’s willingness to embrace new technology for fitness also provides insights for adoption of other health-related information technologies, such as food-tracking apps for diabetics and patient healthcare portals, she says.

Heading to Tennessee

Li is moving to Tennessee in August, where she has accepted a position at the University of Memphis as an assistant professor in business information technology.

She gives a special thanks to her dissertation committee co-chairs Associate Professor Michelle Carter and Robert Crossler, chair of the Department of Management, Information Systems, and Entrepreneurship, and committee member Debbie Compeau, the college’s senior associate dean for faculty affairs and research.

“I’ve benefited so much from the Carson College’s doctoral program,” Li says. “Besides my research, the faculty also cared about helping me be successful in my teaching and in life.”