A first look at the Health app in IOS 8

(9/28, 12PM — edited to add a few notes at the end about some other things the ICE feature needs to do but doesn’t — chuq)

One of the things that intrigued me was the new Health app that came with IOS 8. Even before the events of the last week, I was hoping it would be something worth adopting.

My initial reaction — it’s a good start. It’s still very incomplete. But I think Apple is on the right track.

The first thing I really like: it implements an ICE (In Case of Emergency) contact area on the phone available even if you’ve put in a PIN lock. That was something I called for in IOS 7, and something I argued about when I was at Palm, where the suggestion was routinely ignored. I’m happy to see it here, and I think the implementation is good, and allows for a rational choice of information to display that fits your feeling on the compromises between needed disclosure in an emergency and your privacy the rest of the time.

Everyone should set this up. You do so by firing up the Health app and going into the Medical ID area.

The other thing it does is track information you feed it. I’ve long kept the data I track about myself in a spreadsheet, and I keep hoping to find a better way to manage it. At one point I was seriously looking at writing an App for IOS to do just that, but when I heard IOS 8 was rumored to move into the space, I killed that project (and I’m happy I did).

I’ve got mine set up to track glucose readings, blood pressure, pulse, Steps and Walking/Running distance. It pulls the last two automatically from the phone’s tracker chip, which is nice. I’ve put in some sample data on the others to get a feel for it, but for now, I won’t be using it as a primary data storage.

Why?

The first problem is the app has no way to back up data — I’ve already heard of someone who reset and restored a device and lost the data collected. There’s no way to export the data, there’s no way for me to import my existing data — and I have years of it accumulated. There’s no web version on iCloud so there’s no way I can look at or share the data, and it doesn’t sync the data to the cloud. The app isn’t available on the iPad, either, so the data can’t be views/manipulated there.

In other words, it’s a write-only data hole, and if you have to restore your device or lose it, the data’s gone. So using this “in production” is a non-starter. The app has a feel of a working demo, not a final app. I fully expect these to be fixed in the coming days, so this is a temporary problem, assuming the product manager isn’t a total idiot — and the rest of the app design indicates they aren’t. Some nice thinking went into it, but it’s incomplete.

It tracks a lot of potential data, most of which I haven’t yet started to explore. There’s no food management within the App, but there’s a lot of reporting on the pieces that come from food management being part of the system. Given that this is a huge, complex area with some really good third party apps already in existence, so I expect Apple is going to let them continue to do what they do well, and I can’t wait to see how an app like Lose It! connects in. I think that will really improve the usefulness of both apps when they do.

There are two curiously missing data categories this app doesn’t have:

  • There is no way for a woman to track her period, and there’s no capability for fertility monitoring. Why not? This is an important category for most women who will adopt the app, and for many couples trying to conceive. Was the entire development team male?
  • There is no “notes” section. One thing I do in my spreadsheet is keep notes about various things that happen on specific days, like when I change dosage on a prescription or switch drugs. I can go back three years and see what I was taking and what dosages. there’s no way to do that in this app. I also keep key events documented that give context to the readings at that time, like “Norovirus” or “Visited the Emergency room”.  To me, unless I can annotate notes onto a given day, this app is a lot less useful than it could be.

There are a few UI issues, too.

  • I don’t like the presentation of the data in “Day” mode. It should be compact, perhaps even a list. I should be able to get a reasonable amount of data on one screen without scrolling. They used the same graphs they used in other parts of the app, and they don’t work for me. The day summary should be “at a glance”, not something I have to scroll through to see everything.
  • The step counter isn’t in the notification section? Really? Apple should be showcasing itself here — new app that’s a big focus of IOS8, and a new notification capability that they also pushed in the release, and the two don’t talk to each other? Missed opportunity. Again, the Health app, more than anything else, seems to be incomplete because it had to ship. I can’t see any other rational reason for this to be missing.
  • The medical ID area is pretty basic. Other apps do similar things better, like helping you through drug names, allowing you to include dosages and timing of the dose and other notes. The medical ID area feels like a bare minimum usable for the release, not a finished product.

Before I’ll use this app for more than a pedometer, here’s what I need to see:

  • Syncing data to iCloud, and access to that data via the web
  • Making sure the data is backed up off the device (accomplished by the first item, of course)
  • A good, robust way to import existing data so all my info is in one place
  • A good, robust way to export the data via CSV and/or other forms so I can use it in other ways off device)
  • A way to pull together data and share it via email so I can, for instance, send a report to my doctor.
  • Some way to get my television to stop playing that U2 song every five minutes.

Okay, not the last, but man…

The interface with the food management’s another key piece, but that’s up to the third party apps, and I expect to see good ones show up in the next month or two.

But for now, I’m rating the health app “Great start, but incomplete — check back in six weeks”

I think a year from now this is going to be a huge, usable, important tool on the devices. But now? it’s a glimmer of hope for what it should be, but too much of it isn’t there yet.

Edit 1: 9/28, 12PM:

I realized this morning there were a few other things the ICE capability should do but doesn’t in this release:

  • Some people want to donate organs, but only some organs, not all (for instance, corneas but not internal organs), often on religious beliefs. The ICE app needs a way for those people to specify what organs they’re choosing to donate.
  • The ICE capability needs a general “notes” section where we can write free text for specialty notes that aren’t covered elsewhere.
  • The ICE capability needs to allow me to specific what medical program I’m enrolled in, so if there’s an option I can be transmitted to a program hospital if I’m unable to communicate. Oh, and who my doctor is…
  • The ICE capability needs to allow me to specify if I have a living will and/or a Do Not Resucitate order in effect. And FWIW, I’ve had one almost completed for a few months now (not exactly a fun concept, but necessary) that I’ll be completing and recording with my doctor monday, although he knows that’s my intent.

As big a deal as Apple wants the Health app and it’s interfaces to be, I’m a little — no, moderately — disappointed at how incomplete it is. Not just missing features (like import or export of data) but the pieces they did implement show a rather superficial analysis of how the tools ought to be built and how they’ll be used. I can’t conceive of an ICE app that doesn’t let me document a DNR or medical program, and I can’t believe they shipped a data capture tool that can’t capture a woman’s periods. This is a lot like an app a product manager would spec out in two hours, not a fully built out app. In other words, while I think the health tools and the interfaces they built show great promise, the health app they actually shipped is a pretty piece of demo ware.

I’ll keep a close eye, though, because I expect (hope) it’ll get built out quickly now that they’re past launch. But for now, I can’t recommend it for use beyond the pedometer functions (and I haven’t validated those are accurate yet). right now, it’s presenting promise, not productivity.