There is plenty of health data in the world, but the problem is in structuring and working through it to find new breakthroughs. Firefish's Dr. Bob Cook explores how the conversation might be reframed.

It’s often said that to better understand a person one should walk a mile in their shoes. This is as true for market research as it is for life. When a person has a condition, for example hayfever, or chronic fatigue, living with them through their daily lives, seeing how their condition affects them, how they struggle in certain situations, is the only real way to truly understand the symptom or condition.

The better brands do this, the closer they will get to compelling and resonant insight that will build an emotional connection with people, meaning brands can make advertising that really connects, or they can create products that make a substantial difference to their lives.


In 2009, Firefish became the first research agency to use lifelogging — where a digital camera is worn by a subject to capture every moment of their day to gain honest insight. It provides a candid and accurate view of a person’s day, a passive capture of their life narrative, rather than edited highlights or the sorts of unreliable answers so frequent in focus groups.

One example is work we carried out for a well-known nasal congestion brand. We hung wearable cameras around the necks of people suffering with nasal congestion for three days, to help the company develop its brand and audience understanding.

We witnessed the impact it had on personal and professional situations – how sufferers had become so accustomed to it that it became their ‘normal’ way of feeling. We saw the lengths that people went to medicate discreetly as a result of the limited options currently available to them. We saw problems experienced by sufferers while driving a car, or in a meeting, leading to innovation opportunities for the brand in question. 

In another study, this time for a vitamin supplement brand, we used lifelogging to gain a better understanding of how the brand could become more widely relevant to its target audience. We used lifelogging to explore the details of people’s lives to understand where the brand in question could credibly reach. This helped the brand identify advertising that would change its frame of reference from occasional fix to a daily preparation. The new direction led to a 15% increase in sales.

Since we pioneered lifelogging for brands, the digital revolution has exploded, bringing with it a plethora of wearable tech and, with it, health data about everything from a person’s heart rate to their diet or number of steps taken in a day. This notion of the quantified self — the cultural phenomenon of self-tracking with technology — has gone from a left-field concept of DIY enthusiasts to the daily reality of millions in only a few years.

For brands trying to get an understanding of how their products impact the daily lives of users, this sort of data can complement more holistic measures of understanding, with a view to producing a comprehensive view of an individual’s needs.

Privacy concerns

As a society, we’re still at the beginning of this pursuit of the quantified self. Our work was with a limited pool of willing subjects, but the possibilities are virtually endless. Trust, transparency and permission are three words on the lips of people. Do you really want to share your health data with a company that makes toothpaste as well as cough medicine?

According to comprehensive Ipsos Mori research carried out in 2015, when asked ‘To what extent, if at all, would you support your health data being accessed by commercial organisations if they are undertaking health research?’ 54 per cent of people offered support. When asked if they would support that same data being used to ‘target health products at different groups of people?’ the number dropped to 36 per cent.

Brands collecting health data is a socio-political minefield. In light of a string of abuses, privacy issues are now explosive. There is no denying that major developments in the future of healthcare lie in the ability for AI to translate masses of diffuse data into information and insights to inform new drug and product development. But for OTC brands, developing commercially available life-aids rather than cures for cancer, access to such data is presently harder to come by.

This will change, in time. There exist two traditional mindsets for data sharing. First, commercial transactions (‘my data has financial value’), and second, the social contract (‘we’re all helping each other’). OTC pharma brands are explicitly in the former. Data is given as part of a deal. There has to be an inherent value exchange. How far would you go – submit data actively, passively – or have a smart pill sharing information about your blood chemistry or the contents of your stomach … in real time?

Herein lies an opportunity to develop more direct, personal relationships with people over time. Any technology needs to be backed up by the sort of holistic understanding afforded by something like lifelogging, with a view to improving people’s lives, not just selling them one-off products.

A hypothetical app, in the MyFitnessPal vein, could achieve this. Take a condition suffered by millions, such as hay fever. If first it harnessed human insight, it would understand the plight of sufferers. It could utilise this information to demonstrate that it knows what it’s like to suffer with hayfever, offering short-term fixes, information on pollen and plants, the pollen level that day, and the like. The brand would have created a value proposition that genuinely helps people while developing loyalty.

If the app had the option to log data, the brand could then use that to develop better products, and present itself in a way that really resonates with sufferers. But without that initial understanding, few will be willing to engage in the value exchange.

Overall, success lies in combining the powerful data capture and management that technology affords us, with real understanding of the human reality that the data relates to. It’s not about one or the other, but about striking the right balance to turn big data into a second age of enlightenment and opportunity.