Daniel Epstein Earns Early Career Development (CAREER) Award to Explore Self-Tracking Engagement

September 12, 2023

Daniel Epstein has received the prestigious National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award to advance his research into meaningful self-tracking experiences. The award supports early-career faculty serving as academic role models in research and education and leading advances in their field of interest.

“For the past decade, I’ve been doing work on personal tracking technology,” says Epstein, assistant professor of informatics in UC Irvine’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS). “But over that time, there’s been this evolution. At first, people were so excited to keep track of the number of steps that they take … but abandonment of these sorts of technologies is really high.” 

Epstein hopes to reverse this trend with his NSF project, “Advancing Personal Wellbeing through Everyday Meaningful Self-Tracking Experiences.”

Creating Novel Applications
The five-year funding of $616,000 will support Epstein and his Ph.D. students as they explore how best to design tracking technology to improve data engagement. Although more than 40% of U.S. adults use self-tracking technologies, such as a digital pedometer or food journaling app, they often fail to benefit from the data being collected.

To explore better design options, the researchers will develop three novel applications:

  • FitCreate, a web tool for customizing representations of activity data on watch faces;
  • FoodTogether, a mobile app for families to journal shared eating experiences; and
  • AT Annotator, an annotation tool to support the discontinuation of antidepressants.

These applications will build off of work that was led by Epstein’s Ph.D. students, including Matthew Dressa, Eunkyung Jo, Whitney Kouaho, Xi Lu, Lucas Silva and Dennis Wang.

“The goal here in this project, and in the three strands of work,” explains Epstein, “is to look at what are some of the different ways that we can design tracking technology to better align with people’s personal values to make the experience more meaningful to them.”

A screen showing photos of food, restaurants, and people eating together, and another screen showing “Picnic after the Cardinals’ big win!” with a photo of the gathering, a list of people who attended, and messages sent, such as “I’m so proud of you, Jose!”
An early sketch of FoodTogether, a tool for enhancing family bonding by tracking moments eating together.

Epstein stresses that each application will examine one of three critical but understudied areas of meaningful data engagement: connectedness (FitCreate), resonance (FoodTogether) and significance (AT Annotator).

A chart with a “summary of results”A phone screen with a 1-3 rating system for problems such as “feeling down.”
A mockup of AT Annotator, a tool for patients discontinuing antidepressants to highlight the significance of their lived experiences within diagnostic scales and for providers to review.

Rethinking Design
“The research field has done a lot of work in this area, but now we really need to spend some time rethinking how we’re designing these technologies,” says Epstein. “Building a Fitbit was hard, but today’s challenge is making it something useful for more people.”

A watch face with activity data.A watch face with activity data.A watch face with activity data.A watch face with activity data.
Epstein has studied how tech experts customize their watch faces to represent personally meaningful values.

He’s hoping the research will result in a concrete set of principles for app designers and developers working to create more engaging experiences that lead to improved health and well-being. “It’s a big grant, so I’m pretty happy. I’m excited to do the work!”

Epstein joins a long list of ICS CAREER award recipients, including the following: Stacy Branham, Roderic Crooks, Charless Fowlkes, Alexander Ihler, James Jones, Sam Malek, Stephan Mandt, Kylie Peppler, Anne Marie Piper, Ardalan Amiri Sani, Sameer Singh, Erik Sudderth and Shuang Zhao.

— Shani Murray