Working in the financial services industry, which tends to have a heavy focus on numbers, in the past few years I’ve really gotten into a love affair with organization, spreadsheets, numbers, and even delving into quantified self-type stuff. I had heard about the Fitbit line of products a year or so ago, but I didn’t really see any point in wearing one. I found my way over to the Fitbit users group on my company’s Yammer site and posted the following question on August 1:
I’ve been considering purchasing a Fitbit Flex, but I’m really disappointed that it doesn’t use an altimeter. I think that would be really useful for me. However I really like the look and functionality of the Flex better than the One and I think I’d be more likely to stick with it if it was something attached to my wrist 24/7 instead of something I have to clip onto whatever pair of pants I’m wearing. My big question is: is it really worth buying? It just seems like a gadget to me.
There were many great responses from co-workers saying that they’ve been really happy with their devices, the Fitbit dashboard is great, and especially liked syncing Fitbit with other apps like LoseIt, MyFitnessPal, our company wellness provider Optum’s website, and others. It also integrated nicely with Fitbit’s wireless scale, the Aria. The most thought-provoking response came from one of our IT specialists, who wrote “if the gadget helps you to be more active, it is worth buying.”
At the time, I was considered “obese” according to the body mass index (BMI) chart, but well within shooting range of “overweight.” I work a desk job, mostly, so I’m relatively sedentary. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to have a little data on my physical activity to improve my health, so I figured, why not?
I waited for a little while to see if they were going to come up with a more advanced model, but it turned out that I didn’t have to wait for long. When the Force was announced in October and subsequently available for pre-order, my curiosity was piqued with its beautiful OLED screen and ability to count steps, things that it’s older, smaller brother, and only other wrist-based Fitbit tracker the Flex, didn’t feature. The most exciting thing about the Force? The damn clock function. While it sounds simple, it’s something the Flex didn’t have, and brought more function to the Force. Plus, it’s easier for me to justify with friends and family spending $129 on the Force over a watch that doesn’t tell you anything other than the time.
So, I dropped the $129 and bought the Force from Fitbit direct in October. The device landed on my front door stoop on November 13 and after setting the device up to sync with my computer, it was on my wrist and we were off and running (figuratively).
I loved having all of that data to improve my health, and I also loved to be able to look at my wrist, hit a button, and see what time it was. It certainly was a good talking piece around friends, family, co-workers, even complete strangers, as the wearable tech field was beginning to get a little more crowded in the run-up to CES 2013. With a little help from logging my foods in MyFitnessPal, it really helped me see both my healthy and unhealthy habits.
My sentiments began to change on December 29 when my girlfriend noticed redness under where my Force sat on my wrist, particularly underneath the main body of the device where the screen is. Admittedly, I shrugged it off until she performed a Google search and found many stories of other people with the same type of injury. The pictures looked like the same wound I have. Red, dry, scaly skin, eventually some blistering, and then peeling skin. And their wounds were also in the exact same location — right under the battery and charging port. Of course, with the internet being the internet, users suspected it may have had something to do with making contact with the charging port, a leaky battery, or something else entirely.
I decided to open up a support case with Fitbit the next day on December 30, and attached this picture with my skin now peeling:
I received a response the next day from customer service who said my case was being escalated and I should be hearing something soon. While I waited for a response, I took the device off of my left wrist and put it upside down on my right wrist. Sure enough, two days later, a red blotch started to appear on that wrist too in the device’s range of travel under the battery and charging port, just like my left arm.
On January 3, I finally heard back from Fitbit on my escalated case. They offered a refund for my Force and asked me to send the device to them in a pre-paid envelope via FedEx. I had asked them about an exchange instead, and it was another three days until I heard back (January 6). They misunderstood my request, clarified my request in my response, and you guessed it — another three days had passed before I heard back from Fitbit (January 9). And it didn’t seem they had read my last message either, because they were still using a scripted answer and didn’t acknowledge my request for an exchange, and you know the story — another three days had passed until I received a reply from Fitbit (January 12).
Meanwhile, I had to repeatedly explain to friends and co-workers why it looked like I extinguished a cigar on my wrist.
I was marginally happy that Fitbit had extended an offer of a refund, but through this volley of messages through their online-only customer support system, I had become annoyed and aggravated. They weren’t listening to my request, they were denying there was an issue with the device, there were three days of delay between responses, and their customer service associates seemed to be sticking to a script and even then their responses and procedures for a return/refund varied widely. Not to mention my wound continued to worsen, even after having taken the device off weeks before. It continued to peel and even bleed and expel other fluids.
On the Fitbit discussion forum, other Force users were complaining of the same injuries and the same frustration with customer support. The thread was started by a user on December 13. People were sharing stories, posting pictures of their injuries, and trying to come up with solutions to remedy the problem so they can use the $129 device they loved. Many reached out to Fitbit staff in the thread to try to get a speedier response on their support cases — Fitbit community manager Allison was active in the thread, responding to individual users’ questions. On December 26, post #66 in the thread, the community manager’s voice fell oddly silent and any visible presence of Fitbit staff was non-existent in the thread, leading to further frustration for users.
CES was also happening during this time, and Fitbit gained a lot of attention for the flagship product in their booth, the Force. There was a lot of press on the Force’s exhibit, yet those with rashes, irritation, or burns due to the device were being stalled. Fitbit even posted a photo to Twitter of Shaq visiting their booth showing off his own Force. Fitbit continued to deny there was a problem with the device, blaming the injuries on nickel allergies, and users grew even more frustrated.
— Fitbit (@fitbit) January 8, 2014
But just like Shaq in puberty, the thread on Fitbit’s website continued to grow as Force users added themselves to the tally of those affected. As the thread continued to grow, my skin was worsening where the Force once sat on my wrist. I went to an urgent care clinic, where the nurse practitioner took a look at it and said it was contact dermatitis, but not due to a nickel allergy. She took one good look at my Force that I had brought with me in my pocket and determined the underside of the Force was too rough where the charging port was and where the plastic body met the rubber wristband. She had even commented that she was considering buying a Force, but after seeing it, she’s deciding not to. She had also found that my wound was infected and prescribed an antibiotic ointment to be applied three times a day.
Frustrated with Fitbit’s response (or lack thereof), I filed a report with the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) who also advised me to keep the device for 30 days in case they request an inspection, and I also contacted one of my favorite consumer affairs blogs, Consumerist about the issues I’ve been having with not only the device but Fitbit customer support. I received an e-mail the next day from Consumerist saying they had received another report identical to mine the same day. They were going to follow up with Fitbit before they publish a story. The reason I contacted Consumerist wasn’t to ruin Fitbit as a company, or even raise a big stink, but this product was really causing problems for users and Fitbit wasn’t taking responsibility for it.
Consumerist was the first to break the news about the Force injuries with a tell-all headline of Fitbit Force is an amazing device, except for my contact dermatitis on January 13 and featured my story and pictures of the progression of my injury, even warning “there are large, mildly gross wrist rash photos in this post.” Two days after CES ended, my problems with Fitbit gained the attention of the blogosphere and Fitbit’s CES after-glow was over.
Later that evening, the Huffington Post published a similar story of another user, referencing back to the post on Consumerist that broke the story. The story went viral and was being posted to Facebook, Twitter, tech blogs, and especially health and fitness circles.
The next day, the thread in Fitbit’s forum about the issues ballooned as people flocked to it after reading about it in the news. Many of the pictures posted of injuries were much worse than mine, I’m talking bleeding, pussing, just awfully disgusting pictures. These were people who, like me initially, had shrugged the redness off and didn’t think much of it. There were also people now reporting in the thread that they haven’t had any issues yet, but want to know about a refund just to be safe. Meanwhile, I was being contacted by news producers across the nation, from Fitbit’s backyard in San Francisco to Boston. I was included in stories on the Verge, TechCrunch, WCPO Cincinnati, and other smaller outlets. The story even reached Good Morning America, and a picture of my injury was included in their online report. Fitbit continued to issue the same flat statements to the press, blaming the issue on nickel allergies. Some users even grew enraged at one of Fitbit’s later statements when they said, “we are sorry that even a few consumers have experienced these problems…”
As the stories gained momentum online, in newspapers, and on TV, Fitbit began to give the issue more attention themselves. The opened up a special e-mail address, email@example.com, where users can report tickets; a toll-free number, 888-656-6381, specifically for users to report problems with their Force; and set up a special page, fitbit.com/forcesupport, with a message from Fitbit CEO James Park.
Allison, the Fitbit community manager that was active in the thread but fell silent on December 26, suddenly became active on January 13 after the Consumerist article was posted. Between the time she disappeared and then re-appeared, 302 new posts were added to the thread.
Users were finally getting the attention they deserved from Fitbit, but should it really have taken press intervention?
Meanwhile, as reliable as can be, in routine internet commenter fashion, commenters were posting to these articles basically accosting those who have these injuries, saying we’re slobs, it’s due to poor hygiene, wearing it too tight, or that we’re too stupid to take the devices off when we started to notice redness. To be clear — the Force website says you’re not supposed to be wearing it in the shower, so you’re dumb if you did since it’s not waterproof. I didn’t wear mine too tight, as I have to leave enough room for my finger to slip between my wrist and the wristband to securely fasten the clasp so it doesn’t come undone. And I took my Force off my left wrist as soon as I discovered the redness.
Two days after Consumerist and HuffPo ran the story, Fitbit’s senior director of customer service took over my case and he arranged a time to personally call me to discuss my concerns. We set up a time a couple days later, for January 17, to meet over the phone. When he called, he was accompanied by one of his customer service managers, who judging by his LinkedIn photo, looked like he might be able to whoop my ass. We had a nice conversation, about ten minutes long. He addressed all of my concerns, I agreed to send my Force back to Fitbit, and we talked at length about the Force’s problems and the product’s future. They overnighted me an pre-paid envelope to send the Force back in via USPS, and I achieved satisfactory resolution on January 31.
Despite, at this point, Fitbit being overwhelmed with an increasing number of return requests, he took the time to talk with me candidly and that’s what maintained my loyalty to Fitbit at the end. Since then, I’m sporting a new Flex (certainly not as good of a device as the Force) and have bought into the Fitbit ecosystem with the Aria scale. I haven’t had any problems with the Flex so far, including the clasp.
On February 21, almost three months after the first case was reported on Fitbit’s forum, they officially discontinued sales of the Force and issued a voluntary recall. In a letter to users, Park said that 1.7% of customers who own the Force have reported “any” skin irritation related to the device, although it’s certain this percentage will increase now that a recall is in place.
I co-founded Fitbit in 2007 to help people lead healthier, more active lives. We have been thrilled by your response to our products, and are committed to customer satisfaction. Late last year, we began selling Fitbit Force, our most advanced activity tracker. Recently, some Force users have reported skin irritation. While only 1.7% of Force users have reported any type of skin irritation, we care about every one of our customers. On behalf of the entire Fitbit team, I want to apologize to anyone affected.
From the beginning, we have taken this matter very seriously. We hired independent labs and medical experts to conduct a thorough investigation. Here’s what we know:
- Independent test results have not found any issues with the battery or electrical systems.
- Test results show that users are likely experiencing allergic contact dermatitis.
- All Force materials are commonly used in consumer products. However, some users may be reacting to the nickel present in the surgical grade stainless steel used in the device. Other users are likely experiencing an allergic reaction to the materials used in the strap or the adhesives used to assemble the product.
We have now learned enough to take further action. We have stopped selling Force and have decided to conduct a voluntary recall. We are offering a refund directly to consumers for full retail price. For additional information related to the recall, we have set up a dedicated page on our website and a call center at 888-656-6381.
To our Force community, rest assured we’re working on our next-generation tracker and will announce news about it soon.
Thank you for your continued loyalty and support.
Sincerely, James Park CEO & Co-Founder
It appears that Fitbit is backing away from the excuse of contact dermatitis due to nickel allergies and is shifting to the adhesive used to assemble the device. This is significant since this is a new reasoning for the rashes and it was announced concurrently with the recall. The new discovery and the recall are likely related, and the product is to blame for this if the adhesive is the cause, not the user.
As for my wound, it looks completely healed except there is some slight scarring, which is especially visible as a bright red patch after running when my blood really gets flowing. I suspect the scarring will reduce as life goes on, and I’m especially fortunate that my injury didn’t occur in the summer, causing the scar to “tattoo” from being in the sun.
I disagree with Park’s statement announcing the recall that “from the beginning, (Fitbit has) taken this matter very seriously.” Fitbit wasn’t very coordinated or out-front ahead of this customer service and public relations nightmare, and the customer support experience was absolutely frustrating prior to being contacted by their customer service leadership. However, I believe Fitbit took several lessons away from this, and won’t make the same mistake twice in terms of either product design or customer service.