The Rise and Fall of Squatbot 🤖

How a spreadsheet, a few no-code data pipelines, and some healthy peer pressure can keep you 💪 doing a pandemic

With gyms shuttered during the pandemic, in July 2020 my friends and I were looking for ways to keep our fitness up while sheltered-in-place. What started as a friendly pushup challenge quickly spun out of control into a 25 day experimental fitness app called Squatbot.

Squatbot coached us to 10k pushups over the course of the month before ultimately ending in disaster. This is Squatbot's story and the lesson we learned along the way.

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Problem: "Leg Day is Cancelled Until Vaccine"

It was hard to see the problem at first. Everything seemed fine in March when shelter-in-place went into effect (excluding the global pandemic, widespread unemployment, and continued racial injustice in America, of course). Stay inside for a few weeks, don't see your friends or family, figure out how to work from home.

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The boredom started to hit after the first week. You can only clean your apartment so many times. Should we adopt a dog? We did. Should we bake sourdough? We did. But...then what? What were we going to do? How long was this going to last?

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Paired with the boredom was the isolation. Did I still know how to interact with other humans? Zoom calls with friends became indecipherable from work meetings. Another Pechakucha? Felt like I just finished my last presentation on the History of Cole Slaw.

Finally, the slow decay of our bodies started to catch up with us. Going from a fairly active lifestyle to locked down in a small apartment — eating comfort food 24/7 — had not been good for the waistline. Walking down the stairs to pick up our mail started to feel harder and harder. I was melting into my couch — wasting away, physically and mentally.

MVP: Random Fitness Challenge

Our first attempt to solve these problems was via a group text thread. Fire off a random challenge to your friends and see who bites.

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Aha! There was some market demand. People were feeling the same way as I.

This reeked of opportunity.

Squatbot v0: Google Forms & Spreadsheet

That initial text exchange laid the groundwork for Squatbot, a way to physically compete with friends while safely sheltered-in-place.

There were a few key design principles for the first version of Squatbot...

We started with a daily pushup challenge. Every week, we'd add +10 more pushups to the daily amount. Participants could submit their pushups via a Google Form as they were completed throughout the day.

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The form then populated a spreadsheet that tracked our progress:

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Squatbot v1: Closing the Peer Pressure Loop

There were two problems we ran into with the first iteration. First, it was pretty annoying to fill out the form. Too much friction to find the link and fill out a few fields.

The second was that the challenge was easy to forget about. There were nights where I'd remember right before bed that I hadn't completed the challenge when I really didn't want to get on to the ground and start doing pushups.

The third was that we were getting burnt out from doing all these pushups.

So we made a few changes in v1...

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Under the hood, v1 was powered by Twilio, Google Sheets, and two Zapier Zaps...

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It was incredibly motivating. Getting an update that your friends had gotten off the couch to do pushups made us want to do the same. Day after day, set after set.

We were feeling sore. We were feeling healthier.

Squatbot's Fiery Demise 🔥🤖🔥

Over the course of July, Squatbot coached us to 10k cumulative pushups. It temporarily cured some quarantine boredom, and all participants completed the daily challenge for 25 straight days.

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However, Squatbot met it's fiery demise on July 23rd, 2020.

After a shall-not-be-named participant (me) failed to complete the daily challenge, the premise of Squatbot soon broke down. Soon the other participants fell off the wagon. Why should we be doing pushups if {Unnamed Participant} is not? Why should I continue now that I've missed a day and our glorious streak has been broken?

The texts stopped rolling in from our fitness robot friend. Squatbot was dead.

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The challenge of Squatbot was pretty simple. How do you get a group of (remote) people to take an action they all know they should take, but are not doing consistently? How can digital tools create incentive systems to get people to make healthier choices? And maybe have some fun in the process?

There are a few reflections from the rise and fall of Squatbot...

Thanks to Nate and Jason for helping name, design and participate in this social experiment