The user interface of the new Polar Electro fitness heart rate monitors

Polar Electro has recently launched a new series of wrist devices (the heart rate monitors FT40, FT60, FT80 and the activity computer FA20) and these devices are now in the shops. Since I was the responsible user interface designer for these devices I thought I could write up a very biased short review of the user interface ;)

A little bit of background first. Polar is the global market leader of wrist-worn heart rate monitors. Most of the products are sold to fitness-conscious consumers that use them to spend their training time efficiently. It turns out that human physiology dictates different effects to your body depending on how high your heart rate is during training. For example, it is not always most efficient to train at full pace. A wrist-worn heart rate monitor is therefore great for keeping an eye on your “engine”. The basic system consists of a wrist unit (receiver) and a belt unit (transmitter) which is worn around the chest. Additional sensors such as a footpod or a GPS unit can be added to the system to measure speed and distance.

The wrist unit is battery-powered, has a simple black-and-white LCD with a limited amount of pixels, and ideally has at least five buttons for operation. There is a simple piezo for sound output.

It has become traditional that the buttons on Polar devices are as follows: ok/start, back/cancel, up, down, and light. This is pretty much sufficient for navigating the menu structure, starting and stopping the recording of the exercise and accessing special functions during training. Therefore, no big changes were made in the new series.

In a small device, it is always difficult to display long strings of text, especially if the UI will be localized. The new series has seven UI languages, including Finnish (for the first time ever). The layouts of the UI can accomodate longer phrases than before, making the functions more understandable for users. Menus only display one menu item in addition to the menu heading, therefore localization can use a maximum of three lines of text for a menu item. There is also space for displaying the current value of a setting below the menu item, saving the user some button presses.

In the exercise mode, important variables such as heart rate, speed and distance are displayed as large as possible, making it easier to see them while running, for example. The elapsed exercise time is displayed on every exercise view, therefore it is easy for the user to verify that the device is actually recording the exercise. Users often start exercises and forget to turn the recording on.

The devices can also draw quite advanced graphs of accumulated training information. The more expensive models offer sophisticated training program functions, which adapt to the weekly training routines of the user and can give verbal feedback depending on how well training targets were met. The best weeks are rewarded with musical fanfare and fancy trophy graphics ;)

My personal favorite of the products is the activity computer FA20, which is not a heart rate monitor at all. It uses an activity sensor inside the watch to determine the activity level and activity type of the user. It can tell if she is walking or running, for instance. It keeps a log of daily activity and this information can be used to keep up a healthy lifestyle.

The reviews for these devices have been positive. Here are links to a few:

  • “Having used Polar heart rate monitors in the past, I feel they have definitely improved the user interface and the FT60 is easy to use.” (Fitsugar)
  • “Everything is comfortable and the display is super-easy to read and navigate.” (Gear.com)
  • “The initial setup wizard is refreshing in a world of uber-complicated training watches.” (Feed the habit)
  • “It’s called the Polar FT60, and it’s sparked a whole new facet of my obsessive/compulsive personality.” (Fit city)
  • “My theory has always been that, what with walking the dog and running around after my family I get quite enough exercise, thank you very much. And now I have the proof. [with Polar FA20]“ (Gadget speak)
  • “The FT60 is simple and intuitive to use..” (Bicycling.com)
  • “The FA20 is nice and light, and fairly attractive- it isn’t too bulky, and the band feels durable. Best of all, it’s fairly simple to use.” (TrulyObscure)
  • “I really like this watch for a number of simple reasons… The numbers are really big…not that I need big numbers as my eyesight is just fine…thank you very much! But when I’m running and its raining (like it was on that 14-mile run) and I’m cold and tired BIG numbers are really nice, and easy to see and comprehend… The watch is extremely easy to navigate. It took me about 10 minutes to set it up, and another 10 minutes to comprehend all of the functions. In today’s world of smart phones and blue tooth enable sun glasses that’s pretty straightforward. “ (Denver Endurance Sports Examiner)
  • The heart rate monitors Polar FT60, Polar FT40 and the activity monitor Polar FA20.

    The heart rate monitors Polar FT60, Polar FT40 and the activity monitor Polar FA20.