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Matthew E. May

Quality Insider

Keep It Standard, Stupid

Consumers want consistency, and that comes from standardization

Published: Friday, February 15, 2013 - 12:10

Iam an avid cyclist. Last year I purchased a piece of electronic equipment for my cycling habit, produced by Garmin, called the Edge 500. It’s a nifty little gizmo that I mounted on my bike’s steerer tube.

It uses GPS to track speed, routes, distance, incline/decline angles (which allows me to brag that I defeated a 21-percent grade with ease), total ascent (another brag point for climbers), cadence (pedal rpms), and a whole host of other metrics. Paired with a heart rate monitor, also by Garmin, it tracks heart rate, average heart rate, and calories burned. You can download all these data to your personal Garmin Connect site, and use them to improve your performance and set goals.

For years I had used a far less sophisticated cycling computer made by Polar. But Polar slipped behind the technology curve to the point that my local bike shop (LBS in cyclist jargon) stopped carrying Polar products, and stopped supporting them. Everyone I know and ride with sport Garmins. So I switched to be current.

I love the Edge 500, no problems in eight months of use.


This year I decided to add a dimension to my physical activity repertoire. In addition to mountain biking, road biking, and tennis, I added trail running. (It had been on my list of things I wanted to try ever since reading Born to Run, a fantastic story and phenomenal book.)

I wanted a runner’s version of the Edge 500. I wanted a wristwatch version. So naturally I turned to Garmin. I purchased the FR70. And that’s when the trouble started.

On my first run with the FR70, I went on a one-hour trail run. I noticed my average heart rate was similar to my average heart rate for bike rides. That’s not what dismayed me, since I structure my rides and runs to achieve exactly that target, and I run the same trails I ride. What dismayed me was the calorie count. It was nearly double that of a bike ride.

I repeat: double. What?!

I checked all of my settings on the Edge 500 and FR70 to ensure my profile inputs—age, gender, weight, height, activity level—were identical on both devices. I ensured both had the latest software and firmware. I tracked readings for more than a week. I used both the Edge 500 and the FR70 on bike rides and trail runs (stuck the Edge in my pocket), comparing and contrasting. Same result. Consistently. Consistently off.

You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to conclude that the two devices were using different algorithms to compute calories. Now, I’m not a calorie freak, but I am a consistent result freak.

When you spend well over $500 on equipment from the same manufacturer, you expect that equipment to meet standards when it comes to measuring the very things it’s selling. My expectations far exceeded the outcome, which is the equation for dissatisfaction. Pissed off and in a stubborn mood, I contacted Garmin. I explained my issue. I told them it’s obvious the two devices calculate calories differently. I wanted to know why.

Within two days, I got a reply:

Dear Matthew E. May,

Thank you for contacting Garmin International. I am happy to assist you. The FR70 and the Edge 500 calculate calories differently.
The FR70 calculates calories based on a heart rate calculation generated by Garmin. This generic heart-rate rate-based calorie count uses the following information to determine calories: Heart rate, Activity class, Gender, Weight. The FR70 will need to be at software version 2.40 or higher to use this calorie formula. Use myDashboard to update the software on either of these devices.
The Edge 500 calculates calories based on available resources. Below is the order of precedence:
1. New Leaf profile—calculated using New Leaf profile if loaded onto the device
2. Firstbeat technology—calculated when the Garmin heart rate monitor is paired with the Edge 500 and user profile data
3. Third-party ANT+ enabled power meter (converts wattage (kj) to calories)
4. Speed, distance, and user profile—calculated using speed, distance, and user profile data

If one or more is not available, the Edge 500 will intuitively use the next option to calculate calorie burn.
I hope this helps. If I can be of further assistance please let me know.

With best regards,
Melinda Hu
Product Support Specialist, Fitness Team, Garmin International

It didn’t help. It explained what I already knew. It did not explain why two devices, produced by the same manufacturer, for the same intent (tracking exercise metrics), would use two completely different mechanisms.

This is a problem, and a rampant one at that. Manufacturers of equipment need to understand that consumers want consistency. That consistency comes from standardization. Failing to utilize a consistent standard does nothing but alienate consumers by burdening them with excessive confusion and inconvenience. When you decide (and I use that word deliberately) to make it easy on yourself as the producer and make your customers shoulder an unnecessary burden, you’re somewhere on the continuum from lazy and neglectful to evil.

The videotape wars were painful and costly... VHS won, but consumers lost. The high-def DVD wars were painful and costly... same result (arguably). The battles being waged now between various hybrid-engine technology standards fall into this category. Sure, it’s understandable, because these are competitive manufacturer wars.

But when the same manufacturer utilizes two entirely different methods for their products? Senseless and inexcusable.

I wrote that sentiment back to Garmin, with the advice: “Keep it standard, stupid.”

I haven’t heard back. It’s been a month.

First published on the Edit Innovation blog. Reprinted with permission.


About The Author

Matthew E. May’s picture

Matthew E. May

Matthew E. May counsels executives and teams through custom designed facilitation, coaching, and training using four basic ingredients: strategy, ideation, experimentation, and lean. He’s been counseling for 30 years, a third of it as a full-time advisor to Toyota. He is the author of four books, the latest The Laws of Subtraction (McGraw-Hill, 2013), and is working on his fifth book. His work has been appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, and many other publications. May holds an MBA from The Wharton School and a bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University.


I'm not sure there's an

I'm not sure there's an inconsistency here. The two devices were designed for different purposes. Running burns more calories than cycling because it engages more muscle groups. Heart rate is not the sole determining factor in calorie burn.

Did you try calibrating the devices against published averages for calorie burn, such as at Runner's World or Active.com?




Quite a rant.  But it interets me that you are expecting the same value from two different activities, especially when activity type is part of the algorithim.