Google drops its calorie-counting Maps update following user backlash
Google – like many silicon valley giants – sees part of its duty as nudging people towards a healthier lifestyle. This is evident in everything from Google Fit all the way up to its search for a vegan dish that tastes as good as a hamburger.
Its latest nudge proved to be a step too far, however. A test rolled out to the iOS version of Google Maps added an estimated calorie burn to journeys walked on Google Maps. That may sound innocuous enough, but as experts who counsel people with eating disorder will attest, forcing a constant reminder of calories onto people can have extremely negative consequences.
Worse, Google’s instinct was to turn it on for everybody by default, with no option to turn things off. The company chose to measure calorie burn in mini cupcakes, which they probably felt was a cutesy way of getting the message across, but the whole thing came across as somewhat judgemental, patronising and potentially dangerous – as the company found when news of the feature spread to Twitter.
Yesterday Google confirmed that the feature had been removed due to a strong user backlash, and presumably will not return to iOS or Android. I asked Priya Tew from Dietitian UK, a spokesperson from the British Dietetic Association if this was a measured response. “Using cupcakes on Google maps may seem like a fun way to count calories but it actually creates a number of issues,” she explained. “Firstly, why were cupcakes chosen? This could be seen as singling out Cupcakes as a bad food, yet all foods can be eaten within a balanced diet. Alternatively, this could be seen as reason to eat cupcakes – if I have burnt off the calories then I can now eat my cake.”
“Secondly, not everyone wants to know how many calories they have walked off, and this can become a numbers game and could be potentially an issue for someone with eating issues. Ideally as a dietitian, I would like all foods to be seen as being able to be eaten in moderation and for people to be active everyday, but not counting their calories on and in and out basis.”
While Google’s introduction of the feature was a little tone-deaf, the kneejerk withdrawal strikes me as a bit of a shame overall: as an opt-in feature, I feel this would likely have been welcomed by plenty of people who know that the car is tempting and want an incentive to be more active. It’s true that you can get similar functionality on dedicated fitness trackers and even some apps, but having something baked into the heart of every Android device in the world could have had a far greater impact on public health on a scale that’s simply unimaginable.
Still, there’s a lesson here for Google: sometimes dropping unrequested and unannounced features on people – even if it’s on a small test base – can backfire. All in all, it’s a rare Googly misstep.