Fitbit's Ongoing Skin Irritation Issues and Lessons from "Antennagate"

Fitbit is once again in the news as early adopters are reporting the Fitbit Charge wearable is causing skin irritation. A similar thing happened earlier this year with the Fitbit Force, which resulted in Fitbit issuing a voluntary recall after consulting with medical experts. Turns out some users experienced an allergic reaction to the adhesive holding the housing and band together. What's going on with the Charge? Fitbit's official response is some of the irritation is a result of the device "staying in contact with the skin for extended periods" and likely due to sweat, water, or soap. 

Fitbit's response reminded me a bit of Antennagate and Steve Jobs' initial  "just avoid holding it in that way" reaction concerning iPhone 4 reception issues when touching the steel antenna bands. With Apple about to enter the wearable space with Apple Watch, I wonder if we are seeing a future "-gate" in the making where users complain about wrist irritation or discomfort. I thought it was appropriate to look back at Antennagate and compare the lessons learned from that public relations crisis to Fitbit's current issues and the upcoming Apple Watch. 

  1. Not Letting Design Trump Engineering. Antennagate was the result of design trumping engineering as Jony wanted to use a non-coated steel rim for the iPhone 4 despite the obvious drawbacks in terms of signal strength. The end result was problematic signal loss if the gap in the steel rim was covered. Obviously this issue of design being more important than engineering continues to be a risk factor with Apple Watch, especially with its design playing such a crucial role. Having the product be in contact with skin for hours at a time doesn't help matters, although having to take it off to charge each night may actually be Apple's saving grace as people won't wear the watch for days at a time. By having periodic breaks in usage, Apple may not need to worry about users not cleaning or washing the skin underneath the watch band leading to irritation issues, similar to what Fitbit is experiencing.   
  2. Conduct Proper Testing. Apple did not properly test the iPhone 4 due to fear that its redesign would be seen in public. With Apple Watch, executives have been wearing the devices for a few months, which should help catch any obvious long-term use problems. However, it is hard to have a large-scale test program due to fear of an unit getting into the wrong hands. 
  3. Don't Initially Downplay the Problem. Apple initially downplayed any problem with the iPhone 4 with Steve Jobs even going so far as to blame Google, according to Walter Isaacson. While it does seem like Fitbit may be handling the current skin irritation reports better than last time, it is important to not give off-the-cuff remarks about an issue people, no matter how few, are indeed talking about. 
  4. Gather facts. Take the time to gather the needed data, studies, and opinions that will help determine the exact problem and steps needed to address the problem. In a world where an instant response is demanded, taking time to gather the facts is often the hardest step. 
  5. Bring in Public Relations and Advertising Experts. A response to a crisis is just as important as the crisis itself. Tim Cook appears to have mastered the art as seen with Apple's response to the Maps fiasco and, to a lesser extent, Bendgate.
  6. Appear Firm and Confident in Decision. Steve Jobs did not apologize for Antennagate, but he didn't come off as arrogant during the press conference. Tim Cook did apologize for Apple Maps. 

The main lesson learned from Antennagate was to reframe the issue.  Apple explained how all phones have antenna issues. Even if the press disagreed with Apple's claim, the discussion has now shifted away from just Apple's antenna issues. For Apple Maps, Apple said they were trying to improve maps for its users by building a new version from the ground up, and with the recent Bendgate, Apple said only nine customers contacted Apple with a bent iPhone, which took a lot of wind out of the conspiracy theorists. Fitbit seems to be pushing the argument that only a few people have complained of an irritation, and all wearable devices show similar reactions if worn for extensive periods of time. If true, I wouldn't be surprised if Apple Watch has few new "-gate" controversies soon after launch, but I expect Apple to be much more prepared this time around.