What makes a wearable successful design-wise

January 23, 2017

Read time 7 min

In Part 1 of our wearables series, Juuso talked about our experiences using the Fitbit activity tracker. I’m continuing the discussion with this blog post, as I examine how activity trackers and wearables should be designed.

Wearables are small gadgets with electronics (such as sensors) and a wireless connection that are practically everywhere: shoes, clothes, key chains, helmets – you name it.

For the last three years, the wearables trend has been on a continuous rise. The market is growing fast, 10% a year, and it’s predicted to grow even faster, 23% annually in the next few years.

Wearables can collect all kinds of data – they know how many stairs you climb, how you slept last night, what your glucose level is during exercise, how many NFC (Near Field Communication) payments you’ve made and how high the level of stress in your brain or body is at the moment.

Despite all these devices and data, there’s still very little evidence that they permanently change the way we behave. Instead, people tend to abandon their wearables after a while, which we noticed here at Reaktor, too.

1. Novelty wears off quickly

The start of a new year is the perfect time for making resolutions. However, by March, they tend to disappear like socks in the dryer. From 30% to 40% of people stop wearing their device after the first 6 months, and only 10% of people still use it after a year. If simply abandoned, wearables aren’t doing the job they were designed to do.

2. Data only gets you so far

When you first start using a wearable, it’s really interesting to see data about yourself and your behavior. You start to understand new things about yourself, such as how bad mood affects your body. But after a while, chasing the same activity badges, or even worse, failing to achieve the daily goal you’ve set for yourself, starts getting kind of old.

So, after a few months, the device should perhaps give you something else that’s valuable – like explanations on cause and effect. Why should you take 10,000 steps a day, why won’t 8,000 suffice? And how do you know which goal is the most beneficial to your health, if you have to prioritize: more activity time, more stairs or more steps?

Fitness trackers are meant to help us develop healthier habits, but since we tend to be terrible at self-managing, the data alone is not enough. The trackers seem to appeal the most to a group that perhaps needs them the least – highly active people who already know their body quite well.

How can we keep wearables interesting for everyone?

As always, there are many aspects to this. Here are some of my thoughts on how design could help wearables become a never-failing part of their users’ lives.

1. Support social behavior

Humans are social animals. We like to interact and to compare, collect and share things. Wearables can benefit from this: the device is likely to extend its lifespan if it supports social behavior, like group affiliation. Users will look for inspiration in others with similar goals or habits. Social pressure is a good driver in keeping up with personal goals.

There are dangers too, though. Wearable devices might be more effective when used in groups, but the peer group you’re comparing your goals against has to be quite similar to you. If your friends are healthy super athletes, it’s depressing to compete with them. So, if a device is centered merely around competition, what happens to it, when you start failing at your fitness goals? Yep, that’s right: it gets buried in the bottom drawer cemetery of gadgets, labeled “waiting for a better day”.

2. Make feedback count

The Mio fitness tracker is trying to launch a new concept of Personal Activity Intelligence (PAI) score. The PAI score is comprised of age, gender, resting heart rate and maximum heart rate – resulting in more accurate feedback. The score might help people find better groups to compete with, which could result in increased motivation.

Some wearables rely on virtual personal coaches as motivators or inspirators. Virtual voice coaches or chatbots are trying to bring a human element to the technology. It may help to make feedback a bit more personal, but the problem is that feedback hasn’t been very meaningful for users to begin with. There’s a clear difference between saying just “Faster” and “Good job” and coaching the user with palpable advice, such as “Apply more pressure on the left heel” – “Yes, you did it, good job!”

If the voice coach makes you feel like you’re getting advice from a parrot instead of a human coach, it’s not doing its job.

3. The sadness of battery life

The most common thing with a wearable is that you forget to wear it. Why? Because you forgot to charge the device or change the battery or buy a suitable battery in the first place. Or because you had several Bluetooth syncing issues and forgot to download the latest update. Or because you did remember to plug the device into a charger – and then forgot the whole thing at home. Or because the wearable started to irritate your skin. Need I go on?

Because the charging process takes so much effort every single day, it should be an integrated part of the product design itself. Charging has to be easy.

Luckily, there are a few solutions to the problem already. Some producers are designing docking stations for wearable charging, for example, a smart ring can be charged in a beautiful ring box (Ringly, Ōura), and Misfit Shine has solar panels in the wearable itself. Many wearable companies are changing from daily USB charging to batteries, so at the very least you don’t have to worry about charging your device daily.

4. Experiences over hardware

Selling only hardware would be a failure. The reason behind Disney MagicBand’s enormous success is that the whole Disney vacation ecosystem was designed around the band. The wearable band is a hotel key, a fast-lane entrance ticket and a payment method for in-park purchases – and kids love its design.

Misfit, on the other hand, is turning their fitness tracker into a remote control: you can change your music or your lighting with the Misfit app. By adding touchpoints between the user and the wearable, the device becomes a more natural part of its wearer’s lifestyle. Some wearable apps even work without the wearable itself. For example, Leaf has an excellent period tracker and meditation classes which are accessible even without the wearable. The wearable brand can become popular even without the device itself.

5. It’s all about the looks – for now

We have already seen wearables come a long way: bulky wristbands are now starting to look more like watches and jewellery, smart shoes are starting to look like normal shoes, emergency trackers have shrunken in size and gone into hiding in our pockets, and smart belts (for example Belty), which first looked like they belonged on an evil space warrior, now look like elegant leather belts. So, wearables have transformed into items that you would wear anyway; they just come with an intelligent twist.

Of course, this doesn’t mean bad choices wouldn’t still be made: you still see the occasional #MakeItPink or #JustAddBling design as an attempt to make the product appealing to women. Fortunately, there are also good examples. For instance, I think Joule has really nailed it by designing smart earring backings that work with almost any earring regardless of style preferences (or gender).

I believe that wearables will become more and more discreet in the near future. For example, Samsung already has a patent for a contact lens camera, and Google has the first glucose-measuring contact lenses. Smart patches and tech tattoos are on their way to the market. So, are invasive wearables the future? Will cyborgism become the new norm?

6. Please open the wearable APIs

In the future, we could have personal data analysts who gather massive amounts of data about our behavior, analyze it for us, and then coach us towards healthier eating and sleeping habits or better financial choices.

Having said that, I believe more companies developing wearable technology should open their application programming interface – in the long run, it’s not good for business to keep the data sealed inside their own apps. One of the reasons behind Fitbit’s success is that they have opened their APIs at an early stage, so data from the wearables can be combined with other (connected device) data platforms. The possibility for the customer to combine their health data with other data is clearly a competitive advantage. I wonder when the first service will be out. The domain is still available.

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