Mobility is about making content available when and where users want it, as efficiently as possible. Just as mobile devices opened up the ability to access information without sitting at a PC, wearable technology allows data interaction without even holding a device. And just as we shifted our mindset to iPhone’s smaller screen and learned to leverage new usage contexts, we need to adjust our midset once again for wearables—where screens get even smaller, and the interaction window shrinks even more. Apple’s recent Apple Watch unveiling confirms that wearables are here to stay—all major players are in and the game has started.

Diving Deeper

First of all, it’s important to realize that the term “wearables” is a bit misleading, as it combines hundreds of different devices which differ in their purpose and usage: smart watches, smart glasses, smart shirts, smart socks, wristbands, and much more. Basically, wearables are being presented as any device users wear that can make non-trivial computations. But in order to understand their capabilities, we need to distinguish various groups of devices and their usage patterns. Here are the most popular and differentiating form factors of wearables.

Activity Trackers

Usually shaped as a wristband, these devices focus on collecting data from our bodies, such as heart rate, pulse, movement patterns, daily walking distance, etc. Then, they deliver this data to cloud services, which run analytics and provide users with valuable conclusions about how to alter routines in order to improve their health. By wearing a piece of technology that unobtrusively collects data about us, we can learn more about ourselves and quantify ourselves.

Although activity trackers have gained popularity, they also have a great value for professional and business usage. For example, the Canadian Olympic team used smart costumes to track the team’s vital signs, which played a part in the team’s success at Sochi Olympics. Also, these tiny devices could disrupt the insurance industry by allowing insurance companies to tap into their clients’ personal data and calculate risks more precisely, potentially decreasing the price of insurance. This would obviously raise some privacy issues but could work for citizens who agree to give up some of their personal information for a discount.

Smartwatches

As opposed to activity trackers, smartwatches are designed for more active use. Their seed potential was established long ago: for hundreds of years the wristwatch has been a tool that informs us, in a matter of seconds, about the context we are in by showing the current time.

Today, smartwatches are able to provide us with far richer pieces of contextual information: notifications for emails and messages, meeting alerts, weather updates, e-tickets (at an airport, cinema, concert, wherever else). Smartwatches also enable interaction, which means that we can not only see our emails, but also reply to them; we can Google, check-in, change music tracks, write notes, track time, and much more—all without a need to waste extra seconds getting a phone out of our pockets. As designers know, the simplicity of making an action can influence our decisions, so the extra seconds might be critical. For many intents and purposes, we have our phones on our wrists, though with some design limitations.

For many intents and purposes, we have our phones on our wrists, though with some design limitations

Even more alluring for designers is the fact that watches are now programmable for custom apps, which means that we will have a new ecosystem of watch-specific apps. We will see new versions of Instagram, Pinterest, and Foursquare, as well as new business apps which all leverage this new factor. This is also a good moment for brands to acknowledge their presence in the digital space and leverage a new channel to their customers.

Smartglasses

Information keeps getting closer to having a synergistic relationship with our minds, and smartglasses would be the next step in this ladder—following the succession of computation centers in 1960s, PCs a couple of decades later, laptops, and mobile phones. Smartglasses have a purpose similar to smartwatches: they bring information closer to us and encourage easier interaction with that information. However, glasses bring the data right in front of our eyes and free our hands completely, using voice commands and accelerometer as input methods.

As opposed to smartwatches, which easily fit into our everyday lives, smartglasses seem to have hit the stage a bit too early as a consumer device. The problems come on multiple levels: from technological, to conceptual, to social. Simply put, wearing Google Glass—the best current representation of smartglasses technology—does not provide enough value in response to the costs associated with wearing the device: a $1,500 price tag, extremely short battery life, uncomfortable stares in the streets, etc. Besides a camera, navigation, and few cool wow-effect tricks, there is no reason for me to put smartglasses on my face every morning… not yet, at least.

This is also known as a killer app problem, but it doesn’t mean the product or the form factor is useless. On the contrary, it has proven to be extremely effective for enterprise use: doctors seeing vital signs during operations; warehouse workers scanning goods and inputting detailed information by voice; athletes seeing their statistics in real time—these were compelling enough reasons for Google to open its enterprise program and for SAP to partner with Vuzix. The pattern here is clear and straightforward: allowing employees do their usual jobs and interact with required data while keeping their hands free. This not only saves their time in getting or inputting data, it also increases on-the-job safety: no need to change gloves, hold a phone, or divert attention to a side screen.

Conclusion

Every wearable device type has its peculiarities. While some are used solely for data collection, others are created for active interaction; some are used on a daily basis, while others seem more helpful on specific occasions; some are socially acceptable, while others will need time and possible regulations to be accepted. But they all share some similar attributes, and being aware of these will help designers, developers, and those on the business side of products take full advantage of these devices.

 

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Comments

This was a really good article! I think it's wonderful how you walked readers through some common questions about wearable technologies. As someone from the fringes of the UX-Design community (I am an IPR lawyer), I found this piece really helpful in understanding design however I have to note that not a lot is said about the legalities of wearable technology, particularly how to protect wearable technology and possibly monetize it in the future. Just wondering if this is a question that UX designers and the community are interested in probing such questions as well and if not they why?