With all the debate over whether the latest generation of smartwatches will succeed or fail, I’m reminded of a funny memo about predictions that circulated around our office last summer. It was a list of Best in Show winners at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Given that an esteemed jury selected them, you might think they were good. If so, you’d be very wrong. Nearly every product on the list was a failure, not least the Motorola Xoom and the Palm Pre.

One big reason experts aren’t good at predicting success or failure in innovation is that they’re experts. If you spend all your time looking at new devices, you are nothing like a normal person. The Palm Pre did have an awesome interface—if you happen to be an interface connoisseur. But normal people don’t get excited over such things, and they’re going to be the ones who will actually determine the success or failure of a technology.

To be more accurate in prediction around the adoption and proliferation of smartwatches, we should explore a new concept: UX cost vs. UX gain. Let’s start with UX cost. Every new device comes with a UX cost to a person. Some of the costs are initial: price, setup, and learning to use an interface. Others are ongoing, such as the need to charge and maintain it.

UX gain is the other side of the coin. That’s everything in our lives that the device makes better. If we have a gaming device, the UX cost of learning the interface should be much less than the fun and excitement we get from playing the games. With a smartphone, the great gains in many areas clearly outweigh the UX cost of charging and managing the device.

Google Glass was expensive, looked bad on anyone wearing it, and made other people uncomfortable

On the flip side, we can find things like Google Glass. It came with modest UX gains and significant UX costs. It was expensive, it looked bad on anyone wearing it, and it made other people uncomfortable. Glass has great functional potential, especially in industrial applications, but no consumer app could convince anyone to pay the steep social price that came with it.

When it comes to smartwatch adoption, we should also acknowledge the UX costs. First, they are visible. You need to like the way they look on you, and they have to reflect your style. Wearable makers initially neglected this problem, though now they’re grooming the appearance of smartwatches with a vengeance.

Next, you have to take them off at night to charge them. This makes them a very risky proposition. Once a day, you’ll have a moment of decision. Is it worth your while to pick it up and keep using it, or should you just leave it sitting there? Pretty much everyone who ever owned a FuelBand made that decision one day and never looked back.

On the other hand, we can look at the UX gains. Of course, we can now get notifications more quickly—a benefit that some will like, and others not so much. Automatic payment systems seem to be a solid UX gain. And some brands are already pushing things farther. I recently saw an app built by a carmaker for an LG smart watch. When you approached a car with it, it would unlock the door and start the engine. That takes a process that usually encompasses about nine steps and reduces it to three. That’s a big gain. If we could also link the watch to home automation systems, for example, we might see a further gain.

In other words, to win our hearts, a smartwatch has to provide leaps in user experience, not merely slight increases in convenience. App makers are going to have to work hard to deliver these kinds of gains, or the watches themselves will, like many technologies, find only a niche market.

If you’re trying to predict the mass adoption of smartwatches, don’t simply look at the relatively minor functionality they provide right now. Instead, look at how manufacturers and app makers evolve their approach to make the watches have a UX gain that greatly outweighs the cost.


Illustration by TOMO77.

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I liked the article, thanks!

Aside from UX gain via apps, smartwatches need much better battery life, have a display thats on all the time and be water proof like most dumb watches do effortlessly now. I do still wear a watch (Many people do not these days). I have a solar powered watch which needs very little light to keep running. I am going on 4 years now. 

Funny (ironic), in mid 70's I owned a Pulsar digital watch. (yes, I am dating myself) It had a red LED display. In order to save precious batter power, the display was always off by default and you had to push a button to see the time. So familar? 40 years later and some of the same issues in usability. :-)

Even tablets are vulnerable to this. When I first got my iPad, I used it extensively for casual browsing. But over time, the limitations started getting to me. In the middle of a browsing session, I was forced to switch back to my laptop because of features that weren't supported on mobile. These incidents weren't terribly common, but after experiencing a few of them, I just felt like it was easier to use the laptop. I finally reached a point where I basically just forgot about the iPad. I'll use it when I'm traveling, but that's partly because I'm trying to preserve the battery life of my other devices. Most of the time, the iPad just sits on a desk with a dead battery for weeks or even months at a time.

I don't currently buy into smart watches as I'm quite content with checking updates on my phone. However I wouldn't discount them just yet. However a few killer apps (that add serious UX gain) could change all that. The platform has arrived, we just need convincing that it's a worthwhile one. 

I agree completely.  I predicted the demise of Google Glass using this exact criteria.

Personally, I think Apple Watch is in the same category.  You need a smartphone to use this device properly and it doesn't really do anything a smartphone can't.  Except it's smaller -- which is a disadvantage in a lot of ways. 

However -- something forgot in this article is the intangible aspects.  Apple consumers are extremely loyal to the brand -- so much so, bad UX and bad ideas are a success.  Perception means a lot to the success of a product.