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.