10 Considerations for Making Wearable Devices More Wearable

Title image: Maria, the first android depicted in Cinema, from Fritz Lang's 1927 seminal work Metropolis.

Currently the topic of much debate, wearable devices represent a new era in our relationship with technology. Below are ten considerations to explore some of the parameters of a complex debate as technology becomes an ever closer companion in the human realm.

1. Precedents

Understanding precedents or what has gone before is a crucial factor in understanding what makes a product relevant. There is a great variation in how products are perceived, especially in the context of diverse global cultures. Objects of considerable technological innovation, such as an iPhone for example have few precedents and are for the most part freer to take on any physical form or experiential interface they please within the technical parameters. As soon as a product is designed to be worn on the body and is visible to others it immediately becomes subject to a much more complex ecosystem of values that date back millennium and place the product within the world of adornment.

2. Adornment or product?

Understanding of fashion and adornment can be a difficult challenge for industrial designers. The nature of industrial design and the methods by which it is taught and practiced mean it is often predisposed to employ industrial manufacturing methods over craft based systems. However, a contradiction arises here as the history of adornment is largely defined by that which has been made by hand, as opposed to machine and consumer values across global cultures connect with this.

3. Cultural differences

It is not unrealistic to say culture defines meaning and determines how people assign value. What is generated by the values of one culture does not necessarily translate to another. For example, much of the current offerings of wearable devices come from the highly creative, innovative and technologically progressive west coast of the United States. This is a culture where technology is trusted and able to deliver many solutions to modern day life and where personal performance and fitness rank highly on the personal value scale. Informality is also another strong component of this culture where boundaries of social and work engagement are less compartmentalized than they maybe in other cultures. More formal cultural codes may require more formal and diverse product solutions than those currently being offered. There are some notable exceptions but for the most part wearable devices could adopt more varied design expressions to connect with a wider audience.

4. Discreet or overt?

The role that wearable devices play in our daily lives is key to how we wear them and the statement they make.  Is it for a specific sport or activity or considered for all day attire? Defining this up front helps the debate on how to define factors such as the specific functionality, delivery of the user experience, the range of modular adaptations, the material specifications and the overall design expression. It’s always tempting to seek new design expressions for new technologies but the value of understatement should not be underestimated.

5. Gender and fashion

If a product is to be considered as adornment then gender considerations may play a role. Other forms of adornment such as jewelry and clothing are subject to these considerations so it’s not unreasonable to assume wearables may follow suit. This also leads to the critical debate as to what defines fashion and is the wearable device going to be part of the ecosystem of these complex associations and personal identifications. This does not mean make it blue or pink, large or small but identify with the nuances of gender choices.

6. Materials, perceptions and response

All materials elicit some form of tactile, perceived and emotive response from us. These aspects must be carefully considered in a wearable device and are integral to the fashion debate. Materials also play an essential part in brand statement and brand positioning playing an intrinsic role in any marketing agenda. Of course the experience also depend on the user interface but the tactile qualities such as material touch, properties and temperature still play a role.

7. Technology and its applications

What the wearable device really offers should be clearly connected to what we value and how we experience it. Clear product scenarios have been established around communications, health, well-being, physical performance and productivity in work tasks. Beyond this it seems the wearable technology is somewhat in an experimental stage. New applications will no doubt arise from this experimentation but care must also be taken to ensure positive consumer impact and security of data in a world where devices are network dependent and must connect through the ether. The emerging ecosystems of devices, technologies and data transmission create a whole host of debates around the ethics of data in terms of its capture, possession and dissemination.

8. Two way street

The ability of a wearable device to sense and interpret our data is well proven. An object that is worn and in constant contact with the skin also has the ability to communicate with us through tactile and sensory methods, a unique characteristic to wearables and a potential area of future explorations.

9. Wearable devices and diagnostics in emerging markets

Emerging markets and the possibilities of providing wearable technology and diagnostics to those most in need is the subject of much debate. Remote patient monitoring is winning venture capital in developed markets. However, the systemic issues of emerging markets combined with an entirely different set of criteria needs to be well understood. Issues of poverty, education and illiteracy impact how technology, devices and apps can be used. For example, India’s poorest state of Bihar where innovative medical diagnostic methods and interventions are in great need has an illiteracy rate of 34%. Such statistics require alternatives to language-based interfaces in situations of personal diagnostics while economic circumstance currently eliminates the viability of a smart phone in an ecosystem of personal devices. Leveraging current local initiatives and partnering with the health care providers, development agencies, governments and NGO’s working in these regions who understand the issues at the frontline is the most effective path to meaningful design solutions.   

10. Ideas of the future

Nothing goes out of date quicker than ideas of the future, assuming these ideas are not backed up by the realities of today combined with some in-depth research and informed scenario forecasting. Wearables do represent a new frontier of exploration where technology can migrate to entirely new territories. Getting there may require some serious rethinking of the hardware and interactive experiences we currently use combined with advances in technology and some radical cost reductions but it would not be the first time that such thinking moves from niche to mainstream.