“Smartwatches are stupid,” says Hartmut Esslinger, Apple’s first head of design and creator of the company’s Snow White design language. “Why would I put cheap electronics on my wrist as a symbol of (my) emotion?” Esslinger also calls Fitbit, the popular fitness tracker, a gimmick. “I know when I am tired,” he says, referring to the device’s value proposition of counting calories through the day. Esslinger’s remarks about wearable tech may seem provocative but they represent a fundamental design problem in the industry.
Wearable technology is expected to be the next big thing.
More than 17 million wearable tech brands are expected to ship this year, according to research firm Canalys. Mainstream players, such as Samsung and Google, have already entered the space with smartwatches and Google glass respectively. And, Apple is expected to announce its entry later this year.
Despite sustained media attention (and fashion spreads), however, wearable tech products are yet to gain traction. For an industry that is projected to grow to 45 million shipments by 2017, sales volumes for wearable tech products lag significantly behind those for mainstream products. But, the problem isn’t about marketing. It is about design.
Culture or Commodity?
In his book A Fine Line – How Design Strategies Are Shaping The Future Of Business, Esslinger outlined a culture versus commodity argument inside organizations. Briefly, products can either be cultural phenomenons which fulfill a unique space in the average consumer’s life commodities which are imitative and offer value at a competing price point. With the exception of Google Glass, which has invented a completely new product category, wearable technology seems to be veering towards the latter paradigm without offering unique value propositions to consumers.
Consider smartwatches. They combine use cases for two devices: a phone and mechanical watches. However, their functionality is limited and dependent on smartphones. Without smartphones, the device becomes a fitness tracker, such as Fitbit. That might still be a useful, if existing smartwatches had attractive designs. But, they don’t.
Fitbit Problems And Glassholes
Arguably the first wearable tech device to gain a semblance of mainstream popularity, Fitbit is a fitness tracker that measures steps and turns them into calories. The device sold out within a day of its launch back in 2011 at The Grommet, an online store for hardware entrepreneurs, and accounted for more than half of the company’s sales that season. “It was crazy,” says Joanne Domeniconi, cofounder of the site. “The demand was way beyond what we could provide.” Part of the reason for the device’s popularity was its unique design, which combined fitness with mobility.
According to Amit Gadi, founder of New Deal Design, the design firm behind Fitbit, women’s bras provided the inspiration for a clip that could be attached to the body. Subsequent iterations of the device evolved the device’s design paradigm from clips to clasps worn on the wrist. Positive reviews and word-of-mouth publicity have helped ratchet sales over the last few years.
But the company hit a roadblock earlier this year. In April this year, the company was ordered by the FDA to recall its products due to allergy complaints.
That bit of news came on the trail of dissatisfied customers.
Twenty-eight-year-old Patrick Chang has already worked his way through two Fitbits in the last year. According to him, the first one stopped working suddenly and the second one fell while he was climbing stairs. “I am not impressed,” says Chang, who is an Apple enthusiast and is waiting for the Cupertino-based company to enter the wearables market. Similarly, Greg Gunn, Vice President of marketing at Hootsuite, a social media management platform and an avid runner, had problems syncing his device with his phone. He detailed his problem in a series of tweets and, when I met him at a conference here in San Francisco, he was no longer wearing the device.
Smartwatches, perhaps the hottest product category in the wearable tech space, has its own set of problems their own set of naysayers. Inspite of the entry of mainstream players such as Samsung (and Apple, which is expected to make an announcement sometime in Fall), sales for smartwatches are nowhere near those of mainstream products.
Google Glass, which has created a new product category, has a different set of problems. The most useful applications of the device are limited to niche markets. Within the mainstream context, the device is considered intrusive and its users are called Glassholes for wearing it to public places. It was also recently banned in cinemas due to piracy fears.
The Smartphone Design Paradigm And Wearable Technology
Australian entrepreneur Scott Burgess exchanged his Fitbit for a Nike fuelband last year. He used it extensively during his travels to New York City last year. Beyond the community, however, Burgess finds limited use for the device. Data is useful. “Beyond that, however, there is a plateau,” says the chief executive officer at Continu.
According to Esslinger, wearable tech design is stuck in the smartphone paradigm, where products are neatly split into hardware and software. In this hybrid, a hardware product functions as a platform to provide software services. In other words, the hardware product segues into a software service. For example, a smartphone functions as a platform for app services.
In the wearable technology space, the only service which has been identified, so far, is data. Reams of data, without context, can have the effect of overwhelming consumers.
“Consumers want answers,” explains Vivienne Ming, data scientist at gild, a behavioral analytics firm. “They don’t want more data.” Ming uses a combination of wearable tech devices to get answers about her son’s diabetes. For example, her six-year-old son is fitted with a Basis smartwatch on his ankle. Ming hacked the smartwatch to send notifications to a Google glass about his glucose levels. “Wearable technology literally keeps him alive,” she says.
Ming, herself, wears a smartwatch. She has also worn a Google glass for the last two years. The device was strapped to her head when I met her at a cafe.
“The urge to do this is so strong when someone asks me for the time,” she laughed, arching her eyebrows to the device. During her time wearing Glass, Ming has been an object of curiosity and disdain. To deal with public queries, she has developed a stand up routine which consists of searching for the nearest tourist landmark or providing interesting tidbits, such as weather updates, to curious onlookers. The story is different in office meetings. “There is the perception that I am not paying attention,” she says, about her experiences using the device while meeting clients.
The Conceptual Design Challenge For Wearables
“They (makers of wearable tech devices) need to think about how to take it from a pure body experience to a more holistic experience,” says Burgess. He might be onto something.
“The semantic and conceptual challenge of wearables is the closeness to the human body,” says Esslinger, who created wearable tech product prototypes for Forrester research ten years ago.
Smartphones, which were the first iteration of wearable tech[/entity], install computers in a phone. But, they are generic slabs hidden away in pockets. Devices, such as Google glass and smartwatches, are prominent personality markers.
According to Esslinger, the wearable tech design paradigm involves an understanding of consumer preferences such as cultures, materials, and shapes. In turn, these contribute to an emotional appeal for the consumer. This is a strategy that has been especially successful at Apple, which was among the first tech companies to deploy emotional savvy in connecting with consumers. That said, Esslinger concedes that mass production of device form factors will reach its limits within physical space. “The differentiation and customization of software and content experience will also enter the physical space,” he says.
The differentiation, in this case, will be driven by contextual data, according to Ming.
“My idea of wearable technology is that it is a product but what it wants to be is a service, which I pay for regularly,” she says. According to her, the principle of any wearable device that is perceptually integrated is context. “That is powerful and only partially reproducible with a smartphone.” she says. This context is achieved through devices that bind data streams from multiple devices together. As an example, she says subclinical precursors (such as heartbeats, perspiration, and tension states) from multiple devices and sensors can be used to predict manic depressive states in bipolar patients.
In a conference room in his design firm, Gadi, who also does not think much of smartwatches, has a framed picture that defines his firm’s approach. The picture consists of a triangle of hardware and software surrounded by a layer of services, community, and brands.
That might be a mouthful.
For Gadi, however, these condense into the user interface. As Gadi puts it, the real estate provided to user interfaces in wearable tech devices. “It’s an ongoing discussion,” he says. “My ideal UI is hardly noticeable,” he says.
According to him, the modalities ported from PC are no longer valid for other form factors of wearable tech devices. From the physical product’s perspective, this translates to form factor trade-offs. For example, he explains that they used rubber (instead of metal) clasps for Fitbit to ensure device flexibility in the device.
The Pain Of New Technologies
Despite his criticism of wearable tech design, Esslinger considers the technology an inevitability. “The way ahead is clear: technology moves closer to our body – a new nomadic stage in our evolution – and eventually onto our skin and into our body,” he says. Citing Marshal Mcluhan, he says new technologies always create pain at first.
In the case of wearable tech, that pain may be assuaged through good design.