What Not to Wearable: Part 1

Katherine Olvera, Former Senior User Experience Designer

Article Categories: #Design & Content, #Hardware, #User Experience

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How to fashion better wearables.

With every advance in connected technology, potential new features abound. Sensors monitor your fitness performance or sleep quality. Haptic vibrations in insoles guide you to take a left or a right, allowing you to navigate without looking at a screen. NFC technology in a ring allows you to pay for a purchase without fumbling around in a bag or combing through pockets. These technologies allow our accessories to become devices for input and output.

All this sounds exciting, freeing even. These innovations could allow us to turn our focus away from screens and back to the material world, to be simultaneously connected to technology while also present in the moment. And that’s incredible. However, this also presents new challenges. Besides the multitude of complex technical problems we must address, from charging and battery life to data networks and security, we will also have to solve some key strategic and design problems.

When Fashion and Tech Collide

Connected technology has migrated from appliances, like Nest, to accessories, clothes, and even temporary tattoos. When we shift from designing appliances (functional tools people use) to designing fashion (aesthetic adornments that people wear), the conventions change. Fashion items are much more intimate than a home thermostat, a microwave, or a refrigerator. How do we convince users that technology is worth wearing?

Ubiquity or Variety?

For the integration of fashion and tech to be viable over the long-term, we must reconcile some inherent differences in the conception of fashion products and technology products. For one, fashion products aim to allow a user to express a personal identity, while tech products often aim to make an experience universally accessible. These are often competing interests.

Fashion products signal an affiliation with a style tribe. A woman with a “preppy” style may wear lots of stripes and polka dots, while a man with a taste for luxury may invest in an expensive watch. In dressing each day, people use subtle markers to identify with niche groups. Fashion companies cater to these niches by using consistent product design and marketing to target specific customers to the exclusion of others. This builds a strong brand identity that a customer can easily understand, relate to, and coopt for their personal style. Fashion products, then, are designed to aid individuals in distinguishing themselves.

On the other hand, tech products are often valued for their ubiquity.  Go to Facebook’s login page and you will see this message: “Connect with friends and the world around you.” The world around you! Facebook positions itself primarily as a provider of access to an impossibly large global network. With over a billion users, if someone has an internet presence at all, they are likely to be found on Facebook.

The same can be said of Fitbit. Fitbit, despite being a worn object, is framed as a technology product. Fitbit’s answer to “Why Fitbit?” is “unbeatable technology, the largest fitness community, & a family of products fit for everyone.” They, like Facebook, are selling access to an extensive network. Fitbit suggests that customers interested in engaging in fitness competitions with friends adopt Fitbit's product over a competitor for just this reason.

However, by highlighting the universal popularity of their products, wearables companies undercut the other value a worn product may provide— its ability to display a person's unique identity to the public. How are people to distinguish themselves if they feel that everyone else in the world is wearing the same product? We need to segment where the application of these two ideas, ubiquity and variety, are most valuable.

Reconciling Ubiquity and Variety

Ubiquity will greatly improve the digital experience. This includes the apps and platforms that store and make sense of the data our devices collect. As wearables gain traction, users will likely want to switch easily between products from day to day, as they do with other clothes and accessories. We will want to allow them to do this without the nuisance of remembering that this item pairs with that native app or how this app works differently from that one. The digital experience will need to be consistent, predictable, and interface with different devices.

While the digital experience will be improved by consistency, the physical one would benefit from variety. When customers wear connected products, they shouldn't be forced to sacrifice their identities. We need wearables that complement a diverse range of styles. Many wearables still seem to be offered in an uber sleek black silicone by default. That is great for a sporty customer or a tech enthusiast. For a customer with a more classic or traditional style though, the cold black look may not fit their wardrobe or outfit. By primarily catering to one style market, wearables companies are likely missing out on market share. Style shouldn't be an up-charge.

The presentation of Fitbit's product assortment seems to take its cues from Henry Ford: "Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black." This fails to demonstrate how a Fitbit product may fit with a customer's personal style.

Here are some strategies companies may use to resolve this conflict:

  • Third-party Apps to Unify the Digital Experience Currently, each connected accessory seems to have its own branded native app. As wearables gain popularity, this is less sustainable. We need apps to organize our array of devices and the data being relayed between them. Otherwise, wearables will likely be abandoned as more trouble than they are worth.
  • Modular Technology We need engineers working to create standard, open-market hardware and tech components for wearables. Ideally, these modular pieces could be easily applied to a wide variety of mass-market products using current production processes, in the same way that zippers, buttons, and snaps are applied today.
  • Better Collaborations Large tech companies excel at creating intuitive and ubiquitous digital experiences, while fashion companies have expertise in materials, production, and predicting style trends. Consistent and equal partnerships would leverage these talents in the appropriate arenas to create viable wearable tech. While we see some collaborations, including Apple partnering with Hermes and Nike, these partnerships will likely need to be standard (as opposed to occasional) to maintain wearables over the long-term.

Read on in Part 2 to learn about how implementing these strategies might result in better wearable products.

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