Several years ago, when we began researching wearable user experiences, we realized two key facts that shaped all of our subsequent work. First and foremost, wearable technology is not new. People have been wearing technology for thousands of years for protection from the elements, predators, and other people, as well as for the augmentation of human capacities, construction of identity, and attracting mates. Even wearable interactive systems are nothing new. Shoes have housed lights that pulse with each footstep for decades and the early ’90s saw a brief, yet interesting, fad of clothing saturated with thermo-reactive dye that changed color through ambient shifts in body heat and direct touch, leading to a rash of teenagers wearing cyan t-shirts with bright magenta hand prints.
This initial insight led to a second, logical conclusion: Producers of wearable computers were ignoring the epochs of wearable technology use. When reviewing the brief history of mass-market wearable devices, this omission appears to be a side effect of a “first-to-market” mentality that has resulted in a wearable computing landscape largely consisting of unattractive devices delivering marginal benefits to customers. It’s no surprise that while companies spend massive amounts on wearable advertising campaigns to generate hype, the sales still remain marginal, resulting in wearables bundling with mobile phones to increase market penetration.
With these two insights in mind, we decided to make a rather bold pivot in our UX R&D agenda. Our approach was to ignore computing altogether and focus strictly on what it means to create, consume, and wear things. We conducted qualitative research targeting both couture and mass market fashion designers, and lead consumers of everyday and activity-centric apparel.
Change your language to shift your thinking
We made a decision as a team to table the use of Silicon Valley vernacular and instead start talking like fashion designers, thus transforming our perspective when designing wearable experiences. This was made after a realization that referring to concepts as “devices” and “form factors” drove us toward mediocre experiences. Our less-than-stellar outcomes were largely in part due to our language, which hindered our creativity and propagated preemptive design decisions based on the limitations of current technologies. Devices of today were never meant to be wearable – the language of devices and their related mental models and constraints do not support innovative wearable UX. Learning the language of fashion breaks down cognitive roadblocks and fosters new types of conversations. For example, simply introducing words associated with fashion aesthetics, such as “hand” (referring to the tactile quality of a fabric) spurs a more creative discussion surrounding the touch and feel of an article on the body. This seemingly simple change of language forces us to reconsider technical implications out of the gate rather than traversing more well known and worn out paths. Additionally, as wearable UX undergoes productization, technology development teams would, in all likelihood, engage with fashion designers. Having a common language steeped in wearable design reduces the chance of communication errors and shows fashion industry partners that you are invested in the wearable UX process.
Design for the human condition
While fashion is starting to become a partner for wearable computing, the design of most wearable devices focuses on either ergonomics (screen-centric or fit-and-feel wearables) or invisibility (ambient-sensing wearables). Rarely do they take into account the experience of the body or even the specific limb they’re trying to create a product for. To articulate the notion of designing for the human condition further, let’s critique the wrist – a common placement for wearables – as an example.
The wrist is a location on the body that close friends and family can publicly touch, yet when the wrist is touched by a stranger it is often perceived as an act of aggression or control. What do these conventions of privacy and familiarity mean for companies who want to entice people to wear their devices?
When people look at their watch during a conversation, it can be misconstrued in a negative way. It often gives the appearance that the current conversation is making them late for a more important event. How does this history of physical movement impact social conventions of smartwatch use?
Many users are tolerant of a little added weight and bulk on their wrist, making it a fine place for displaying and interacting with information. However, when we look at current wrist-worn communication devices, we’re astonished the watch metaphor – with an outward facing screen – is the chosen form. This screen position faces away from the wearer and does not adhere to the public/private domains of the wrist.
The wrist is a place for denoting identity, aesthetics, and affiliation.While recent smartwatches have attempted to address self-identity markers through more stylized products, most developers have not addressed tokens of affection or affiliation. At the heart of a keepsake is the idea that a person will posses it their entire life as a memento. For wearable devices, this has drastic repercussions for purchase refresh.
Dr. Ryan Brotman is a senior innovation strategist and head of wearable technologies at Idea Couture. He is based in Arizona, United States.
Cory Booth is a principle engineer at Intel Corporation. He is based in Oregon, United States.
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