Designing A User Experience For Wearable Devices

Wearable devices are the hottest thing since the iPhone. They have been the buzzword in the tech industry the whole year. Now that we are only a few months away from Apple releasing their Apple Watch and finally getting a whole picture of the entire list of products and their features, we can talk about how we can design a user experience for this type of devices.

Wearables as they are affectionately called imply a different approach than traditional web or mobile UX design. Such difference implies designing for multiple devices or for other external devices that the wearable device will interact with. It is one of the most unique forms of user experience — one that combines web-based user experience with traditional user experience. One that goes beyond creating the physical product.

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Who are we designing for? — defining the user persona

In its current state, wearable devices are in their early stage. This means that we can restrict our discussion by focusing on a specific niche that will interact with these types of products. This will help us get a general idea of how advanced the user experience can be and, due to their familiarity with other tech products as well as their ability to learn fast, how a device operates.

We can assume that the typical user is in their twenties or thirties with an above-average income. They are open-minded early adopters. This means they will most likely be familiar with other types of product interactions and probably use a wide variety of UI’s and gestures. Thus we can assume they have had at least a few smartphones so far.

These tech-savvy individuals spend most of their time online, typically browsing sites about tech news, gadgets, Apple, Android and perhaps websites related to start-ups, development and design. This means that there are very few restrictions related to how advanced the user interaction (UI) can be. However the screen size, technology and design approach play a critical aspect in the user experience design process, as we will see below.

The current main features of wearable devices

Currently on the market, there are two types of product categories that we can talk about. These areeyewear (smart glasses) and smart watches.

The key features that define most of the eyewear-related wearable devices are their ability to use navigation to track your location and provide local information or routes, record video and take pictures while also being able to perform online searches.

Smart watches on the other hand, have features that are mostly concerned with tracking physical and health-related activities or interactions. The majority also provide navigation, the ability to listen to music, near field communication (NFC) payments and take phone calls.

Application-wise, smart watches have a higher number of apps available compared to smart glasses, as well as residing in a lower price range. Thus we can assume we will see more early adopters. The fact that it is a less intrusive device makes it a more discreet approach to wearables. However, smart glasses have the ability to incorporate more complex UI’s, thus making them more appealing for complex or next-gen wearable interactions.

Can we really talk about designing a user experience with first-gen products?

As with other first-gen products, the interaction and features that can be performed are quite limited. This makes it really hard to design memorable or easy-to-use user experiences. However, they can be done, although I suspect that once the second or third generation products are launched, we could then talk about integrating them into our workflow.

Due to their unique and ever-increasing features, that will push the boundaries of what can we do with them, expect to see a larger adoption rate over the coming years. Currently we can think of these devices simply as accessories for your phone or tablet, that will let you do the same things but a whole lot faster and easier. This is what takes the user experience to the next level.

What we can expect from them in the near future

All simple tasks or apps that you only use from time to time, yes, the ones which you then abandon only to clutter your smart device (like calculators or Shazam), could become more useful on your wearable. This is because it would be possible to make them more accessible without having to carry your tablet or pull out your phone from your pocket each time.

This facility could also be extended to popular web apps that can start offering specific features for these types of devices. For example Facebook’s one click check-in, Linkedin’s ‘who viewed your profile’ feature, Twitter notifications and so on. This makes the basic actions or interactions simple and useful. Some of the other types of interactions or integration that we will see are:

  • NFC that will allow the use of smart watches as a way to bypass the subway or underground metro card checkpoints by swiping your wrist without spending time buying tickets
  • One-push taxi service that assigns users a number, so taxis will know which areas need more cabs. This can also mean that nearby cabs can pick up users fast and in the order they made their resrevation, thus eliminating the need to whistle or fight for a cab
  • Pico projection to a surface or the rest of your hand, letting users read notifications easily or push them to their eye-wear device
  • NFC that will make mobile payments easily and sharing between other watches, for things like business cards, videos, pictures, etc.
  • Changing the music in your home via Apple Airplay, Spotify or other similar software and compatible hardware using controls found on your wearable device.
  • Dimming lights or turn on an air conditioner when you arrive at home via smart light bulbs and the use of your wearable GPS tracking or wireless connection.
  • Entering a store and tapping on the wearable screen makes you like their page and gives you a discount that is then saved to your wallet.
  • Blinking or vibrating when you come across free Wi-Fi spots or stumble upon a landmark.
  • Automatically subscribe to blogs or newsletter that you visit on your tablet or phone, with a push of a button.
  • Easy navigation in shopping malls via precise tracking that will send you notifications like “in 500 steps turn left and you’ve reached store X”. The same principle for finding your car in the parking lot.
  • Location-based notifications that inform you on sales or offers in the surrounding venues.
  • Video calls and video recording for smart watches that activate their screen only when you look at them, similar to when you are looking at time or video streaming to your eye-wear.
  • Notification of when your friends or family are nearby so you can for example open the door for them.

Why will it be appealing to consumers

Using current smart phones, checking an e-mail or seeing what notifications you have received involves reaching for your phone in your pocket, grabbing it and checking the notification and then inserting it back into your pocket, even if no new notifications have appeared. This leads to the habit of constantly checking your phone for new things.

This routine could change completely and actually be simplified since a watch will most likely be on your hand most of the time; the same with a pair of smart glasses. Thus you can see exactly when a notification pops up while also reducing these extra interactions to a simple glance at your watch and voila, you’re done.

3 key things to keep in mind when you’re designing for wearable devices

At the moment, wearable devices are limited since complex gestures cannot be used on their small screens. In fact replicating the same interactions as those for smart phones would result in your finger taking all available screen space, thus making it really hard to see. So until smart watches and smart glasses start to integrate more with other smart devices, like phones and tablets, we can only design simple UI’s.

Interaction with other types of devices could be possible in the near-future. This will allow users to take their experiences to the next level like in the case of a user entering a store and seeing a big screen with their name on it. Another possible integration would be for users who require support to interact with their device and a store employee will come to them. But for now, these are the key things that you should keep in mind when you are designing for a wearable device:

1. Make it usable

First, you need to understand that wearables imply using a smaller display where the user interaction takes place. What would happen if Google Glass allows you to see their UI on both eyes simultaneously? It would block your vision and make it really hard for you to walk around, increasing the chance of an accident.

Same thing with smart watches — the screen size is small and our interaction with the device is restricted to a few gestures and the user’s current activity, be it walking, running, laying back or sitting. Thus, we must keep in mind that these type of actions will be performed by the user during certain activities, like for example if you’re jogging, having a small UI that has multiple rows of text would be really hard to look at, since your watch is shaking as you run.

2. Stick to the core features

This brings us to the second thing you must keep in mind — complexity. You cannot have too many elements on a screen as users would have a hard time interacting with them. One must also take into consideration that users with poor vision will have even more difficulty viewing them. Thus, when designing more complex apps try incorporating these across multiple screens that can be viewed by swiping. This essentially implies sticking with with core features that should be represented by simple, big UI elements. Such strategy will ensure your app is usable by the majority of users due to its simplicity and ease-of-use.

3. View wearables as device accessories

Once the second or third generation of wearable devices are released, we will see more interaction between our smart devices like tablets, phones, desktops and our smart watch or eye-wear. This means that as you design an app for mobile or tablet, you will start considering smart watches as accessories or secondary methods of inputs to these devices. For you, these will be devices that will let you perform the basic or core features of your app faster, while keeping in mind the interaction between a certain action performed on device A and the reaction of that action displayed on device B. By making this interaction intuitive and exciting will mark the difference between the best user experience your clients can have or the worse one.

Let’s look at a quick example of how Apple’s Pay and Apple Watch could work in the future

I came up with this brief example, to make it easier to understand how user interaction could be different on wearable devices compared to current smart devices. This serves to visualize how wearables can offer more enjoyable user-centric experiences that are far more accessible and intuitive.

  1. User walks into a store
  2. He receives a notification on his wearable saying something along the line of ‘Good afternoon Perer, Welcome to our store!’
  3. Let’s say Apple Pay is able to remember this is their 5th visit in that store. It can thus offer them a discount for being a loyal customer or the user is notified that a laptop sale is taking place right now (based on an automatically identified trend in the user’s past purchases)
  4. The user then proceeds to either grab that sale or redeem the discount after they fill their cart with products. Thus we can already see the first type of interaction — the information notification
  5. Once the user proceeds to the checkout counter and the cashier enters the grand total, the user is notified on their wearable if they want to pay for that. The second type of interaction is present — interaction between other devices and location-based confirmation
  6. The user selects ‘yes’ and that information is processed while a receipt is sent to Apple’s ‘wallet’, which is in the cloud. This, in turn and is pushed to the user’s iPhone, iPad and other Mac products. In this way a whole lot of paperwork and administration is saved, making such solution an eco-friendly payment method. Apart from the above-mentioned benefits, the user experience is further improved because the user does not have to wait for the receipt to come out and be handed to him with the risk of losing it.

This way users can keep track of their purchases, making their life easier when it comes to filling out tax forms and managing personal budgets since all their receipts will automatically be in one place. When it comes to budget management, the user saves even further by receiving discounts for future purchases. Storing this type of data on a phone or tablet would consequently save space on the smart watch while also benefiting from a better browsing experience due to the advanced gestures and larger screen that current smart devices offer. Tracking this type of data could also be used to inform users that they are one shop away from receiving a free gift — thus increasing the likelihood that users go to that store.

This was just a quick example of how the typical user experience could be enhanced when designing for wearables. While fictitious, the example highlights the harmonious interaction between multiple devices and technologies with smart watches or glasses being used to bridge the gap between these devices. The main processing continues to be done on the smart device since the wearable is only being used more of like a quick input device or shortcut. Such an approach would help us perform core features faster without having to get our phones out each time or open our backpacks and grab that tablet.

How it will influence the future of User Experience

There is no doubt that with the advent of smart devices, users have become more and more familiar with scrolling. If once we were used to clutter the above the fold area with lots of information, considering it all critical, nowadays with the rise of single page websites, this is no longer the case.

This is mostly due to the presence of smart phones and tablets coupled with the fact that people are becoming more familiar with the web. Still it is almost certainly attributable to the fact that these types of devices had a significant impact on the way users perceive a page — by making them more familiar with vertical scrolling and gestures to control their interaction.

With the release of this exciting new technology, we will soon seen people get familiar with horizontal navigation that will push new horizontal layouts.

Closing thoughts

Smart watches are definitely here to stay. It will take some time till they become equipped with new features that will push the interaction to the next level, hence making them mainstream. However, once we get there, we will experience a user experience like no other, one that bridges the gap between digital and physical once and for all.

In conclusion for all the mobile UX designers this will be an interesting move since they will now have to consider new things such as the:

  • Interaction with other physical devices and their UI: Would you keep the same layout and gestures as found on other devices? One possible justification would be to keep the same user experience consistent across devices. Or would you require your users to interact with both their smart device and wearable device?
  • Activity the user is performing be it sleeping, sitting, walking, running or working out
  • Environment where the user is present in such as subways, gyms, coffee shops or libraries … would you offer them cues like blinking, vibrating or sound to inform them they have received a notification? Which one of these would you use for crowded environments where it is hard to see or maybe hear? Will you offer similar cues on their phone as well or will you restrict the cues to the wearable device?

These are just a few questions that UX designers will need to think about when designing for these type of devices. One thing is for sure, wearable devices are among us, and the future looks bright with and for them!

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