Smartwatches aren’t truly useful… yet

Back in 2014 I received my first smartwatch as a present from my brother — a Moto 360. It was sexy, and I was excited by just the idea of owning one. Appearances aside, I also planned to use it to finally get organised and into shape. But form proceeded function, and I found little use for it outside of receiving notifications (which simultaneously appeared on the phone in my hand anyway), and randomly measuring my heart rate for fun.

I stopped wearing it within 2 weeks. And I was sure glad that I wasn’t the one who dropped a couple of hundred dollars on it.

Fast forward 3 years, I received a Samsung Gear S2 as a gift. I was eager to make the most of it this ‘time’ — surely the experience would have improved by now. But it was the same pattern. A burst of enthusiasm followed by gradual disinterest, eventually ending with my poor smartwatch collecting dust in the shadows of my drawer.

First day wearing my smartwatch (gif source)
2 weeks later…

So are smartwatches and fitness bands still nothing more than a gimmick, even after all these years?

According to a report by PWC, wearable adoption rates were actually going up in 2016, but stickiness remains an issue.

What doesn’t work

To better understand this sticky situation, a few friends over at HeathWallace Australia who don’t own a smartwatch kept a log of their reflections while wearing one. The results were pretty consistent with my own experience, and within a week most already reported that wouldn’t use it again as is.

  • Useful features (and more) were already available on smartphones, which is within arms reach for the majority of the day.
    There is no strong use case for owning a separate smartwatch device. They do not add enough value to justify buying one or to even have people remember to wear it everyday.
  • Fitness features were OK but not great. People initially found the data it collected interesting, but didn’t know what action to take on it or why it was relevant. Eventually, the novelty of viewing this data wore off. 
    Smartwatch apps should improve on how they motivate people to take action on this fitness data. It did encourage quite a few people to walk more with the step counter, but beyond that it didn’t provide enough guidance on how to achieve more complex fitness goals and reward them for this behaviour.
  • People reported usability issues with gestures, voice input and physical controls. One colleague felt like a ‘wanker’ talking into her watch, and reported accuracy issues, which a lot of us can probably relate to. Others struggled with their fat fingers.

What does work

Conversely, I did some asking around and found people who have worn a smartwatch consistently for more than a few weeks and found value in it.

  • Those who were busy or attended a lot of meetings liked the fact they could glance at notifications without pulling out their phone or feeling rude. Smartwatches should continue to be more invisible than a smartphone, and facilitate real social interactions and activities, rather than take away from them.
  • Again, health features were a strong driver in smartwatch usage. Those who were already ‘fit’ and required minimal guidance particularly found these features useful.
  • Those who already wore watches liked wearing a smartwatch (surprise!) They look good, plus have added functionality.

The future

Technology isn’t ready for smartwatches to be truly useful just yet. But as our online profiles become increasingly integrated, and sensing technology evolves and becomes more accurate, the potential for devices to provide proactive and useful services is incredible.

Let’s take health for example. Smartwatch sensors can currently detect your heart rate and count your steps, but what if they could detect the chemicals in your sweat to understand your health on a deeper level? Portable biosensors are emerging, and it’s only a matter of time until they are approved for wider use and commercialised. So now in addition to collecting a person’s behavioural data, we can begin to collect and form insights from their biological data. Knowing this combination has the potential to greatly improve health services and outcomes, if done right.

There are already some pretty cool initiatives out there working towards this future. I’m keen to see how this intersection of science, engineering and digital, and the synergies between these disciplines evolves in the near future.

Or maybe smartwatches aren’t the answer after all, but rather some other kind of technology to achieve these outcomes? Regardless, I’m optimistic for the future of wrist-based wearables, and will continue to ‘watch’ this space.

Note: The opinions expressed in this article are my own and do not reflect the view of my employer.