Wrestling the challenge of beauty with the user experience in its application to wearable technology

Good design makes a product useful — Dieter Ram’s 2nd principle of good design.
Good design is aesthetic — Dieter Ram’s 3rd principle of good design

Images from the workshop

I recently attended a workshop “Designing Wearable Health Technologies” with Leah Heiss and Katherine Bond. Heiss’ work focuses on collaborating with industry partners to create aesthetically pleasing therapeutic objects. She is known to mix science, technology and art in her work with the experimentation with innovative materials.

The challenge presented at this workshop was:

  • what makes a good wearable health technology?
  • how can we improve or re-envision our wearable health technologies?

The workshop encouraged teams to create various prototypes addressing the intrapersonal or interpersonal relationships with various health issues.

For our team, we discussed the impact of colostomy bags associated from Crohn’s disease, a disease faced by the brother of one of my team members. Her story described some of the frustrations her brother experienced:

  • the discomfort of the bag valve on your body
  • a fear of the bag exploding upon sleeping or applying external pressure
  • to the stigma faced by wearing a colostomy bag

Our team devised many different prototypes that ranged from woven colostomy bags to a smooth, flexible and expandable bags.

Overall, the event was great in showing what the future of wearable based technology could become. In applying this technology toward our bodies, we understand more about the mystery workings of our bodies, and how our bodies change over time.

Nevertheless in this exploration, I was conflicted with how innovations in wearable technology works in light of solving health problems.

Three years ago as a jewellery design student, I appreciated wearable technology from an aesthetic point of view. In this space, I could make beautiful pieces of artistic expression with practical applications to help people. Wearable technology could bring jewellery pieces more purposeful.

However, as a Design Researcher, I question how making wearable tech objects solve user’s health problems. It was surprising that there was a lack of questioning behind these teams about how a user feels in a newer designed colostomy bag, from their focus on how it looks.

Will a beautiful bag solve the problem of an uncomfortable colostomy bag? Will a woven expandable bag ensure that it will not explode under external pressure? It is great that they are aesthetically pleasing, but if the object doesn’t address its core problems, it becomes a beautiful but not user friendly object.

I think of Dieter Ram’s principles and its application with Apple. Apple products are beautiful. However, its beauty conveys a more important message that this company can make computers and phones simple and easy to use.

The workshop highlights a need for on ongoing conversation between the design and the users affect by their disease. Whilst the designer is responsible to showing innovation and the possibilities, it should never come at the cost of losing the user’s main needs. It is as the designer is not always the user.

It is why Dieter Ram’s principle of Good Design being useful is more important that Good Design is aesthetic. However, to building a wearable technology solution would meet all of Dieter Ram’s Good Design principles to solve a crucial health issue, it would show how wearable technology can add a meaningful impact to the world. Then the mental wrestling will end.