Wearables and the Killer Wearable App

Hint: it’s already here, you just haven’t realized it yet.


I am in love with wearables. Sure, it has become clear that no one has totally nailed it, but wearables offer the greatest ability to influence us and change our behavior. To pull a quote from my friend Nir Eyal’s book HOOKED, “if it can’t be used for evil, it’s not a superpower.” If you are interested in changing behavior, nothing should be more exciting than wearables. If you are in marketing, creating apps, health care, social networking, or have a personal obsession with self-improvement — you care about behavior change. The folks that talk about technology keep calling for “the killer app” for wearables, but I believe it’s already here and just hasn’t been exploited-fully — Taps/tapping/vibration.

The stats: The Apple Watch sold between 1M and 3M units since launch, depending on whose estimate you trust. They are projected to sell 19M by the end of 2015. Given that there were 7M other watches sold last year, plus about 60M bands/trackers in circulation at EO14 that means Apple would own about 20% of the established wearables market (note: like most of the world, I’m choosing to ignore Google Glass for this post.) That means we are still very much at the beginning of the market — but that it is real. It also means that Apple is likely to have an outsized influence on the direction of the market for both hardware and software. Go figure.

I spent years studying SMS and it’s effect on people’s behavior. My app — Helllo, unreleased — would harness the strange and unique influence that SMS has over consumer behavior. What I learned about SMS wasn’t surprising — it’s the most personal form of communication since the hand written letter and the telephone call, there are near zero barriers to use SMS, and it’s everywhere. What might surprise you is that in my own testing and numerous scientific studies, no technology or intervention (maybe other than having your mother hover over you) influenced consumer behavior more than SMS. The reason for all the background is that Fitbit, Apple Watch, Jawbone, Microsoft Band, and the rest are all extremely personal devices. Even more than your iPhone or Android, wearables are about you. Your movements, your exercise, your data, your sleep.

No one says, “Hey I will loan you my Apple Watch or Fitbit” because it would completely garbage up their data.

I love my Fitbit largely because it is small enough and has a long enough battery that I don’t have to take it off. If you want something to become habit, you need to remove barriers to doing it. I kept losing my old clip-on trackers. Next thing you know, they are hidden in a drawer somewhere and forgotten. But something on my wrist that I don’t have to remove in the shower or at bedtime, that tracks my sleep, makes it extremely easy to become habit. The only thing I had to remember to do was put it on that first time, and then remember to charge it at my desk when the battery died. (*BTW, if you are interested, this is where I think Apple missed a massive opportunity but probably won’t notice because they are Apple. They don’t need to create habit because they so effectively create desire. But, how can the Apple watch track my sleep if it’s next to my bed.)

What really sold me on wearables though, was when I first felt the vibrating alarm and tapped it to make it go away. It was a much better way to wake up than sound, and tapping it to sleep was natural. I think Apple gets this with their “Taptic Engine” and features like Heartbeat. Because these devices are more personal, they can leverage our always-on sense of touch. The marketing seemed silly at first, but after feeling my wrist gently vibrate for various things I realize — tap is the killer app for wearables, it’s not being fully leveraged yet.

Luckily, most wearables have this feature. Fitbit, Jawbone, Apple, even small players like Razer with their Nabu X are using taps/vibrations as core features. Apple’s Heartbeat is certainly the most innovative feature so far, but we won’t know whether IT is the killer app for some time. It’s easily the most personal form of communication since SMS, and luckily the only barrier to use is having an Apple Watch. Now, do I want to sign up for J.Crew’s email list and opt-in to having my wrist vibrate everytime there is a sale — NO. They already abuse my email, I would hate to give them access to my wrist. But then again, I didn’t think I would want to send a tap version of my heartbeat to my wife’s wrist either — so tapping me to get up and move around, or tapping a certain rythym to let me know about an appointment or meeting, or tapping to remind me that today is special are all more likely to get my attention and change my behavior than even SMS. If it can’t be used for evil, it’s not a superpower. I think this qualifies.

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