Designers, please remember to design responsibly in the age of wearable technology

As further progress is made in the field of wearable technology, now more than ever, we must hold ourselves to higher standards so that we may responsibly engineer the experiences of the people who use them.


Our task

As designers, we are handed the task to create interfaces that are both attractive and functional while keeping the brand and future in mind. We meet with users to understand their needs and put ourselves in a place of empathy to be able to further understand what they need and want and in turn we learn more about what makes good design good and bad design bad. A novice designer may simply form a design without truly taking the actions and environments the design will be subject to into account. An experienced designer would warn the novice of design without research and show him the overflow menu as an example. However, the ramifications of the design would be more of a poor user experience rather than a detrimental event.

For Example: A designer creates the entire interface of a small video sharing app without conducting any user research or testing. The users loyal to the app continue to use it but bring up points in reviews that the experience is lackluster compared to the content. The most common/mildly serious problem here is the navigation/commenting/rating system is less than enjoyable to deal with.

As wearable technology becomes more of a part in our daily lives, we need to further assess just what the most common/mildly serious problems could be.

Wearables and their use

As we all know, wearables are devices you wear on your person. Like a phone, they will accompany you to most (if not all) places you attend during the day. This is especialy true for smartwatches. However, the use of a wearable is quite differing in that of a smartphone.

Smartphones

  • Entertainment (in multiple forms)
  • Business (able to use multiple apps in a smaller form than their pc counterparts and still have the same functionality)
  • No particular use or extremely specific intention of use (aside from the phone part, they are made to handle anything that developers can create — from games to controlling your home lighting)

Wearables

  • Streamlined features made to highly increase functionality (ie. only reading messages, viewing minimal statistics, etc.)
  • Little (to any) entertainment focus
  • Very specific use with general abilities (ie. smartwatches would provide information in its simplest form as a notification system on the wrist — a text message or weather check/alert)

Both of these devices are similar in function but wildly different in use.

Examples:

  • A person is not going to read this article on their smartwatch when they have the option to read it on their smartphone.
  • A person is not going to tie their phone to their wrist so that they can see when they get an email or text.

It is because of these different uses that we must create different experiences for these wearable devices. The problem seems to be that most see the function being the same and assume that the use is so as well — they make smaller experiences of smaller experiences of desktop experiences. When in reality, we should be desiging all 3 experiences (desktop, mobile, & wearable) differently. This isn’t news though. We know that desktop and web are separate platforms and that we should design them as such, rather than cram one onto the other — so why are wearables different? Well I’m glad you asked.

Smartphone vs. Wearable — Faults

As designers, our designs have consequences — whether its a bad user experience or a loss in sales, there is a consequence. However, wearables have furthered the margin for error and substantially the margin for consequences.

I’m sure most of you have been thinking throughout the article that there are plenty of consequences that are already associated with smartphones, even the ones I am about to list. Consequences such as a person driving off the road and injuring another person because they were trying to check their phone. And while these are definitely prevalent in today’s use, a large portion of this is made available by the user of the device.

For example: you can try and minimize the amount of push notifications you have to: quit annoying your users for one, or to reduce the amount of people trying to check their phone after they hear the ding while they are in their car.

While this can be narrowed down to more specific apps, the use of the device delineates that this can come down to the fault of the user because they have chosen to use their device in a manner that is not the intended context of the phone, nor would I consider it the normal environment.

The issue of the user checking their phone can be traced to their human nature to acquire information. It requires self restraint for the user to turn off their notifications/ringer/volume because staying up to date in any case (average or emergency) is a powerful temptation.

I believe the fault is more of the user in this case than the designer because the user has chosen to use their device in a situation that could easily result in very bad consequences and that the use of the phone at the time (checking facebook notifications etc. while driving) is not one intrinsic to smartphones. Smartphones were made to be much more varying and diverse in use than their wearable counterpart.

Wearable technology is made specifically for staying up to date at all times — thus, in the same scenario, were the user to be checking their wearable, it would be the fault of the designer and the user. The notification is the intrinsic essence of a wearable.

This is where things get complicated

Being that the nature of the wearable is to provide quick statistics or notifications, it makes things complicated when determining the fault. By my previous statements, it would make it the designer’s fault were a user to crash their car while checking a notification on their wearable because the use of a wearable is to check notifications rather than an all around miniature pocket computer with various capabilities and functions. How could we fault a user for doing the one thing that their wearable is meant to do?

The fault of wearables

This seems to be the problems with wearables in general. Their sole purpose is to keep a user up to date at all times. A user checking their phone for messages while driving is predominantly the fault of the user for lack of self control and ‘abuse’ of the device. But how can you abuse a device (like a wearable) by doing the exact thing it is meant to do. This seems to be the contradictory substance that resides in the very nature of wearable technology.

The fault of the designer

The designer is the singular person to create the experience. Thus, a complicated or ill-thought design is the fault of the designer.

A user crashing their car because they were looking at their smartwatch seems obviously a fault of the user. But what if they crashed their car because they couldnt quickly navigate something like google maps because the smartwatch interface was too complicated? Or what if they crashed because the text or media content was too small to view and they had to briefly squint? — resulting in further engagement in eyes off of the road.

I am sure many of you are saying to yourselves, “Well that’s their own fault for prioritizing the wearable instead of the road”. And while yes, I agree that it is their fault, it is ours too. This is where the use comes heavily into play.

Regardless of what is suggested use for the device, we must design for extremes — especially these very common and understandable extremes. If you give somebody a watch that has a built in navigator in it, where do you think they are going to use it? You would be convincing only yourself if you were to believe that they would not use it while driving. This case is also different too, because of the fact that gps is a bi-product of the app community on phones. Smartphones original selling points were not that you could now have a free gps right with you at all times. Well, for wearables like smartwatches — it is.

The main point I am trying to drive through is that the very nature of the device makes the extremes of that of a smartphone the commonplace and actual use of a wearable. And thus, we must accommodate for that extreme that is now the use. Basically, smartphone’s extremes are now basic and intrinsic to wearables and we have to design them with that in mind.

(Smartphones extremes being the abuse of the device mentioned before)

This is why designers are needed to perform at an all time high when designing wearable interfaces. We must keep in mind that the rare repercussions of yesterday’s abuse by the user are now becoming a very prevalent thing that we must look out for and prevent.

The fault of the user

I think I’ve driven home this point enough in the previous two faults that we can just say this is understood.

I dont know what to call this title

Designers, the rare consequences of yesterday are are now prevalent here today and need to be fought with design that keeps everything in mind.

Holy mackerel, its over

If you read through all of this, I salute you. If you read through all of this and understood it, then stand up and give yourself a hand because at some points I was having trouble understanding what it was saying…and I wrote it. Please leave notes/comments/whatever on here to further continue the discussion!

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