HCI & Design at UW
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HCI & Design at UW

Wearables of 2025

Designing Personal Informatics for a broader audience

A Brief History of Wearable Technology

Wearable technology has been around for centuries. Step tracking traces back to Leonardo da Vinci, who designed a waist-worn mechanical contraption that responded to walking. Step tracking received widespread use with the manpo‑kei (万歩計, literally the “10,000 steps meter”), developed in Japan in 1965. These pedometers relied on mechanical methods and did not explicitly support people in reflecting on historical data.

The Rise of Personal Informatics

The term Personal Informatics was first coined by Ian Li and his colleagues in 2010 as “a class of applications to help people collect and reflect on personal information”. At the time, these applications were growing in popularity, in the form of both research prototypes and commercial products (such as the Nike+). Some self-tracking pioneers even took to designing hardware to record every aspect of their lives.

Wearables in 2015

Wearable technology has now reached a critical mass, and is no longer strictly for technology-focused enthusiasts. Major corporations such as Apple, Garmin, Intel, Microsoft, and Samsung have all announced or released consumer wearable bands and watches that incorporate a variety of personal informatics features. Personal informatics has also spread to new tracking domains, with niche products like Vessyl and Hapi Fork. People commonly use multiple wearable devices over time, and they buy new devices (when they find new data they want to track and/or their devices break or are lost).

These characteristics will soon stop describing the “average” self-tracker.

Personal informatics tools are seeing wide adoption, but critics argue that they do not meet the needs of important groups, including those who “need them most”. To support a broader audience, we must explore, understand, and design around a wider set of human experiences.

CC-BY-ND Carlos Hergueta

Designing for the Future

There are many demographic factors that should influence design in personal informatics. The following are some areas that offer opportunities for future research and design. Consider them to be examples of problems blocking widespread adoption of personal informatics tools, not a comprehensive list of the areas that we should explore.

Gender and Sex

Apple HealthKit is pitched as being able to track “all of your metrics you’re most interested in” but launched without the ability to track menstrual cycles. Hip worn sensors cannot be clipped to all outfits, such as dresses (the suggested workarounds of clipping the sensor to a bra strap or undergarment are not ideal, as they limit access to the display). Most fitness bands and smartwatches are large and bulky, ill-suited for small wrists.


Current wearable devices are aimed at young to middle-aged adults in their advertising, functionality, industrial design, and companion app design. There are significant potential benefits to explicitly targeting people outside of this age range. Childhood obesity and activity levels are linked to negative health effects later in life. Child‑appropriate wearables could provide both parents and medical professionals insight into a child’s activity levels, as well as noteworthy patterns affecting activity. Rich activity data coupled with clear recommendations could assist parents in monitoring their child’s health, as well as providing a more concrete way for older children (preteens and teenagers) to take ownership of their own health.

Education Level

The current trend in personal informatics is to present data in relatively raw, unprocessed form. The majority of commercial apps present predetermined metrics (steps taken, calories burned, minutes exercised) paired with abstract summary metrics (such as Fitbit’s Activity Score and Nike+’s Fuelpoints). Longitudinal data is presented in graph form, which assumes a certain level of graph literacy. Even those who are confident in their ability to read graphs are likely to be misinterpreting their data and acting on erroneous conclusions. Statistical insights, or lack thereof, should be clearly called out to help people make meaningful decisions. If wearables are to be useful to more people, the information that they collect must be analyzed and presented such that it is understandable and actionable to all of those people.

Geography, Context, and Environment

The standard pedometer goal of 10,000 steps per day might be wholly unrealistic on the streets of suburban Los Angeles, but achievable as a mere matter of routine by someone who commutes by walking in the dense urban downtown of Seoul. Devices should take geographic context into account (urban, suburban, rural) and recommend goals and supplementary activities that are appropriate. The benefits of wearable devices are undermined when they encourage risky behaviors or set users up to fail their goals.

Race, Culture, and Socioeconomic Status

Though products like Apple Watch are starting to introduce more variation, many current wearable devices are available in limited colors and styles. They largely adhere to a specific upper-middle class, tech‑friendly sensibility. These devices are identifiers for a specific subculture, and therefore exclusive of other subcultures. The industrial design of existing devices conforms to the values of an outspoken tech-forward subculture: sleek, minimalist, largely monochromatic, and LED-laden.

Family Status

For single adults, data sharing is largely focused on competition and casual socialization. Data reporting tools generally assume that self-trackers have complete autonomy over their data. These tools promote casual social sharing of data by making it easy to share short, compressed metrics. Showing a friend how many steps you’ve walked this week is simple, but reviewing and sharing detailed behavioral data and health metrics are largely unsolved design challenges.

Moving Forward

Answering the preceding questions is the first step in creating personal informatics tools that impact a far greater population, but that isn’t all that we need to do to successfully design for a broader audience. Inclusivity is not a checklist.

How can we encourage adoption of personal informatics devices and tools?

How can we help everyone who adopts these tools benefit from them?



Stories about research and teaching from the Design Use Build group at the University of Washington. http://dub.uw.edu

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Nikki Lee

Designer, engineer, maker-of-things. Product manager building a better government at 18F.