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Designing for Humans: The Challenge of Workplace Wearables

Ready or not, wearables are here. Most of us are already familiar with Apple Watch, Fitbit, Jawbone, and the temporarily-unavailable-to-consumers Google Glass, but those are just the tip of the iceberg.

Jun 7, 2016 · 10 min read

Wearables are cropping up all over the place, with a wealth of uses — from meditation brain-training devices like Muse to wearables for our furry friends, like Nuzzle, which monitors the whereabouts and health of our pets. Yes, wearables have arrived and they’re making their presence felt in our homes and, increasingly, our workplaces.

In its Worldwide Quarterly Wearable Device Tracker, the International Data Corporation (IDC)’s numbers indicated that 101 million wearable devices will ship in 2016, rising to 155 million by 2019. As wearables grow in scope and ambition, we can now begin asking questions about their future: questions about privacy, efficacy, data and design. Who will build these devices? How? And what will their impact be in the workplace?

With these issues in mind, we turn our focus to the impact wearables could have on us as designers, on our process, and of course, on the work itself.

Wearables in the workplace

A recent Rackspace study showed that employees who wore devices such as brain activity sensors, motion monitors, and posture coaches not only showed an increase in productivity, but also showed an increase in their job satisfaction levels over a three-week period. The benefits are mutual and compelling: an increase in net margins for the employer and improved mental and physical health for employees. With results like those, it’s easy to see why the trend is becoming the norm, and it’s no wonder wearables have started to infiltrate our workplaces as well as our homes.

Increasingly, companies that offer wellness programs such as mindfulness workshops, in-house yoga, and healthy snacks are looking to wearables as another benefit to offer employees as a means of fostering well-being and productivity. After all, a healthy employee is a happier and more productive one, right?

Some companies have already implemented wearable devices to supplement their existing corporate wellness programs. BP offers employees the opportunity to cut $1200 from their annual insurance bill by earning points through a Fitbit tracking program. Target and Barclays also offer Fitbit-related initiatives as part of corporate wellness programs. In this way, companies hope to lower their health-related costs and foster employee involvement and engagement; the use of fitness trackers can benefit both employees’ waistlines and the company’s bottom line.

But wearables can go beyond “wellness” applications for employees — they can change the way they work. Take SmartCap, for example: a baseball cap that measures brain waves to monitor fatigue, used by drivers and miners. Or HyGreen and Biovigil, each of which aim to improve hand-washing among hospital employees by monitoring hand hygiene. The impact of wearable devices in the workplace could be staggering and the scope of our responsibility as designers equally so.

Wearables and the design process

When designing the software that accompanies a wearable — be it for a smartwatch, glasses, or something else entirely — there are a number of new considerations to take into account. First and foremost, we need to take into account new screens (or lack thereof) and new contexts at every stage of our process.

As most of us know, a design project can be structured into four key stages (or derivatives thereof, depending on your chosen design thinking framework): discovery, definition, production, and analysis. Typically, before we even begin designing, we conduct research to explore user needs. As we enter into the world of wearables, the discovery stage will be particularly critical. Discovery will take on a whole new dimension as we strive to fully understand user needs in the new arena of wearable devices.

Understanding user needs

Designers will not only be researching user needs in terms of tasks, but also in terms of device and context — a practice that responsive design has already kickstarted. As with mobile, design will inevitably be impacted by the size of the screen and its ability to provide notifications. Unlike mobile, however, the variations on the images and sound cues available, among other things, could be dramatically different or even non-existent. What do we do in the instances where there is no screen, and we have to rely on sound or vibration?

We won’t just be asking “Which task is the user completing?”, we’ll also be asking, “Which information is the wearable displaying, if any?” Are users reading output from the device on a desktop later on? Most mobile users complete their functions using their phones, but wearables won’t necessarily follow that trend, and when they don’t, knowing the context of where the user is becomes even more vital.

When contemplating wearables in the workplace, consider that employees will be using them — for reminders and alerts, or during sales meetings for vital updates — in a variety of contexts and certain forms of interaction and notification may not be feasible or desirable. They might be using it hands-free (a headset or glasses, for example) or there may need to be a more tactile component to the device (such as a touch enabled wrist-band).

Furthermore, devices in the office will need to be more discreet with their alerts and will likely require more complex security considerations as they integrate with existing systems within organizations. Understanding the task requirements in concert with workplace limitations — such as private networks with security barriers and shared spaces with noise and privacy concerns — will make the discovery process more complicated and complex. And as we ask these questions, the broad nature of them means it will be critical for companies to support their designers’ learning by providing hands-on access to new wearable devices, as well as time to understand the specific challenges they pose.

Testing to find answers

As we start to implement our learning into the creation of wearable devices, the testing process will also shift. Users who have varying degrees of experience (or perhaps no experience at all) with the new devices we’re designing for will become increasingly important to our testing process. This may prove challenging in the short term, as we face a potentially smaller pool of users and resulting noisy or unreliable data, but will be imperative to helping us uncover and navigate the many questions that arise once our designs are released into the real world of offices and employees.

And there will be questions — important ones — that companies themselves will have to answer: What does success look like for the company? Moreover, what does success look like for the employees, the ones who will actually be committing to the wearable itself? Logistical challenges such as where is the data stored, who will have access to it, and how is it shared (if at all) must be thought through. And what happens to the data once an employee leaves the company? All of these will need to be resolved with a nuanced understanding of the needs, desired outcomes, and feasibility of each new device’s operations.

For companies that adopt wearables like Fitbit into their wellness programs, it’s likely that they will need dashboards designed to collect and analyse the data to support the company’s continued investment, and this too will raise some important questions — most notably, given that the information collected is health-related and potentially sensitive, who will it ultimately belong to?

Especially when it comes to data which involves health and well-being, there are major privacy challenges when we bring wearable devices into the workplace. To make this transition smooth and ensure employees — the frontline users of these devices — are protected, we must take into account not just the past and the present, but the future and the legacy of a design, as well as its immediate personal impact.

Designing with data: The human aspect and finding the balance

Wearables generate huge amounts of data per individual. When we scale this across a department, and then across a company, that data can quickly become an overwhelming design challenge.

If we’re creating a dashboard for employee health data, for example, we have to take into account how that data is interpreted and analyzed before designing for its display. This necessitates an entirely new kind of thinking that will challenge those not used to designing for large-scale data.

There is a difficult balance to strike here. While we build scalable systems that clearly represent data, we need to remain aware of that data’s humanity. After all, as designers and UX professionals, our main responsibility is to the user: to remain empathetic and to understand their needs and worries. And when the user is very specifically understood in the context of being an employee, those worries become magnified as they (and we) think through the potential impact on their careers and status as workers.

This is especially true when dealing with sensitive health-related data. It impacts the research process, necessitating difficult but mandatory conversations with stakeholders and users. Would an employee’s manager have access to the research information? What about the data gathered once the device is implemented? Who controls information sharing? Who controls when information is shared (during or outside work hours)? And finally, if the data collected indicates that an employee is unhealthy or, in an extreme case, reveals a previously unknown health condition, what is the responsibility of the employer to bring that information to light?

All of these questions have implications on user safety, agency, and responsibility and this work lies at the crossroads of technology and humanity. When the interfaces we build connect companies to their employees with their own data as the touchpoint, it’s our responsibility to shape this experience in a thoughtful manner.

Designing for happiness and health

Human-centred design is a central part of our approach. It takes on increased importance when we design for things that promote health, happiness, and become an extension of our users’ bodies while also impacting their work lives. The moment we are challenged to positively affect someone’s emotional and physical well-being with our design, the rubber hits the proverbial road.

Therefore, when designing for a wearable it will be essential to be even more culturally sensitive, more inclusive, and more empathetic than we’re already inclined to be. It will require even more research and understanding, with an open mind to discovery and learning. This research is imperative and companies and agencies will need to allow time for it, lest the design and development of the software fall short.

The products we design can and will collect sensitive data about an individual, from heart rates, brain waves and activity levels, to eating and sleeping patterns. By prioritizing certain kinds of data over others and choosing to display them in particular ways, we inform the way the output is interpreted. These choices inform wellbeing and health and will have far-reaching impacts on employees that our designs must be cognizant of.

As a result, we need to be aware of the impact of our decisions and assumptions. We’ll need to recognize individuality as much as possible with considerations like employee-set permissions and allowances for physical differences and personal beliefs, while ensuring anonymity when appropriate.

Designing across cultures

As a result, we need to acknowledge the necessity of diversity in design. Designers must consider cultural differences (such as a cultural preference for individualism over collectivism) that will affect the ways a user interacts with a tool or interprets information.

For example, employees from individualist cultures may respond better to competitive workplace wellness programs using wearable devices for tracking, while others may not. In certain cultures, a deep respect is afforded to hierarchy — would users in these companies feel less comfortable opting out of a wearable program? And what of companies that have distributed offices across North America, Europe, and the Pacific Rim, all of which aren’t just presented with cultural challenges, but linguistic ones as well? How do language and semantics affect the usability of the user interface? These are all challenges that must be factored into our design and process.

Thus, our responsibility isn’t just a delightful user experience, but one that is clear and considerate for a huge variety of ages, cultures, and approaches.


As we can see, the design challenges with wearables are huge. They fundamentally change how we approach discovering user needs and laying the foundation of our work. Human-centred design demands an understanding of those we’re designing for, and nowhere will that be more true than in the design of wearables, their software, and the interfaces which display their data in the workplace context.

The questions raised — around privacy, data, scale, and the creation of design systems — extend beyond our expertise as designers of any specialty. But this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In fact, it’s an exciting challenge. Creating interfaces which treat employee data with respect while also providing the company with a return on investment is a difficult balance to strike and will involve interdisciplinary and inter-industry collaboration.

Designers can learn from data analysts, and data analysts can learn the intricacies of human-centred design and research. Interaction designers will need to understand how a wearable fits into a user’s workplace, home, and everyday life, as well as their culture and self-perception. Those same designers will then need to collaborate with developers and hardware engineers on full design systems which flexibly (but cautiously) represent large amounts of data and keep it safe. It won’t just change our process, but revolutionize it, from first principles and foundations all the way up. And we can’t wait.

Hoi-En Tang is an Interaction Designer at Myplanet, based in Vancouver. When not working in two places at once, she spends her downtime running the seawall, climbing rocks, and scheming her next diving trip. She also enjoys red wine, rap, and living room dance parties, sometimes — even preferably — all at the same time.

Ivana McConnell is a UX/UI Designer at Customer.IO, based in Vancouver. She arrived there via Bosnia, Croatia, and Scotland, and previously made a living as a rock climbing instructor, video game tester, and freelance designer. When not working, she spends time with her family searching for good eats, good coffee, and nice typography.

This is their first collaboration and given their mutual interest in culture, identity, design, and the tasty pairing of happy hour beer and oysters, they foresee more joint articles in the near future.

Have you entered this brave new world of designing yet? Any tips or advice to share? We’d love to hear from you — or maybe even hire you. Share your thoughts in the comments and/or apply to our one of our open positions.

Myplanet Musings

Thoughts, ideas, insights, and more from the Myplanet team.


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We're a software studio. We make smarter interfaces for the workplace.

Myplanet Musings

Thoughts, ideas, insights, and more from the Myplanet team.

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