Designing for Wearable Technology

An intersection of UX Design, Industrial Design, and Product Design

Sinead Kennedy
May 15, 2014 · 5 min read

Wearable technology is more than just crap on your wrist, and more than the typical rectangular screen. We are obsessed with the visual, but wearable technology is so much more than what you see. How do we design these objects, challenging the norms while still keeping the end user in mind? We’re starting to mash up user experience and industrial design to create new skill sets for this booming tech movement.

So what are you talking about?

How are we supposed to take what we know from websites and mobile apps and apply it to wearables?

Close your eyes with your phone in your hand. Seriously, do it, and ask yourself this:

What can you still do with your mobile device now that your vision is gone?

You can talk to Siri, or maybe you can feel the vibrations of incoming messages. These technologies, the ones that are already utilizing sound and touch, have the potential to be much more valuable to wearables than vision. By focusing too much on the visual, we’re limiting ourselves in our designs. But by blocking out our sight, we open up the possibility to utilize our other senses and create an immersive product. (Check out this TED Talk yet on designing for all 5 senses)

What is Wearable Tech?

We know that strapping an iPhone to your wrist does not make it wearable technology. You wouldn’t really want the device to have the full functionality of an iPhone, you would actually want it to have a completely different functionality.

The reality is that smart watches aren’t a very exciting new medium, because smart watches aren’t going to give you much of an advantage over smart phones—it’s more of a mobile companion device focused on notifications. As is the case with wrist-based fitness trackers, there’s essentially nothing there you couldn’t just do with your smartphone.

It’s not bad design, it’s just boring design. We need to keep going back to our scope of senses and understand what else we can incorporate as designers who refuse to be mundane.

Somewhat of a side note, but I think most fitness trackers’ lack of useful user interaction or unique functionalities renders them worthless.

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There. I said it.

Designing Without the Visual

While at SXSW this year, I went to a workshop on sensory UX with @Acuity_Design. We were given the task of communicating a sentence to one another with only touch (our skin can detect three sensations: pain, pressure, and temperature).

A team of three people directed my hands to different recognizable shapes and materials. As I spoke out loud as to what I believed they were trying to tell me, there was little they could do to respond to my thought process.

At one point, they took my hand to form a “thumbs up,” and while it was obvious to everyone watching that they were telling me I had just said one of the correct words, to me it just felt like I should now be saying the word “like.”

Taking ourselves outside of the visual-rules-all world and into one in which we were challenged to communicate in new ways made it apparent that what we think is obvious is not in fact obvious when we are lacking our visual faculties. And this was all with a small group of people, never mind designing for mass users.

Agreed Meanings

Let’s try out an example of designing for wearables. Our language, and not just verbal, builds on mutual agreements to meaning. And when designing for wearable technology, it’s important to be looking at agreed meanings.

For example, a door. What are the gestures, symbols, words that represent “door” and how do they relate to each other? I might swing my arm to gesture a door opening, draw some rectangles with a small circle that look like an ajar door with a doorknob, or say the word “enter.”

It’s important to capture this information to make all of this instinctive for the user when interacting with the device. In this case, the device would be something like Nymi, allowing you to produce specific gestures to take control of your devices.

The most important criterion for these devices is that the interactions feel very intuitive, and we can achieve this by understanding our agreed meanings. And as always, the greater the sensory engagement, the stronger the recall.

The ultimate goal of wearable technology is embodiment.

This is a biggie. I’ll give you an example: Think about your phone again for a minute. Think about that one time (or maybe 5 times) it was misplaced or stolen, and how absolutely lost you felt. That panic, that feeling of losing connection, losing your communication channels and feeling as if a small piece of you was missing. You had to get your phone back, and ASAP. Impressively, the product has made it to a place of embodiment. Your phone has become an extension of yourself.

That experience of the user feeling as if the product is an extended part of her/himself is the ultimate goal when designing wearables.

We’re ready for wearable tech.

The tech is already here; we have what we need to design whatever it is our minds come up with, and the body real estate has opened up beyond the wrist.

With great user experience design, we’re already changing the way in which people are interacting with technology. The challenging parts are the senses, emotion, and social connection; and getting the thinking process out of that oh-so-comfortable box and into an innovative space.

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Too comfy thinking inside the box

Improving the interactions or user experience is still a new frontier. As wearables find their way into the consumer mainstream, one of the greatest challenges will be bridging the gap between the aesthetics and the functional, a challenge UX Designers are already very familiar with. It’s a complex frontier that will require marrying UX and industrial design.

As we progress in the wearable and internet of things movements, we’ll be able to create a new normalcy for people with intuitive products and, most importantly, make existing services suck less. And isn’t that always the goal when we design, regardless of the medium?

The future of wearable technology may be exciting, but I’m not sure we’ve really opened our minds up to the real possibilities in UX and industrial design out there. Once we do, we’ll really be able to design products that are making life a little easier, a little healthier, and a little more graceful.

Interfaces & Interactions

Random ideas on user interface & interaction design.

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