How do you solve a problem like wearables?

With today being something of an important day for wearable technology, it seems like a good time to consider what could make or break whatever (though it’s almost certainly a watch or bangle) Apple announces.

Hats off then to Amazon for launching their “Wearable Technology” store, since it gives us a handy consolidated overview of the state of the art for wearables. The first thing that’s immediately clear is that a huge range of wearables has blossomed. Consumers can choose from watches, cameras, bands, glasses, shirts bras and more when picking a wearable. Looking at the more successful ones (in terms of both sales and experience), it’s clear that the best are those that have a very specific purpose. Fitness trackers, cardio monitors and GPS devices are particularly prevalent.

Less successful are those that attempt to cram a wide variety of features and functions into a small wearable design. Chief villains here are the Samsung Gear and in particular the Gear S, that attempt to cram all of the features of a phone into a watch. I haven’t had the pleasure of using those particular devices in life, but in the interests of experimenting with wearables (and of writing this piece) I am now the proud owner of a Pebble. It’s from my experience of owning a Pebble for a couple of months that my views on wearables have crystallised. I’ll save the product review eulogy for others, but want to focus on some general principles that might define a great experience with a wearable.

So then, what makes for a good wearable?



1. They don’t duplicate functionality I already have on me

For me, this is the biggest issue with wearables. The popularisation of smartphones post-iPhone was such a revolution because it unchained computation, removing it from a desktop and situating it in our lives. Having powerful, networked computation on hand at all times provides incredible opportunities for innovation that are we’re only starting to explore.

By and large, wearable computing merely extends this power, making things that I can do with my smartphone a little more convenient. I can use my phone to make calls, access the Internet, track my fitness and take video. That smart watches are a rather more convenient way to track my fitness is a marginal gain over my phone, just as using Google Glass to check a map is. In other cases – such as making calls on a Samsung Gear S – my phone is (I suspect) a more convenient tool, with a larger display and more socially acceptable (i.e. less stupid) calling posture.

The key innovation is that we have a small, networked computer on us that can track our runs, take video or whatever else we need. The issue here is what makes a compelling mass product, and not what makes a good toy or niche product. A mass product in this case is a product with a set of very strong use cases that are therefore sufficiently appealing for ownership to become not only desired but expected. We expect people (at least those below a certain age) to own a TV, a computer and a smartphone because of their usefulness. Apple will need their wearable to achieve a similar level of success as the iPhone and iPad, both of which were the definition of mass products, so a niche wearable isn’t really sufficient.

Yet for the average user, their smartphone will most likely do just fine, thank you. Those that exercise seriously several times a week no doubt own and love some sort of running companion device, as their popularity in the Amazon wearables store suggests. Yet the typical user cannot justify purchasing an additional device to do something that their phone can already do. The same is true of Google Glass – filming video from POV perspective is cool but not worth the £1000 Explorer price tag. Now of course, much as with fitness bands many people have found some exciting uses for Google Glass, from surgeons to cyclists, but most of these are niche use cases (and indeed, most seem to exist in industry).

On the Pebble, receiving my notifications on my wrist is only marginally better than receiving them on phone. Indeed, it’s no less rude to check my watch when someone is talking to me than it is to check my phone! As a geek and UX professional, that’s fine – I’m willing to spend money on toys that make my life slightly easier. I’m not sure that the average consumer is however, and the tepid sales of wearables thus far (and particularly of smart watches) would seem to support this feeling.

So, wearables need to do something that our phones cannot. Moreover, if we want the wearable to be a truly mass product this can’t just be a niche use case, but something that is seen as useful to everyone. I’m not sure fitness is that use case – Silicon Valley yuppies might love to track their runs and yoga sessions but how is being reminded of their sedentary ways desirable to the couch potato? So only one of those two consumers might purchase a wearable that was focused on fitness, yet both would get a smartphone

This is the first quandary Apple faces when they launch their watch – they need to make something both original and compelling. Admittedly, the same was often said of the iPad when it launched. Then, the criticism was often that it’s “just” a large iPhone, but the marginal gain of increased screen size led to very different experiences than the iPhone and thus to a successful product. It also helps that Apple is very good at generating demand as much through brand and reputation as through experience; an Apple wearable might become popular as much as a social signifier of wealth than as a useful tool. Still, I feel Apple’s wearable will need to bring something new to the table if it’s going to replicate the success of the iOS devices.

The other hypothesised focus of the device – contactless payments – could be just the novel use it needs. Another could be using it in a similar fashion to the Myo Armband to control home automation with gestures, something my phone certainly couldn’t do. A watch with fitness and notifications doesn’t really seem sufficient.



2. Or, they do duplicate functionality but do it so much better

Of course, Apple could in theory have created such a compelling and usable experience that even though it’s just accessing my phone’s functionality the average consumer would find one helpful. For instance, perhaps it makes calling someone so quick, easy and natural that I just have to get one. It would need to be a pretty spectacular experience for the typical consumer to buy a watch to go with the phone, tablet and desktop that they already have, and previous attempts at the “watch that does everything” do not make me hold out much hope for this avenue.



3. They have shallow (or no) menus

The second I have to start rooting around in menus to access apps on my Pebble I may as well just get my phone out. It takes the same amount of time to access the information and the larger screen does a better job of it. Google Glass’s menu is similarly clunky, and all wearables have a small (or even no) display. Wearables work best when they display small, discrete packets of information, or just passively perform a function (such as monitoring my health). Otherwise, the user may as well just use their phone, and the same problem with redundancy as outlined in point 1 returns.



4. They’re cheap, at least in relation to our phones

So I get that Google Glass is only as expensive as it is due to its bizarre public beta “Explorer” programme, but even the ~$250 for the Moto 360 feels like a lot for another device users to carry around. Yes, that isn’t a huge amount for a high-end timepiece, but again the issue is with mass appeal. Consumers have already laid down money for a phone and possibly also for a tablet; they can’t be expected to spend the same sort of money ad infinitum on each new wearable.

The future for wearables seems to me to be a constellation of cheap, simple devices that all link to our phone. The phone acts as a hub, with each wearable performing a few simple functions and offloading much of their interface to the phone, which can do a better job of settings screens etc. If we are to have smart watches, glasses, pendants, shoes and whatnot then the premium for each must be reasonably low.

By “reasonably low” this may not mean £5 but they should at least be cheap in relation to our phones. The likes of the Pebble and the Fuelband have sold quite well priced at ~£100-130; this isn’t cheap, but in relation to high-end smartphones this is acceptable. For the lower end of the market, where consumers will only spend that on their phone itself, the price of entry will need to be even cheaper before they join.

Apple’s business model is of course centred on pricing a premium for its devices, but I’d suspect there’s only so much they charge for their watch if it is to become successful, and that £150 may be the limit (at least for an entry model).



5. Either they are unobtrusive or are beautiful (or both!)

With wearable technology comes the spectre of fashion. Either your tech needs to look good or it should be unobtrusive. Jawbone and FitBit bands are unobtrusive – as small bands they fade into the background and are easily forgotten.

Watches are not quite so forgettable, and ensuring they are beautiful is paramount. Early attempts to do so (such as the Pebble Steel) were clumsy, with recent attempts like the Moto 360 (270?) and LG G Watch R being rather better. The only truly beautiful wearable yet however is the Withings Activitè, which is a great looking watch that just happens to be a fitness tracker. In this way, it is both beautiful and unobtrusive, with the watch quietly performing a useful function and the interface left to the phone, where it should be.

The other headache is how do you accommodate the huge variety of tastes? Making a wearable device look good is one problem, making it look good to everyone is a much bigger issue. Most modern smart watches are far larger than the typical women’s watch, whilst everyone has their own preference for a leather or a metal strap. Ideally, a wearable needs to come in a range of flavours to appeal to a range of tastes, so we might expect more than one device being announced later today.



6. They are forgettable

Again, in the future we may have a constellation of devices connecting to our phone. Grappling with my Pebble to make it connect to my iPhone, whilst a thankfully rare occurrence, is deeply tedious. Once I’ve set up my wearable, it should just sit there, with no faffing about connecting, syncing or managing it. We have enough grief managing our phones, and I’m sure users have little appetite to magnify this grief.



7. They don’t need to be charged very often

As John Gruber noted (though I can’t for the life of me find the post), one of the things about modern smartphones that’ll we’ll look back on in 20 years and laugh at is charging. “You had to charge them every day!?” our kids will say incredulously. Keeping our smartphones (and possibly our tablets too) charged is enough of a chore that no one wants to magnify this pain.

Where wearables have failed so far is that many, especially those with LCD screens, have unacceptably short battery lives. Google Glass squeezes just a few hours of life from its battery, whilst most smart watches need to be charged at least once a day, if not twice. Juggling the charging of devices that add incremental functionality to our phones is a recipe for those devices being left at home, uncharged and unloved, whilst the user returns to just using their phone.

The Pebble, for all its faults, gets this right – due to using a low-power E-Paper screen it gets around a week of battery life on a single charge, meaning I don’t have to constantly worry about managing another battery.

The geeks, again, may be happy to charge their smart watches every day, but I’m not so sure the average consumer will be. For Apple’s wearable to be a successful mass product, it’ll need some pretty impressive battery life.

It’ll be interesting to see in a few hours how many of these boxes the Apple wearable ticks. It’s entirely possible that with the right Apple design magic, a “mere” watch with notifications and fitness could be a successful consumer product. However, I suspect that the first breakthrough wearable is going to have to do something quite revelatory to get us to look away from our phones, as well as meet the hygiene factors I’ve listed above. Otherwise, even as the market for wearables grows it will remain as the existing contents of the Amazon store – a constellation of niche products that serve a variety of very specific use cases, with no one all-conquering device.

And perhaps, that isn’t a bad thing. Perhaps also the real money to be made with wearables will come not from each device but from owning the platform that connects specialised, cheap devices together. Either way, it’s going to be an interesting announcement in a few hours.

MJ ParnellHow do you solve a problem like wearables?

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