The dirty secret of wearable technology

UK2 Group 2015 – on

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 13.09.23Hold the revolution: Wearable technology has a long way to go yet

Wearable technology is predicted to take off in the next couple of year, but there’s a problem: half the gadgets end up in a drawer after six months. So what’s the solution?

It’s official: the Apple Watch is a style item. That’s a reasonable conclusion to draw after the Apple Watch made the cover of Vogue China, a magazine which has no concern for gadgets and gives every consideration to looks. Vogue China editorial director Angelica Cheung called the Apple Watch “a pioneering piece of technology that also doubles as a highly covetable fashion accessory”.

This is essentially the one thing the wearable technology industry as a whole has yet to achieve: to be considered a good-looking piece of kit. And this is important – as the makers of the first MP3 players learned when the iPod arrived: it’s not enough to be first with a good idea, but it has to look good too. While wearable tech is predicted to kick off in the next couple of years, you’d be forgiven for maintaining a little scepticism in terms of the timing.

Because the wearable tech industry has a dirty secret: half the users lose interest in their gadget after six months. This was the conclusion of a study by Endeavour Partners, which asked over 6000 people about their wearables habits. “A surprising percentage of devices in the market first fail to achieve even short term engagement for many users, because they suffer from one or more fatal user experience flaws,” Dan Ledger, principal at Endeavour Partners, told ‘TechRepublic’.

The gadgets that did best were the ones which fulfilled a need not delivered by a smartphone, the research found. And the most common flaws found among wearables? They’re too easy to break or lose, they’re not waterproof, they’re uncomfortable to wear, the battery runs out too fast, they’re a pain to sync with your phone or computer, they deliver no real benefit, or they’re just plain ugly.

January’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) had a dozen new wearables on display, mostly wrist-based but also some interesting alternatives such as Belty (to monitor the waistline) and Ring (to control the lights in your house). But even manufacturers are struggling to work out exactly what people want from their wearable – according to ‘Geek’, Samsung is working with sales staff to pinpoint why the Galaxy Gear watch is seeing a 30% return rate to BestBuy shop locations.

The solution to the wearables conundrum may lie somewhere in the fact that this kit is a very personal thing, meaning the user not only has to derive good use from it, but they also basically have to love it. That means it has to look and feel great on the wrist, and it has to go beyond gimmicky and be genuinely useful. And these gadgets have to go one step beyond just collecting data, to actually presenting it to the user in such a way that it can inspire behavioural change.

“This is the least predictable part,” Idris Mootee, CEO of experience design firm IdeaCouture, wrote in ‘FutureLab’: “The most successful wearable would be those who can influence our behaviour as a mechanism for human behaviour change and reinforcement. The subconscious mechanisms by which a human brain forms habits are still a bit of a mystery, and this can let us down a path to come up with devising tools for changing them.”

After all, just having a bracelet informing you that you’re not sleeping properly isn’t really helpful. If gadget designers can come up with a way to empower the individual to affect change in their lives, maybe then will we have a wearable technology revolution on our hands.

Maybe the solution is to make the gadgets sentient? Sci-fi films are full of cute, chatty computer companions, so maybe we could have one which reminds us to get our 10,000 steps? In any case, the first move will probably be for wearables to get better at adjusting to the individual. Wrote Jen Quinlan in ‘Wired’: Even Furbies in 1998 could learn new things. […] Peoples’ interests evolve. Their wearables need to be able to evolve too. The single feature, fancy pedometers of today’s activity tracking market won’t sustain for much longer.”

Published by Jessica Furseth

Journalist; Londoner.