UX for Wearables and Physical Computing

by Andrew Smyk

posted on 08-22-2017

Wearables and physical computing have quickly evolved from tech fringe to mainstream consumer products and platforms, encompassing everything from smartwatches and temporary tech tattoos to virtual reality. Wearable technology has even branched off into devices for pets, with fitness trackers for dogs and cameras to monitor cats.

The user experience for wearables is influenced by the form factor and the services (both physical and digital) that govern or enhance the device. The form factor is the physical attributes (shape, color, size, weight); the components of device (recharging cables, bluetooth); and the packaging of the device. Service design is the necessary infrastructure support for devices that include mobile or web applications that provide information and support to the user.

Train With Push, a weight training wearable, features both an Athlete and Coach facing dashboard. The Push wearable guides an athlete through a set program in the Athlete dashboard, while the Coach dashboard can retrieve workout data and make modifications to an athlete’s routines or training regimens. ShockBox is a sports wearable that tells the coaching staff of a possible concussion if a hit is too hard. Notifications are sent to a smartphone and includes a SCAT (Sports Concussion Assessment Tool) with cognitive and balance assessment questions.

The Sunu Band was developed for the visually impaired, and uses sonar location to provide the wearer with spatial awareness of their surroundings. The assistive wearable has no visual interface but uses haptic feedback to provide real time information to identify doors and to help avoid collisions.

The user experience is not in the wearable itself, but in the data that feeds into a dashboard which provides the user with a meaningful snapshot of their activities. This data answers questions like: Did I achieve my steps per day goal? Have I been maintaining my activity level over a period of time? Did I sleep enough last night? How will the app celebrate my achievements? How can I check up on my pet? Supporting needs in a useful and proactive way helps create the necessary relationship between the user and the device/service. Accuracy and insight are major factors; without a connection, the user may abandon a wearable and the device will quickly end up in a junk drawer with other discarded or broken technologies.

Once the user removes the device, is there motivation to wear it again?

The demand for Snapchat’s Spectacles was partially driven by limiting supply through pop-up vending machines, but the success of this wearable lies in what they were – sunglasses first, and a camera second. Wearing sunglasses is not a new experience for people. In contrast, Google Glass required people who didn’t wear glasses to wear glasses.

Google glass had to convince people who didn’t wear glasses to wear glasses.@Spectacles are a new cool pair of shades.

Big difference.

— Des Traynor (@destraynor) December 15, 2016

Designing for Scarcity

Designing for wearables requires the designer to consider the scarcity of resources. Design constraints include screen size (if any), battery life and connectivity. Fitness trackers and smartwatches have small screen sizes and require glanceability as a core design requirement with a benchmark of interaction taking seven seconds or less.

Battery life continues to improve for wearables with more devices using BlueTooth Low-Energy (BLE) and power efficiency. Recharging the wearable is one of the major pain points for users. Poor battery life and the hassle of recharging accounts for 40% of wearer abandonment. The FitBit has a simple UX feature that makes a big difference – it proactively emails the owner when the device requires recharging. Snapchat Spectacles allows users to take about 100 Snaps per charge.

The overarching user experience problem that most wearables suffer from is the use of proprietary charging cables. The business model should based on the wearability of the device, not the cables.

Dashboards and Visualization

Aside from the form factor and function of the wearable itself, contextualizing the information through a mobile app or a dashboard is a significant design consideration. Use the same principles as when designing for a smart watch; the information needs to be glanceable and meaningful. Consider the time, location and activity. When and where is one piece of information more important for the wearer to have access to than another piece of information, and what are they doing?

The Misfit Shine rethinks the user’s information needs based on their activity. An in-app upgrade counts swim laps and tracks swim distance while the cycling app provides cadence and speed, ride time and distances. Each app is designed for the activity. Presenting similar information in different ways maximizes usefulness, relevance and context.

In Parting

Wearables still need to overcome the lack of a persuasive use case and phone tethering for data visualization. As the platforms mature and technology allows for more stand alone use, wearables will become more prevalent. Algorithms fed by user data will help create customized experiences that are prescriptive, proactive and responsive to user lifestyles and goals. What is the user doing? What activities is the user performing? Does location and proximity to other devices or places play a role in contextualizing the user experience?

Remember that wearables can also be fun! Meet Tomatan, a wearable robot that feeds you tomatoes as you run, which was created for an advertising campaign by a Japanese vegetable juice company.

Topics: Creative Inspiration & Trends, Design

Products: Creative Cloud