How Wearables Are Inviting Us to Rethink UX
How many times a day would you say that you reach out for your smartphone to answer a message, check the time look up a song or search for directions?
13:51 30 December 2019
Hundreds? Please stop me if you think I’m exaggerating, though I sense you won’t. That’s because we’ve become so incredibly accustomed to checking our phones all the time that we might have lost sight of how automatic and frequent this habit actually is.
Yet, for something so incredibly present in our daily lives, smartphones offer a highly frictional interaction. Having to reach down your pocket or purse to see what’s a notification about? We can do better than that! And, in fact, we are already doing it, thanks to the rise of wearables.
Smartwatches and fitness trackers lead the way with a new kind of interaction that offers less friction than the smartphone. Today, you can read a message at a glance or change your music with a tap on your wrist. This comes to show how wearables aren’t just fashionable items of technology - they are disruptors for the user experience (UX).
That’s not all. Even when the wearables market has been steadily increasing in the past years, there’s a lot of room for growth. With a penetration of only 5.9%, there’s a lot of markets to be conquered. How does the wearable industry win them over? By having UX designers work next to the .NET developers that make the wearable apps to make interactions even more frictionless. Here are some of the ways in which wearables are inviting us to reshape UX.
Wearable UX is All About Microinteractions
Google has been talking about micro-moments for years now but, for many, the true meaning of that is only becoming clear now. It’s true that the Mountain View company uses micro-moments when discussing marketing and fleeting consumer intent but I think it can be applied in all kinds of interactions.
Or how else would you call the interaction in which you glance at your Fitbit to monitor your heart rate? It only takes a fraction of a second, so it definitely is a micro-moment. And that kind of flash interaction requires a different approach, UX wise.
Wearables aren’t designed as a technology with which you’ll spend a whole lot of time. The Apple Watch, Fitbit, Microsoft HoloLens, and so on - they all are things you’ll only use at specific times. The briefness of the interaction limits the UX possibilities, which relies more on instinct than on conveying information. Rather than showing numbers, words, and data, wearables need to display more digestible information, from colors and shapes to sounds and haptic feedback.
Since we’ll be wearing these devices all the time, UX needs to be unobtrusive but also frictionless and useful on demand. It’s a delicate balance that can break on any second and that will divide the successful wearables from the failures.
There Can’t Be a One-Size-Fits-All UX
Though most people instantaneously associate wearables with Apple Watches and Fitbits, there are plenty more device types. Sure, fitness trackers and smartwatches might be very popular, but there also are EEG headbands, sunglasses, VR helmets, headphones, and even clothes. All of them pose a challenge to UX designers, as they offer radically different experiences, even in products of the same categories.
That means that wearable UX will need to be different for each device if it wants to be successful. Think of a pair of smart sunglasses. How it shows relevant data without getting in the way will be key for its UX but it will also differ wildly from the way in which a headphone will present the same data.
What’s more, even when working on smart sunglasses alone, UX designers will need to consider the possibility of them being of different sizes and shapes. This, in turn, can affect the UX itself, reason why UX designers need to come up with an experience that is highly flexible to adapt to diverse devices.
This applies to all types of wearables, as they will surely be very different from one another. We’re going to wear them in different parts of the body, using them differently according to our tastes, and choosing the ones that better adapt to ourselves. In that sense, UX is about to become more fluid and customizable.
UX for Wearables Will Need to Go Beyond Interactions
Don’t be fooled by the “tech” in “wearable tech.” Though wearables are devices, they are more than just pieces of technology - they are fashion statements. Since they’ll be things we’ll be wearing a lot, they need to be stylish, appealing, and diverse. Thus, we’ll have to start looking at them as if they were clothes: they’ll need to come in different models, colors, shapes, and so on.
This illustrates something UX designers will have to grapple with, and that’s the fact that wearable UX will have to take other things into consideration. Fashion comes as the most obvious one, as people won’t use an eye patch as if it was fashionable (right, Xybernaut Poma?). So, UX will also have to worry about the looks of their devices, simply because consumers will worry about it too.
However, things don’t end in fashion. There’s an ethical component there as well. Technically, we would all love for our technology to make our lives easier. Yet, developers don’t always aim for that, as they call it a day when the product does something right, regardless of how it does it. With the increased focus on user experience, they can’t get away with that anymore - and that will only deepen with wearables.
Think of it like this. You could use a pair of smart sunglasses to color the direction you have to take to get to a bar. But this could get intrusive pretty quickly and you could end up paying less attention to your surroundings. Is this a fair price to pay? Or maybe using these sunglasses is putting you and others in danger?
These are considerations that will evidently be a part of the UX design process when creating new wearables and enhancing existing ones.
It’s UX After All (but it isn’t)
If you google wearable UX, you’ll find a lot of articles like this one, discussing the challenges and possibilities about the upcoming wearable industry. If you’ve read a couple, chances are that you’ll find that most of them end up saying something like “after all, UX is UX, so you’ll have to go back to the basics and consider what the user wants.”
I can’t argue with that - UX is all about what the user wants. However, as any UX designer knows, users don’t always know what they want out of their interactions with technology. If that’s true with established technologies like smartphones, tablets, and websites, how can we expect they know what they want out of wearables?
And I’m not even talking about new tech developments like headphones with audio augmented reality. Let’s go back to the smart sunglasses. What’s the best way to display information there? Do you think users have the answer? It’s more likely they know what they don’t want and point out what they do want - but only once they’ve seen it.
So, yeah, sure, going to the UX basics is somewhat right, considering that you’ll always have to know about your target audience to craft a product around them. But since we’re treading new grounds with wearable tech, UX designers will have to explore, experiment, and test extensively if they want to get to an acceptable UX.
Of course, users will heavily inform that development, but UX designers will have to think that they’ll have to come up with new interactions from scratch and without any guidance other than a constant trial-and-error process.
Predictions about wearable use aren’t that optimistic. In fact, there’s an estimated growth of “only” 19 million users in the coming 5 years. How can that be? The privative cost, the absence of legal regulations, the risk of data theft, and the unresolved privacy issue are the main culprits of the market restraint.
So, we can only see UX as a piece of a bigger puzzle. However, it’s a very important one, as costs can go down, laws can get passed, and security and privacy can be improved. But the quality of the user interaction is good or it isn’t - there’s no in-between.
Thus, rethinking UX for wearables is a must if they want to conquer the huge untapped market, especially if they are to replace the oh-so-frictional habit of getting our smartphones out of our pockets hundreds of times a day.