Why Wearables Need to be Useful, Usable and Desirable

  Dave Coplin, author of Futures, Technology Alchemist, Human Revolutionary and Inventor of Pretentious Job Titles. Oh, and Chief Envisioning Officer for Microsoft UK.

With Mobile World Congress in full swing and with such a large portion of the headlines going to wearables - it seems an appropriate time to think about the explosion of these devices that we’ve been seeing over the past few months. From fitness trackers to productivity devices, it seems there’s a wearable for every occasion, hey, these days even my dog can have one if he wants one (although to be fair it doesn’t take a collection of state of the art sensors to know that at his age, his favourite pastime is just sleeping.)

So wearables are all the rage, but besides the inevitable fashion statement (look at me I can track my steps and show everyone I’m on the bleeding edge of technology!) these tiny personal devices run the risk of pushing our technological patience to the brink. Nowhere is the battle for form over function more hotly contended than in this intimate space of personal computing.

At home in my office, I have a drawer which provides a brilliant reminder of the challenge that lies ahead for these devices. Unlike a normal man-drawer, this drawer is filled with my own personal technology graveyard, although, on the surface (and to my wife eyes) it’s a collection of all the technological flotsam and jetsam that I’ve accumulated over the years, to me it’s a stark reminder of how difficult it is to get things right. (And perhaps, just how costly my gadget habit can be).

Most of the devices in that drawer were purchased with much excitement and high expectations, each one of them was going to be the “next big thing” – however, almost without fail they all ended up in the technological drawer of despair because quite simply they failed to get the balance between form and function right.

For the future of wearables to be anything but fashion, they’re going to have to get really good at the basics and we, as humans, are going to have to get a lot better at using them for what they’re good for.

Any good designer will tell you there are just three simple keys to success:  Products need to be useful, usable and desirable. It sounds simple doesn’t it, but my collection of dormant, dead, unloved devices proves how hard it can be to get right.

Useful means that the product needs to serve some specific purpose and it either needs to be unique or significantly better than the other products that currently serve that purpose. Sure, getting tweets on your wrist is exciting, but if it still means you have to carry a phone around with you and worse still you still need to drag your phone out of your pocket in order to respond then I’m sorry, you’ve just failed the first test.

Being usable is the key constraint for wearables because of the extreme constraints that are a result of the sort of form factors that are required. You can’t surf the web, in the traditional sense at least, when the device has a tiny postage stamp sized display. But that doesn’t mean that these devices can’t be usable, it means that we have to come up with new ways of interacting and also new ways of using the information that change how the device could be used.

Desirable is very simply the feeling you get when you use a product or service that just engages you, it delights you. You like it so much, you want to keep on using it.

I have to say, we’re a long way from getting this right but the good news is we’re making some great progress in all three areas which fill me full of hope and also, hopefully mean I’m not going to get a bigger drawer in my home office.

A recent project from Microsoft Research gave me one of the largest glimmers of hope, harnessing the incredible power of machine learning to deliver new ways of interaction using Microsoft’s Band device.

The project essentially harnesses the power of spotting patterns in data to do a couple of incredible things, first it means that you can actually deliver a usable keyboard on a screen which is only 11 by 33 millimetres. This is the same technology that made Word Flow (the method of swiping rather than typing words the world fastest means of entering text on a virtual keyboard) and whilst this is impressive in itself, it’s really the second example which really caught my eye because it takes information and makes it accessible on a wearable form factor but actually understanding it and processing it in such a way that it can be usable, useful and desirable.

Essentially, the algorithms read your email, texts or messages and try to understand them such that you can be presented with the question or choice that you are being asked. For example, while stuck in one of my many meetings, my wife texts or emails me about whether we’re going to have pizza or curry for dinner, the algorithm understands that the content of the message is basically asking me to make a choice, so it presents the options “pizza” and “curry” – all I need to do is to select the response I want rather than just presenting me with a keyboard from which I can type my response, (and then obviously I have to cook it when I get home – the algorithms aren’t that smart (yet). )

These are just small steps, but they are incredibly important if we’re going to make these devices truly work for us and augment the technologies that are already doing so much in our every-day lives.

And besides, we have to get this right, not just because I want my drawer back, but because the real future of wearables is when we no longer have to “wear” this stuff but instead have it embedded into the world around us, and of course, under our skin.


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