Reflections on wearable technology

As wearable technology in all its (as yet unknown) forms becomes ubiquitous, it is interesting to reflect on practical changes this might bring to our lives – and whether it will represent a significant departure from the now decade-old smartphone generation. Having never used any wearable technology before, I was recently given a smartwatch to try out. After a week of constant use, I thought it might be interesting to look back on what I learnt and the impact of the device on my daily life.

The first thing I was surprised to note was that my smartphone ‘screen time’ was significantly reduced. This may seem counterintuitive but isn’t that surprising when you consider the frequency and variability of mobile notifications and the level of distractibility that seems to increase with screen size. As notifications come to your wrist, they can be prioritised almost instantaneously – a welcome change from the laborious pocket-extraction-swipe-to-unlock routine – with maybe only one in ten meriting an instant response. Smartphones are becoming increasingly notorious for their capacity to absorb our entire attention when in use, so any opportunity to reduce the frequency of screen checks is a welcome one – not to mention a chance to improve personal safety. 

Secondly, it quickly became clear that regular use of a smartwatch results in a more seamless integration between our physical and virtual environments – making it (to a certain extent) a low-level form of augmented reality. This trend towards a more fluid interaction with technology is something we have seen grow in our client-based projects and is really driving the development of wearables. The way our customers are using technology is constantly changing, making it more important than ever to focus on human factors and ensure we are meeting the correct stakeholder needs.

The physical design of the watch means that it moves with you and responds to you – in stark contrast to the prescribed set of actions associated with other technology such as phones, computers or tablets. The user interface (UI) design of the watch also allows features such as fitness tracking, map guidance and instant messaging to become part of the wearer’s larger everyday experience, rather than detracting from it. Using the watch to provide walking directions, for example, allows you to take in the surrounding environment – improving both your safety and the quality of your journey to a large degree.  This satisfies the craving for constant connectivity and simultaneously allows more effective engagement with the physical world – two factors that have arguably eroded one another in recent years.

Ensuring that our UIs allow for multiple possible use cases is a vital part of the product development we undertake for our clients. There are always trade-offs – for example, between navigational ease and product aesthetics – and getting the balance right can be challenging, particularly with the increasing number and variety of interconnected devices. I was pleased to see that the smartwatch has mostly avoided the fatal mistake of ‘too much too small’ in its UI design, and prevents flashy graphics overwhelming the product’s usefulness.

The final point I was glad to see was that the watch prevented my screen becoming clogged up with advertising – and I would suggest that wearables might be an important step in reclaiming the screen space we have lost to this corporate encroachment on our mobile devices. Along with many others over the past decade, I have watched with resignation as popular apps and websites have either been bought out by large corporations or forced to increase revenue through advertising. Even previously protected spaces, such as our social media feeds, have succumbed to the patently enormous potential for commercialisation and now offer us more tailored products and services for our consumption than ever before. Wearable technology, as it is currently developing, simply does not offer enough pixels for advertising companies to exploit effectively – although finding ways to effectively generate revenue on our wrists without inhibiting the user experience is surely an area ripe for innovation.

Overall, I was impressed by the changes wearable technology made to my life in just one week. But although I think this technology is worthy of the hype, I don’t think it has quite achieved the revolutionary status of the smartphone just yet. But then again, perhaps that’s a good thing.