Design wearables that people want to use

Wearable technology has become increasingly popular with the rise of fitness trackers and smartwatches. They allow people to monitor various aspects of their daily life, including health parameters (heart rate, sleep patterns, calories burnt), workout routines and everyday reminders. More advanced devices help improve communication and even develop safe working practices by, for example, employing fall detection..

Fitness trackers and other wearables can be ideal for both die-hard athletes and more casual users. However, there are times when people, after the initial excitement passes, end up abandoned in a drawer like an unfortunate new year’s solution. We’ll look at the common reasons that draw people away from wearable technology and whether we can design wearables so that they stop being temporary gadgets and turn into engaging devices to keep and use.

Wearable electronics and keeping discipline – some history

The simplest examples of wearable technology would be pedometers that, way back to a Japanese device called “manpo-kei” – a 10 000 step meter, produced in 1965. It aimed to help people maintain their activity by walking 10 000 steps daily.

Since then, activity trackers have come a long way and have become multifunctional devices that can monitor more than just step count. Now they have even better displays and more functions, including voice commands. Their popularity has contributed to people getting more active every day. However, it might be hard to keep the newfound discipline when we’re not used to it, which is one of the reasons why wearable devices end up unused after some time.

Therefore, until recently, the regular use of a smartwatch or fitness tracker seemed more effective for those already disciplined in everyday activities. Many others stopped using them after about six months [as reported by Gartner]. We want to determine the differentiating factors between wearables and pinpoint the most common issues that may deter users from continuous use. And finally, share some insights on how to make them more appealing.

Wearable devices and accuracy

One of the most common issues when discussing wearable tech is accuracy. It depends not only on the device itself but also actually on the user. The most commonly used devices employ sensors that operate on the light. Optical sensors track the blood by illuminating the capillaries with LED light. Therefore, they need to be clean to measure correctly, for example, the heart rate.

Another thing that raises doubts in terms of accuracy is the step meter. It’s one of the most commonly used functions in wearable tech. Since these usually employ accelerometers and estimate the number of steps taken. The common problem is that step counters can count other movements of the wrists that are not necessarily made by walking. As a result, the actual step count often turns out different than the actual one because of the user’s fidgeting at the desk or their work in the kitchen.

The most elusive metric for wearable tech seems to be calorie counting. It’s also often regarded, especially among the users who take weight management to heart and want to mind what they eat. Research that compared different trackers indicated that the most accurate one, in terms of measuring calories, was still off by 27 per cent. This inaccuracy may result from the difference between bodies and how they digest foods – it’s all individual, and trackers work based on a certain standard. This algorithm won’t work for some. People love to rely on numbers regarding calories, which is why, even when elusive, the metric is still included in nearly every watch-like tracker.

Wearable technology and individual differences

One key factor that makes many wearable devices non-ideal is that they work according to a certain standard in terms of metrics and use. They cannot replace specific healthcare wearable technology regarding accuracy and measurements; it doesn’t consider individual differences. The first one is between men and women.

There are fundamental differences between men and women regarding build and health parameters. Thus, there are different norms and recommendations for a healthy heart rate, calorie intake or daily exercise.

The differences are not only limited to a specific number of calories or time spent exercising but also depend on the type of exercise and activity. Therefore, the recommended time for strength training and, for example, an aerobic workout would also differ.

Users can set up individual plans and goals in fitness apps on a smartphone that connects with the band to collect the relevant data. However, users must be well-acquainted with their bodies or reach out for professional consultation to correctly set the goals that apply to them.

When we consider all that, every human body is different and needs an individual approach to every aspect of everyday life and exercise. Since commonly sold activity trackers can only adapt to some individuals’ needs, it might result in a loss of interest after a while.

Wearable tech and insecurities

The above might be the most common and delicate reason for quitting wearables. Regular fitness trackers might draw attention to numbers that might be inadequate for the user. It may apply to more specialist devices in the healthcare industry, like implantable cardioverter defibrillators or wearable heart rate monitors. They may draw attention to the condition at all times.

It may involve some already present medical conditions (e.g. heart risk patients) and anxiety connected with being constantly reminded of their issue. In such cases, inaccuracies may lead to unnecessary contact with emergency services due to increased heart rate metrics. On the one hand, it might assist public health systems in helping recognise and track early signs of underlying health issues.

Even for an average healthy person, using wearable technology might not be precisely just sheer encouragement. Wearable technologies give us insight into a range of information about our health data. Data collected via the wearable might be a valuable resource for someone with a specified goal and a good understanding of their body and physical capabilities.

On the other hand, a large amount of data collected and displayed on the tracker may feel overwhelming, especially when the user is still new to the concept and needs better insights into their body and health. In turn, it may lead to anxiety, overexercising and guilt if the user doesn’t meet their goals. When we add the discrepancies in the measurement accuracy, it may lead to overreacting and causing false health alarms when the heart rate goes slightly above or below the recommended healthy threshold.

Another thing that may influence the self-esteem of a wearable technology user is the feedback they get from the wearable or the related smartphone app. People respond better to positive feedback and constructive, motivating critique rather than negative communication. Some health apps that collect data from fitness trackers tend to lean towards sending a negative message before moving towards motivation. In such cases, the overall result might be discouragement from using the system entirely.

Wearable technology and disabilities

There’s one aspect of life frequently overlooked by the producers of the most popular activity trackers, namely, disabilities. Some lighter disabilities don’t necessarily require adjustments in wearable technology. However, severe cases like missing limbs or the necessity to use a wheelchair might make using a wearable significantly more difficult, at times even pointless.

In such cases, the capabilities of such technologies to track everything they need might be limited. After all, a person using a wheelchair won’t benefit from counting steps. There’s also a limited number of relevant activities they can detect on the wearable. There are still some useful functions like a heart rate or sleep monitor. However, the tracker’s main “fitness” aspect becomes largely irrelevant.

Wearable technology and paid subscriptions

One aspect consumers prefer to avoid is paid subscriptions. Most fitness trackers are usually a one-time payment with a free downloadable app. Other wearables involve paid subscriptions for more advanced features that casual users don’t necessarily need. However, for example, Fitbit, Oura or Amazon require subscriptions (more or less expensive) for functions that seem necessary and users want to have for free, like full access to the data, more insights and guided workouts.

There are times when those more advanced trackers can be a better fit for particular users in terms of accuracy and other features. However, paying extra for necessary features on top of an already not the cheapest wearable might feel excessive, thus discouraging them from continuous use, especially when the budget might be tighter.

In the end, paid subscriptions may be okay, and there’s no need to eliminate them. The important thing is that they should cover more advanced features for the professionals, not basics, that could be helpful to everyone.

Design and form of the wearables

Most popular wearables look like a watch or a band with watch-like displays. Larger screens offer a range of monitoring options users can access without the need to use their phones, which is helpful. However, some consumers already have a favourite watch they like wearing, so they don’t want an extra one to have the ability to track their exercise and lifestyle.

This trend is slowly reversing, though, as there are now trackers in the form of a bracelet (e.g. Jawbone Up) or ring (e.g. Oura). It allows the consumer to choose a tracker they want without the need to sacrifice their style choices. Those trackers rely heavily on a mobile device since it’s the only way to display the collected data.

We can only hope that the development of smart and functional wearable technology will continue progressing to reach broader audiences and encourage consumers to track their lifestyles and reach individual goals.

Wearable technology and complexity

The final point that may decide the attitude towards using a wearable is the complexity of data. Casual users might not need that level of different features and aspects of monitoring. The number of different types of measurements might feel overwhelming. Everyday fitness is not that complicated.

Wearable technology has become more advanced, and modern wearables offer a more comprehensive range of functions like voice commands and safety advice and help control heart rate. However, with complexity may come confusion. Some consumers may even find some options redundant and prefer them dropped for other benefits, like better accuracy or longer battery life. People of different ages also have different needs; sometimes, simple is better.

A wearable device people would love to use

Since we broke down some of the most common problems with wearable technology that may discourage users from continuous usage. It is impossible to create an ideal one. However, we can look into a few ideas and new opportunities that may make them more enjoyable and encouraging to keep the consumers hooked.

Less stress, more fun

When we consider typical fitness trackers, they don’t seem much fun. They provide users with raw data without extra effort. There might be a few things to improve the state of things in a few simple ways.

Naturally, for die-hard athletes and fitness enthusiasts, raw data is what they need, and they know what they want. Thus, they’ll stick to using a fitness tracker once they get it. However, for some more casual users or novices to monitor their lifestyle regularly, this might be boring.

Wearable technology could employ gamification – a system of making it more of a game with fun challenges and rewards. It could involve small tasks and milestones to engage regular movement in a more sedentary lifestyle. Wearable devices can reward the user with positive feedback and insights about the progress, no matter how small. Little steps can encourage people to keep going, as it would require less effort.

Another way to make the experience less stressful would be to avoid making the consumers too self-conscious about their insecurities and issues, especially for healthcare patients who must use the more specialised medical wearable gear. Wearables could employ a more positive tone of alerts and reminders to focus on addressing the immediate problem neutrally yet effectively with a more positive-sounding prompt.

A great example of both the small steps and positive approach, as well as gamification, can be found in the language learning application Duolingo – it’s well worth analysing how they gamify the tedious language learning experience on multiple levels.

Personalisation and small steps over big leaps

For a beginner enthusiast of wearable technology, setting specific goals might be challenging, especially if their lifestyle hasn’t been very active. Some devices and related apps impose a certain minimum when setting exercise goals (e.g. a minimum of 30 minutes of activity a day). For someone who hasn’t been active, this kind of pressure might be too much to start with, and the lack of ability to meet those goals might be disheartening.

Therefore, setting exercise goals and intensity of the training should be fully customisable, even if it starts with only 5 minutes. The wearable can then provide encouraging prompts to slightly increase the goals by emphasising the user’s success in reaching smaller milestones they set for themselves.

Steady progress from just a few minutes of exercise can result in getting used to the times that would be more suitable to keep a healthy and recommended level of activity in daily life. Small milestones can also contribute to regularly using and monitoring the activity on the tracker, thus making it an everyday essential.

Customisation for users of any age and background

Customisation is an essential feature of a good wearable that should go along with accuracy. The user should be able to choose which parameters and data is relevant to them and set the tracker to display these metrics accordingly. Not everyone needs all the features, as everyone has different priorities regarding their lifestyle.

For some users, monitoring vital metrics like heart rate, sleep patterns, and stress level can come before the step count, distance travelled or calories burnt. Therefore, wearable and related smartphone apps should allow the user to focus on those essential aspects and put the other options or metrics in the background or even disable them entirely.

Another vital option should be adding breaks that wouldn’t affect the overall performance or milestones for unexpected circumstances. These may include an illness, painful menstruation or simply not feeling great and deciding to have a “cheat day”. When something like this happens, and the streak breaks, this can be disheartening and prevent you from continuing to use the tracker and put in the effort. That’s why allowing a reasonable break when needed might be crucial in keeping people interested.

Keeping it positive

In this world, humans are herd animals by default and like socialising. Doing things together can bring a variety of benefits. Having other people work together can increase motivation and encourage regularity in our routines. It includes virtual communities. Some companies selling wearables and developing health apps, like Samsung, created a hub for people to share their activities and achievements and form groups for working out together while using wearable technology.

It’s a great initiative and should be encouraged. However, it works on a simple model based only on numbers. Sheer numbers are a double-edged sword, as they might motivate and discourage. Not everyone likes competition, and working with numbers and comparisons to others might awaken the competitive nature, which is not always healthy and may backfire.

Since people respond better to positive feedback and enforcement, it would be an excellent choice to base communities around mutual positive feedback and appreciation of effort instead of just numbers and encouraging competitiveness. It’s better to highlight progress and steady, increasing effort instead of focusing on a missed day, workout or comparison to others’ achievements, as these are individual for everyone.

Include the disabilities

Making sure that everyone can feel included is an issue that touches not only wearable tech. People with more severe disabilities like missing limbs or inability to move in full spectrum (e.g. using a wheelchair) might not find what they’re looking for in popular wearable technology.

To enable people with disabilities to use wearable electronics on par with the non-disabled, companies need to improve the customisation spectrum to be adjustable to the individual’s needs. An example might be tracking activity based on distance travelled rather than on steps made.

An additional option for wearable technology to accommodate customers with a disability would be to allow detection of a broader range of exercises they can perform, as well as adjust the measurements for those to provide reliable results.

Another important aspect is related to customizability, which we’ve covered earlier. People with disabilities often cannot perform exercises with the same intensity as the non-disabled. Therefore, precise customisation of targets can be crucial.

When we consider the fact that, in some cases, people may not have a finger or wrist to put the wearable on, it would be a good idea to make sure that there are more options to fasten the device for comfortable use, for example, on an ankle or chest.

Wearable technology is still doing pretty well

Although there’s room for improvement, wearable devices are still doing much good. For example, good fall detection and automated SOS messages to emergency services implemented in more advanced wearable devices can be lifesaving. Even when we look at their basic functions, their everyday motivation can contribute to staying in good health and preventing lifestyle-related diseases.

Project Lifesaver Program developed a wearable that aims to help bring the “wanderers” – people who go missing from their homes due to conditions they have, like autism or Alzheimer’s disease. The device allows pinpointing the location of a missing person wearing the device and notifying authorities and relatives, thus significantly speeding up the rescue process.

The method relies on proven radio technology and specially trained search and rescue teams. Citizens enrolled in Project Lifesaver wear a small transmitter on the wrist or ankle that emits an individualised frequency signal. If an enrolled client goes missing, the caregiver notifies their local Project Lifesaver agency, and a trained emergency team responds to the wanderer’s area. The first responders will then use the client’s individualised frequency to locate the individual’s position.

The knowledge from the community policing courses is best applied in this situation because the first responders will know how to best approach the client once found and allow them to be brought back to safety.

Do you have an innovative idea that can improve people’s quality of life? Reach out to us, and we’ll help you bring it to life.