DesignNews

Wearables are going mainstream

Abbie Walsh, group director at service design consultancy Fjord, discusses why Motorola Mobility’s plan to hire a wearables director means that this technology should be on every designer’s radar

Up until very recently, ‘wearables’ was a term you had to stop and explain to people. Today, it’s becoming increasingly mainstream as wearable technology hits store shelves and takes off with consumers. FitBit and Nike FuelBand are just two examples of consumer wearables that have achieved mass appeal, followed hot on the heels by offerings from Withings and countless other start-ups. This hasn’t gone unnoticed by companies. The recent news that Motorola Mobility is searching for a wearables director shows that the company seriously recognises the potentially massive acceleration of this type of technology and is committed to gaining a share of this market. The company outlined their vision for this new area in the job advert, stating they are looking for someone to “create a new world-class wearables design group within Motorola.”

Everyday the news is flooded with a new wearable that is either in development or has just launched. There has been speculation around Apple developing an ‘iWatch’ device ever since it filed for a patent in Japan a few of months ago, and the popularity of GoPro cameras continues to grow. However, the most talked about wearable has to be Google Glass, as the launch draws ever closer. With the increase in such products hitting the market it’s clear that they present exciting new opportunities for existing businesses to extend their services in a new direction.

Motorola’s decision to appoint a wearables expert is a clear signifier that wearables are set to go completely mainstream. The rise and now ubiquity of the smart phone has meant more power over every aspect of life is literally in the hands of users and this had led to new behaviours, which in turn accelerate the need for technological advances. As the ‘quantified-self’ slips into general vernacular and wearing devices to track all aspects of our lives becomes the norm, the appeal of wearing our smartphone will only increase. Industry will inevitably follow this new demand, leading eventually to the same explosion of choice offered by the smartphone market and all that implies for the designers of these devices and the services they provide.

However, reactions to some developments in this space, such as Google Glass, have been mixed, highlighting that a wearables director and team of designers will have their work cut out to create a service that is exactly right. The role of this person is big, as they need to take into account privacy, functionality and social acceptance of any of the wearables created. For example, just after advertising the wearable director role, Motorola went on to announce the development of a completely new user experience with its Moto X ‘always listening' phone. Rather than depending on the screen, this smartphone uses voice as its controller. Although this feature is useful, does it compromise privacy by allowing people around you to hear everything you would normally do on your phone? As services become more transformational, useful and aligned with our lifestyles, these are the questions designers will need to consider before launching them to market.

The post-screen era

Wearables mark entry into a post-screen era, where users will look to immaterial devices, beyond screens and frames, and this requires new concepts, skills and thinking. Although designers have been talking about this new wave of technology for a while, as the wearables market takes off, designers will have to sharpen their existing skills and take a new approach to succeed as experts in this new area. Motorola Mobility’s job advert for the position of wearables director asks for at least seven years’ experience in a senior industrial design position, as well as 15 years' experience in the design of technology, consumer product and/or clothing, highlighting that the skills required for the role span far and wide.  

The designers who create wearables must possess a deep understanding of user behaviour to decide how the technology is successfully integrated into consumers’ daily lives and how this will create a long-term relationship. To arrive at this position requires a new approach to design; designers need to learn from doctors, fashion designers, human factors specialists, neuroscientists and experts in other relevant fields to understand who they are designing for and why. Service design is the crux of wearable technology and for it to integrate fully into consumers’ lives, it is imperative that a product exists as an unencumbered layer on consumers’ bodies.

As designers begin to specialise in wearables and the area of expertise develops, it will be fascinating to see the effects that these technologies have on the wider business strategies of major technology companies. Motorola may be the first company to hire a wearables director, but will most certainly not be the last.

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