Usability Aspects of Wearable Technology

The greater infusion of technology into everyday life has changed our idea of virtualization. In the near future, we will probably wear and swallow technology. In this article, we present insight into the contemporary wearable market and its role in enhancing the quality of human life.

In an article from Sustainability in 2016, Jaewoon Lee and colleagues found in other studies’ survey results that “one-third of American consumers who have owned a wearable product stopped using it within six months.” Part of the reason for this has to do with concerns over the usability of wearables. For a wearable’s future to survive and grow, user experience must be at the center of product conception and development. The following are legitimate concerns in need of exploration:

  • Factors that contribute to adoption
  • Factors that result in abandonment
  • Usability factors to consider when designing and promoting

Image of a hand with a watch the has many functions represented by icons, such as the ability to make a call, take a picture, see the weather, and so on.

Figure 1. The Wearable Future. (Credit: Alamy)

The Wearable Future: Factors that Contribute to Adoption

Wearable technologies are more likely to be adopted in matters of health, work, relationships, and transportation. Recognizing and embracing the daily life applications that can improve a person’s life is key for the successful adoption of wearables. The following are examples of wearable devices that can enhance a person’s daily life:

  • Improve your sleep: Rise every day to enjoy a happier life after a perfect sleep, regulated by a smart eye mask that uses audio-technology to lull you into a natural sleep.
  • Personalize your diet: Smart clothing that continually collects body data to determine the nutrients you lack on a daily basis to guide your food choices.
  • Optimize driving: Your route to work is mapped based on the data gathered from your wearable devices.
  • Improve your work efficiency: Employ personal organizers, smart eyeglasses, and cloud computing to help you be more efficient.
  • Improve your relationships: A family connectivity app that sees what your connected family members are up to. Mood detectors within smart clothes can signal your contentedness, anxiety, joy, or sorrow.
  • Take a nap anywhere anytime: Smartwatch controlled background music and climate controls evoke a calm and comfortable setting for naps.

Wearable Example: Smart Textiles

Some wearables are made from smart fabric. In the future, for example, a person wearing a garment made from smart fabric could have a climate-controlled experience just by wearing a “smart” shirt. Relief for the wearer could adapt to both hot and cold climates. A climate control panel installed within the garment can turn on cooling or heating components after obtaining the external temperature. Embedded with microsensors and nanotechnology for real-time data collection from any part of the human body, this smart fabric technology could utilize the information fetching mechanism of an intelligent bionic information system.

In order to achieve electronic compactness, an idea presented in a TE Connectivity whitepaper is to use components made out of plastic or composite substrates such as a printed antenna embedded in a product. Smart fabric could utilize this type of substrate to enable the sensing and response of smart fabric to environmental conditions.

However, for technology such as a smart climate-controlled shirt to be accepted by users, designers must account for practical design factors that will increase the chance of product adoption. For example, if the garment is not washable, then there must be an alternative cleansing procedure. Crease and crimp resistant electronic components can help with functionality. Dryable batteries might prove to be a good choice for washable, wearable devices. Of critical importance, a robust insulation mechanism is a must have for smart fabric to protect the wearer.

The Wearable Future: Factors that Result in Abandonment

According to The Wearable Future, the adoption rate of wearable technology parallels that of tablets during the years 2012 to 2014. Most of the time curiosity and personal interest motivate users to obtain a smart sensing device. However, devices can be abandoned if they do not fit with the user’s perception or cause harm—bodily and/or societal. Given the pros and cons, specific UX properties need to be incorporated within the devices for the betterment of the user experience.

Wearable Example: Smartwatch

Consider a smartwatch: If the device is too complicated to update, it will likely end up in the bin. A usable device remains in use if the device is handy and continues to impress users with its capabilities.

Another critical factor to consider is that overuse of wearable technology can have harmful impacts on both humans and society in general. For example, constant distractions caused by alerts while driving a car increases the risk of an accident. Reports and alerts anywhere, anytime can violate personal space and present an overload of information. In an age of digital access, the rare thing is a moment of solace. Are we on the road to panic and anxiety when we are bombarded with prompts, feedback, and messages?

Usability Factors to Consider when Designing and Promoting Wearable Technology

There are many factors that usability experts should account for in addition to what has already been discussed. In the following sections we discuss being aware about the cultures who will use smart devices, data security, the esthetics of devices, the safety of the devices, and the environmental impacts that these devices can have.

Cultural, Economic, and Geographic Awareness

People from different cultures, religions, geographic, and socio-economic zones may hesitate or refuse to wear a device. There can be reservations over the composition of materials and the parts of the body that are touched by a smart device. People who reject the use of wearable devices for cultural or economic reasons will not reap the benefits of the technology, especially for health-related wearables. To overcome these obstacles, it is imperative to educate the consumer and earnestly try to address the valid reservations of users’ communities. An honestly advertised product will cultivate a stronger product-consumer relationship. Societies might take interest in the benefit brought by a certain wearable but may hesitate to adopt it on the basis of cultural and/or religious beliefs. A wearable can only enjoy mass acceptance if the manufacturers carefully address cultural and economic sensitivities.

Data Security

What happens when an intelligent wearable device turns on an inspection mode and broadcasts accumulated data to some anonymous receptor? A breach of security and privacy of wearers’ data, as well as that of their surroundings, is a major factor that could prevent device adoption. Changes in the law have made data theft a punishable crime, but there have been many cases of information breaches that put people’s private information out there in public.

To further protect individuals, companies who produce wearable devices should require users to give their express permission to use their personal data with an “opt-in” clause in product agreements. No wearable device should be allowed to transmit data it has access to in the cloud without expressed user consent.

Additionally, wearable textiles may interfere with drones and other surveillance technologies, compromising criminal investigations, intelligence work, and scientific research. UXers must work with legal authorities to address such matters.

In the healthcare industry, the immense amount of data that healthcare wearables collect makes it challenging to ask for user permission in every situation. In case of negligence, can technology be an accountable stakeholder other than the hospital staff? There may be a need to visit and craft relevant laws to address this issue and define roles and responsibilities of not only healthcare workers but companies who produce healthcare wearables.

Style and Substance

Nobody wants to look ugly in cumbersome attire. Wearable devices must incorporate comfort and style rather than merely making it “smart” by fusing technology into a garment. If users are annoyed by uncomfortable attire, there will be no adoption, and it will end up in the bin.

The future fashion trends seem to be driven by textiles built smart from the start rather than retrofitting existing textiles with smart technology that may not be suited to such a blending. In this respect, designing from scratch could save time, effort, and money.

Safety

Potential injuries inherent to extensive body contact of technology require built-in mechanisms to disable functionality. Requiring thorough usability testing can be helpful in determining risks of stress, physical injuries, and other health hazards. Also, the significance of ergonomics in the design of a wearable device is important to consider. Poor ergonomics can lead to injuries and an unsatisfied wearer.

While artificial intelligence (AI) is necessary for wearable devices and textiles to seamlessly integrate into the habits and lives of users, these features should afford some protections for users. Necessary features such as auto stop, pause, resume, sleep, and/or hibernate should be thoroughly tested to ensure that these AI features will not cause harm to people using wearable devices, especially health-related devices.

Environmental Concerns

There is an inevitable need for making wearable devices durable. The devices should have appropriate and tested levels of waterproofing, shock and vibration resistance, resistance to chemicals and solvents, and a general capability to overcome environmental vulnerabilities (such as temperature, humidity, light, sound, dust, water, and smoke) to ensure that the device is durable enough for its prescribed use.The level of required durability is dependent on the operating environment that varies for different kinds of users (for example, soldiers, patients, and athletes).

Designing for minimal power consumption is another environmental consideration. A primary goal to have lightweight garments and devices that consume low amounts of power are key to a wearable’s success. Wireless power transmission systems that offer wireless charging, which reduces wear and tear of connectors and extra expenditure on chargers, is an option for a low-power, lighter weight device. A system like this would also contribute to an efficient and longer battery life.

Conclusion

UX considerations are paramount in the development of wearable devices for the devices to be successfully adopted in human life and society. These considerations include UX design attention to aesthetics, ergonomics, safety, durability, energy efficiency, data security and privacy, and respect toward religious, cultural, and social beliefs. These human factors must be included in the development process—technology alone cannot conquer the world. Additionally, in the case of wearables, this may require further knowledge of human multisensory organs, the way they interact, and knowledge of cognition processes. There are many factors that go into making wearable devices. When UX considerations and challenges have been keenly and thoroughly addressed, users and industry will reap the positive benefits that these devices can provide.

Tariq, S., Shahbaz, M. (2020). Usability Aspects of Wearable Technology. User Experience Magazine, 20(2).
Retrieved from http://uxpamagazine.org/usability-aspects-of-wearable-technology/

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