Wearable Devices' Next Design Challenge: The Human Brain

Wearable devices like the Nike+ FuelBand, Jawbone UP, larklife, and future products like the Misfit Shine and Google Glass have been the subject of much discussion, for good reason: They give us access to information about our physical bodies and the physical environment we inhabit, a phenomenon we call Smart Body, Smart World. (Self-proclaimed quantified self-ers have been early adopters of tracking sensors, but they're new to most consumers.)

Though at Forrester we think the market for fitness wearables is relatively small, the broader potential for wearables is huge. Body-generated data could be applied to any domain, such as relationships, productivity, gaming, shopping, personal safety and identity validation, just to name a few possibilities.

I recently participated in a panel in San Francisco hosted by service design agency Fjord, along with Adam Gazzaley, Director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF); Bill Geiser, CEO of MetaWatch; Sonny Vu, CEO of Misfit Wearables; and Olof Schybergson, CEO of Fjord. With perspectives from science, research, product and design all represented, we had diverse points of view but all saw the same challenges ahead for wearables: designing for the human brain.

No, I'm not talking about sensors implanted in your brain (although that's certainly possible, and already happening in research and medical settings). I'm talking about designing for the nuanced way our brains process the experience of wearing a device.

In particular, we all saw a need for wearables that:

Support rather than distract from goal-oriented behavior. Dr. Gazzaley’s research at UCSF explicitly focuses on this topic: how goal-oriented behavior is affected by distraction. On the panel, he joked, “I’m the guy reporters call when they want someone to say distraction is bad.”

But it’s not that simple: Dr. Gazzaley noted that if devices are designed with the brain’s limitations in mind, they could be used to support rather than distract from goal-oriented behavior. For example, he said, we know that humans are not very good at staying alert while driving. If a wearable could be designed to detect when we’re falling asleep at the wheel and alert us before we do, that could literally save lives.

Increase self-awareness, but not to the point of self-consciousness. As I’ve tested various wearable devices, I’ve found that wearing an activity tracker like the UP does have a positive effect on my activity during the day - I’m more aware of my sedentary behavior and more likely to walk when I can, like pacing the platform while waiting for the train instead of standing still.

But I’ve found that wearing a tracker to sleep introduces an unwelcome element of self-consciousness into my bedroom: I’m paying attention (and not in a good way) to how long it takes me to fall asleep.

And what about sex? Should some elements of our lives remain untracked? (I argue yes; others may disagree.)

Fjord CEO Olof Schybergson predicted that we’ll need new rules of engagement when wearables like Google Glass allow us to record our surroundings invisibly. In business meetings or on dates, for example, self-consciousness could detract from trust in our relationships.

Give feedback, but avoid “chart fatigue.” All the panelists agreed that feedback is an important element of why wearables work: That’s why the Misfit Shine has LEDs that light up to show your progress toward your daily activity goal. In Dr. Gazzaley’s lab experiments, he often uses gamification strategies precisely for this reason - achievements, progression, and competition are powerful and addictive incentives to keep doing something.

But Schybergson noted that the novelty of data quickly wears off and erodes into “chart fatigue.” For wearables to keep our attention over the long term, they need to be “living services,” evolving as we evolve.

Lead image by Dane Frederiksen, picturing Bill Geiser, Sonny Vu and Olof Schybergson (left to right).