Lessons in #UX: How to design the best wearable experience

There are two big topics in technology right now: The Internet of Things and Wearables. While I have some very distinct opinions on the former, I’ll leave that for another day. Today I’d like to discuss the space called “wearables”. The upcoming Apple Watch is getting a lot of attention, and will (in my opinion) bring the wearables space into the mainstream in a big way (building on the existing pioneered efforts of Pebble and FitBit, of course).

I’ve been doing some concept designs for some wearable “apps” and through the course of that effort I’ve learned a few things about what works and what doesn’t. So here’s my opinions of what makes a good wearable experience, and how to design an experience that best helps and supports users

Don’t try to be good at everything

A good wearable app is modal and focused – extremely so. It’s about one task, one function… and that’s it. Part of that is due to the screen size (there’s not a lot you can do with a one to two inch screen). But it is mostly because the nature of wearable computing is transitory and quick. It’s “at a glance” computing, and if you try and shove too much functionality into the app you will confuse and frustrate users. Simple, modal, “in-and-out” usage patterns are what you need to provide.

Navigation is critical

I am a little concerned about the Apple Watch because of the navigation model they have created – it showcases small icons with TINY-TINY “target areas”. Obviously, I have not used an Apple Watch yet, so my concerns may all be for naught… but the way people access apps is a key to making the experience as effective as possible.

It has to work “untethered”

Back to the Apple Watch – if it doesn’t “work” without being tethered to your iPhone, it won’t work at all… People don’t have their phones on their person all the time. A good example: Both my wife and I have a Microsoft Band, and we love it. However, she doesn’t have it tethered to her phone much of the time… because she has an iPhone 4 and the Bluetooth connection keeps dropping. She can still use most of the functionality of the device without tethering, because the core functions are not reliant on a constant connection to her phone. Keep “untethered use” in mind when designing your wearable apps.

(Disclosure: I work for Microsoft as a UX Lead.)

Context matters

People will not be bringing their wearable to four inches next to their face to read alerts or use apps – they will be looking at it (literally) at arm’s length. So, use big fonts and simple language. Don’t try and replicate a smart phone app’s navigation when you port over an existing application: streamline and potentially split that one app into two or three distinct offerings (example: Instead of one big Banking app, consider one that displays balances for favorite accounts and one that lets users make quick payments).

Get sync right

Integrate with existing apps seamlessly, behind the scenes – the more users have to manually sync the more frustrated they will be. It should “just work.”

Be proactive with helpful alerts

Notifications are where wearables will really shine, both scheduled and proactive: “You have a meeting in 15 minutes” or “Why don’t you get up and stretch? You’ve been sitting a while.” An alert that allows users to be aware and empowered helps them make better decisions and more efficient.

Tone of voice is critical

Even more than web or desktop apps, the tone you use is critical because wearables are “personal” in a way that a desktop or a mobile phone is not. Why? Because it is something you wear, and just like the clothes you pick… it’s a reflection of you. And because the messaging has to be simple (because of the screen size) you have to be very careful about the words you choose. If you have an app that is “judgy”, impersonal or unfriendly you will have unhappy users.

The future “killer app” is voice

Voice control of phone apps – both to access them and to control them – is the next step in wearables. It accomplishes a lot all at once: It solves the navigation problem, it allows for “hands free” access, and if it works well it’s a game-changer with the way we engage with tech. Imagine a wearable app that is always “listening” that wakes up when you say “Send a text to Susan” or “Cancel my 2 o clock meeting.” The Microsoft Band integrates with Cortana with Windows Phones, so (while it doesn’t have “always-listening” voice control) it is still a very effective way to engage with your technology. Look for advances to come from multiple parties in this space in the (near) future.

So, there you have it. Now go make some great apps for wearable devices and make people’s lives better!

Joseph Dickerson is a user experience professional and UX Lead for Microsoft based out of Atlanta, GA. He has implemented processes in user testing, design and ethnographic research and provided design and consulting services for many different projects and organizations.

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