The Real Problem With Wearables

Posted by on Mar 22, 2015 in Design | No Comments
I’ve already gone on the record by stating that the Apple Watch is not targeting me as a user. Which is totally fine and in no way a prediction that it will be a failure. Personally, I think Apple has so consistently delivered hits that many people will give them the benefit of the doubt and plunk down the cash. But reflecting on how I differ from the the target audience and reflecting on my time carrying a fitness tracker, I realized that there’s a fundamental UX problem that hasn’t yet been solved.

Most activity trackers provide you with hard numbers so you can visualize your calories burning. You get a readout of the number of steps you took, the number of hours you slept, the number of calories you consumed and maybe some other trackable activities as well. They also send you reminders when your performance drops below your goals, and this is the main problem with the experience. In a vacuum, we want to improve ourselves—we want to get more exercise, sleep more, eat less and become better people. However, it’s also irritating when we’re interrupted and told what to do, and demotivating when we’re reminded of our failures.

The Apple Watch (and virtually every other tracker), works in exactly this way. So while wearing one, my experience was that I would forget it existed for 95% of the day and the other 5% when I was paying attention to it, it was criticizing me. This might sound like I’m being unreasonable—I set these goals for myself and the fitness tracker didn’t care whether I hit my goals or not—but the fundamental problem was that I didn’t come to associate it with positive experiences. This is no small problem to try to overcome.

I view many financial apps as wrestling with the same problem—how do you encourage people to change a behavior they enjoy (eating, buying things they want) in a way that is encouraging and doesn’t make your users associate you with negativity?

It’s a tough nut to crack and one I’m not sure any fitness tracker has really cracked yet. However, I would venture that the field is rife for some gamification experiments. I’m particularly drawn to two apps: Zombies, Run! and Epic Win. Both turn personal goals into something that is, somehow, more enjoyable than accomplishing the things we tell ourselves we’re going to do. They wrap the mundane in fun diversions of cheating death or slaying enemies, and more importantly, they make our failures a little easier to swallow because they’re more removed. Hearing that we fell 2,000 steps short of our daily goal doesn’t motivate us to improve as much as scoring points in a silly game with imaginary zombies.

This is where I’d like to see wearables go. Tracking our activities doesn’t offer any value in and of itself (well, not for users anyway. It’s great if you’re a healthcare provider or medical researcher). But wearables won’t actually become useful until they can go beyond that by offering us clear paths to success and motivating us to be better than we are.