Fast Company: The Best Wearables Will Be The Ones You Throw Away

By Jun Lee and Mikkel Brok-Kristensen, April 7, 2015

The market for wearable electronics seems to be exploding: forecasters estimate that we will see growth at a compound annual rate of 35% over the next five years with 148 million units shipped by 2019. The data appears impressive until you consider that only two years ago forecasters were predicting shipments of twice that amount—over 300 million by 2018. Why are the numbers declining? 

Amid fizzy expectations for the ill-fated Google Glass and the new Apple Watch, the wearables market continues to be plagued by persistent barriers to adoption. The reason is that developers are spending an inordinate amount of time looking for the silver bullet—the "iPhone" of the wearables market—that will create a long-term relationship with users. In reality, the most successful new wearables are actually the ones that embrace their temporary status. Developers need to change their way of thinking: Rather than invent reasons for users to live with wearables, they need to think of gradually moving people through phases of new learning and behavioral change. For truly innovative wearables, the goal is obsolescence.

The greatest (wearable) tools will acknowledge our own idiosyncratic metrics and ultimately put us back in touch with our own intuitions.

Wearing Out Their Welcome
Before wearables even existed as a market category, we have been observing and tracking how people from different parts of the world try and adopt different kinds of wearable technology into their lives. In our studies, we’ve found that users quickly lose interest in data—how many steps per day or what types of sleep cycles—once they understand the most effective intervention points for behavior change. One of the people we met in Hangzhou, China, for example, stopped using her Nike Fuelband after a few months because it so effectively answered her real question: Which activities during my day burn the most calories? 

One of our study respondents based in New York suffered from a vitamin D deficiency. With his Jawbone wearable, he was able to collect vast amounts of sleep data that allowed his doctor to track his condition and make a plan for future treatment. After successfully collaborating with health care providers, however, the patient stopped wearing the Jawbone, and it now sits in a drawer in his bedside table. Instead of designing a more sophisticated version of the Jawbone with ever-more features, designers would do better to note users’ genuine motivations when engaging with these devices. 

One of our respondents in the same study spent her entire childhood in France. She told us that she didn’t understand the American obsession with calorie labels at restaurants and on food packages. She felt she had been raised to develop appropriate "instincts" around how much to eat and when. Americans, in her eyes, were so fixated on getting the numbers right that they lost all connection with their intuition about a balanced meal. Her analysis provides an astute way forward for innovation in wearables: it’s less about delivering on measurements and more about providing users with the "training wheels" to access their own instincts.

Loving and Leaving Data
In this study as well as others we’ve conducted, we’ve found that the people who successfully reconnected with their intuition did so using not calories counts or footsteps but a wide assortment of more idiosyncratic measurement tools. Whether it was fitting into a favorite "little black dress," drinking a certain amount of green smoothies in the morning, or climbing comfortably up three flights of stairs, individuals have unique ways of assessing their own experiences.

Today’s wearables still use the most simplistic metrics like steps and calories, a repertoire that in reality is not very meaningful for most people. But by incorporating more idiosyncratic gauges and enabling wearables to track what users want to track— not the number of steps but maybe the number of times the user takes the stairs instead of the elevator— individuals can begin to embrace wearables’ temporary role as "coaches" and "guides." Ultimately, wearables can use these individualized and dynamic metrics as a bridge to help users understand their own definitions of wellbeing.

Many of the most interesting next generation of wearables are already working in this direction, recognizing that most meaningful measurements are not static. The LUMO back device is designed to give feedback on one simple but significant aspect of fitness: good posture. Users wear the LUMO device on a belt that sits on their lower back. When they slouch, LUMO vibrates, reminding them to stand up straight and tall. This type of reminder is less about an abstract data point like fat grams and more about one small but meaningful change in the body. The strength of this kind conditioning is that it taps into peoples’ background behavior rather than their rationality. Behavioral conditioning becomes second nature over time. Because LUMO guides its users to recognize their own body in space, it is most successful as a tool when it is rendered obsolete. 

On Best Behavior
What does obsolescence mean for wearables? There are two strategies for approaching this problem. One, the creation of a range of low-cost wearable sensors; users choose from a selection and customize a device depending on what they want to track. The other is the development of a wearable with the capacity to track many changes, but that also allows users to determine exactly what dimension is relevant for them to monitor.

When developers in wearables put less focus on creating long-term relationships with users, they can deliver more meaningful value to users in the moment. Much like small children use a bevy of temporary "training cups" before they ultimate graduate to a "big kid" cup, adults might also have all sorts of disposable wearables that help them reach the next stage of their skill development. The future of wearables is not about creating the single best product for all eternity. The greatest tools will acknowledge our own idiosyncratic metrics and ultimately put us back in touch with our own intuitions. And, just like all those discarded sippy cups, their very success will ultimately render them obsolete.

This story originally appeared in Fast Company

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