The Convenience Of Wearables, Not

There are wearables. And then there are true wearables. It was the curiosity of a technophile and the hope of a utilitarian that kept me going from one wearable to another, until now. I have used a range of activity trackers and smart watches, from the Sony Ericsson LiveView and iPod Nano 6G (with strap) to Fitbit Charge, Sony Smartband Talk, Sony SmartWatch 3 and now Withings Activite. Looking back at my experience with these devices, I can’t help but notice how far we have (not) come. The more recent wearables however are showing great potential. Allow me to explain my views.

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Utility and convenience versus upkeep cost

In a short 4 years or so, I have moved from one wearable to another relatively quickly. I was either forced to do so because the devices failed prematurely, or the effort to keep the devices running outweighs their utility, prompting abandonment. Apparently, I am not the only one. About 1 in 10 respondents in a survey owns a modern activity tracker. More than half of them however said that they no longer use their devices. On top of that, a third of those stopped using the devices within six months of receiving them.

“So far wearables have tended toward the flashy and not the functional. While they’re all nice to haves, none of them have solved a significant problem” [1]

My view is that the ability of wearables to move into mainstream use and to stay that way depends on the answer to this: does the device make a person’s life more convenient relative to the upkeep effort? There are two possible paths that wearable technology can take to achieve sustained adoption, which is (1) subtlety in operation and design to blend into your lifestyle while offering limited utility, or (2) radical improvement in the value proposition if the ongoing upkeep is high. The majority of the current wearables are neither, with more recent exceptions. It is this view that I think is the key to unlocking the mainstream adoption of wearables.

Factors that detract from low upkeep

Using the devices that I have experienced as examples, the poor battery life, the non-waterproof nature, and the less than desirable design and build are three major problems. Together, these factors make it hard for you to overlook the sometimes poor design and more importantly, the upkeep cost relative to the utility. This is especially true when most of the wearables today do not offer much beyond what the existing devices, such as your smart phones are already providing.

Battery life: To begin with, the requirement to constantly keep the devices charged makes them an inconvenience. You might think that your smart phone requires charging too. The difference here is that your phone gives you tremendous value, whereas the current wearables, which require pairing with your phones anyway, do not give you anything additional. Most of the smart watches today are merely an extension of your phones, bringing some of the phone’s features to your wrist. Others may offer standalone functionalities. However, the requirement for independent connectivity such as the Sony SmartWatch 3 greatly reduces the battery life. The hassle of frequently charging cancels off whatever little value the wearables have to offer, standalone or not. Poor battery life also means you cannot be wearing the devices 24/7, rendering sleep and activity tracking incomplete. The worse of all is, as with all rechargeables, the charge retention deteriorates over time. That is what is currently happening with my Smartband Talk.

Waterproof: It is unacceptable that we still have devices that they expect you to put on and remain with you over an extended period, and yet, not waterproof. There are also devices which claimed to be waterproof but designed in a way that is susceptible to human errors that render them non-waterproof. That was what happened to my SmartWatch 3. The fact that you have to constantly remind yourself to take it off and then put them on again is an inconvenience. The negligible value from the email alerts, the activity tracking, etc that one gets from such wearables makes a person wonders “why bother“.

“while technology can set trends that matter inside your device’s, fashion designers set the trends for what people are willing to put on their bodies” [2]

General design and build: For wearables to be wearable, the look, the feel and the build have to be of certain level of quality to begin with. I have a Fitbit, and with the earlier models, the problems associated with the unappealing rubber band look plus the unimpressive functionality are well-documented. I do not see the need to elaborate the points further. It suffice to say that the issue even gave rise to the joke about the two-watch syndrome, where one feels that they have to wear both a rubber band tracker and a watch to fully cater for their needs. On the point of feel and build quality, there were reports of skin irritations from wearing certain devices. Lastly, no one expects tech devices today to last forever, but for a wearable to start disintegrating after less than a year, it is not acceptable. That was what happened to my Fitbit Charge, where the rubber band started peeling off after 7-8 months and very quickly removed itself from the main unit.

A promising path to the future of mainstream wearables

The desire to be cool and the enthusiasm to be at the forefront of new technology may produce a spike in early adoption. In order to bring the adoption of wearables across the line, the issue of utility versus upkeep effort plays a big role. Many of the current wearables are cool, no doubt. However, none of them actually helps me and many other people significantly in our day-to-day life without asking a lot back in return in terms of upkeep. For instance, my Smartband Talk may have allowed me to look down at my watch to check a text message. It may very well have saved me a few seconds, but it has never changed my day. Gradually, the hassle of having to charge my Smartband Talk once every day or two prompted me to retire the device to the drawer.

A new breed of wearables have emerged that do not suffer from the detracting factors above. This breed focuses on addressing the well-defined needs of certain market segments with devices that require minimal to zero upkeep. The Withings Activite watches are an example of this new breed. They cater for consumers who require activity and sleep tracking for health, and do it well. The devices are waterproof, the battery lasts for months and the icing on the cake is that they look amazing. I have been wearing the Activite Pop and Steel for 4 months now and have been impressed so far. I will report back once my Withings have clocked 12 months on my wrist, which I am confident they will.