Thoughts on Wearables

There’s so much hype about wearables these days, and the “gadget mindset” soaring like crazy. Eventually I can’t help giving my thoughts on it.

The Takeaway Summary

It might not be hard to tease people into putting on a wearable, but it could be extremely difficult to convince them to keep it on. The long term, habit-forming context of using a wearable is more about contextual sense-making than whatever features and/or functions it provides.

The Gadget Mindset

Samsung have probably been doing a great job showing what a wearable should NOT be like. A phone-call-picking, picture-taking, video-shooting, weather-forecasting, message-notifying watch makes the same extent of sense as a condom with exactly the same set of features does. Cramming every single mobile phone feature into a watch-like gadget doesn’t facilitate any new context that makes additional sense.

Some people might argue, hey, haven’t we been cramming every single camera feature into a mobile phone? Yup, while the camera-cramming case is about decreasing the number of devices we carry around from 2 (camera and phone) to 1 (phone), the phone-cramming case is about increasing the number of devices from 1 (phone) to 2 (watch and phone). The X-Watch (termed in the spirit of X-Men) can’t replace the mobile phone — not yet. There could a day when X-Whatever provides a more convenient way for us to communicate (get to talk to someone remotely, etc.) and thus even ends up replacing the mobile phone — who knows?

For people who don’t or no longer wear watch, X-Watch may need an extremely good motive (or, less ideally, incentive) for them to form/reform the habit of wearing it. I can admit that I’m the old-fashioned guy who still wears a traditional watch constantly and get rather anxious when I forget to have it on. In my case, the situation is no better: if the X-Watch did everything my mobile phone does, then there would be no way I’d want to replace my good old watch with it — it just doesn’t make any new sense. Yup, talking to my wrist could be fashionable. But no thanks, I don’t want two mobile phones.

Still some people could argue that, if X-Watch makes certain tasks we normally perform on mobile phones more convenient and even better, then couldn’t there be a motive strong enough to change our minds?

Again, The first obstacle is about the number of devices we’d like to carry around. To nudge me to carry an additional device (or worse, a few more), there has to be a reason as strong as death. Okay, maybe not that strong, but just ask people who have to bring two or more mobile phones — they don’t bring them all because it’s easy and trivial to have them handy, they, for one reason or another, have to take the additional ones with them, meaning the benefits outweighs the hassle.

While some other people could argue even further: What about this health hype? Due to the nature of the way we use the mobile phone (almost always holding it in our hands, instead of putting it on our chests or asses), X-Watch could provide something new, such as tracking our health in the way that a mobile phone can never do. And imagine X-Watch can communicate with mobile phone perfectly — isn’t that a perfect combination and therefore a really strong motive for us to wear it? And how about payment, smart home, hologram, AI?

You may have noticed here, that whatever the argument is, there’s an identifiable mindset in the play. And I call that a Gadget Mindset.

A gadget mindset is one with which we think in terms of gadgets, about what they could do and what features they could have. It’s like empathy towards gadgets, thinking from the gadget’s point of view and asking “well, what I can do for my master human being and how I should behave accordingly”.

The problem of the gadget mindset is that it focuses more on the context of the gadgets’ own usage, but less on that of the user’s overall experiences.

A wearable may be much more difficult to design than many would think, because users, no matter what they say, only fall for contexts that make sense, contexts that actually help them do everyday things even without their being gratefully aware of them. And that contextual sense-making, as we all know, is so much more about putting whatever features in a gadget wrapped around our arms.

It’s never about how MP3 players should look or work, but always about how users find it convenient (not even effortless) to get and enjoy music. And I doubt it’d ever be about how X-Watch look or work. Creating a better context is something a mere gadget can never achieve. It’s not just about product. It’s about product AND its affording services.

The Sense-Making Context

Each category of products has to make very contextual sense in order to prevail. Laptop, tablet, and cell phone all do.

Laptop is merely acceptably portable, becoming thinner but no smaller, and is optimized for serious, long-time work- or life- oriented tasks.

Tablet is highly portable (even so many people seem to use it more at home), and seems to be optimized for relatively long-time entertainment, such as gaming and video-watching etc., and relatively short-time daily work/life efforts. A touch screen is big enough to realize relatively complex manipulations.

Cell phone is very handy and almost effortless to carry around, and is optimized for pragmatic and/or one-hand use (navigating, ad-hoc info seeking, ad-hoc communication etc.).

Their different sense-making contexts make them complementary and only slightly overlap in certain cases. I doubt if there’s anyone who has trouble choosing from one of the three for a certain task under a certain context.

Sometimes a pencil just makes more contextual sense than a touch-screen-only stylus, and it’d be highly arguable to say that such a stylus is better than a pencil. For a wearable to be desirable and useful, it needs to create its own sense-making context, not cell phone’s.

Are Underpants Wearable?

If my underpants can track my penile blood flow or even my hormone level, should I call it a wearable? If I attache a cell phone case around my arm, should I call my cased phone a wearable?

The concept of wearable specifies nothing except that people can wear it (however we define the word “wear”). Thus, probably, regarding wearable as a new category is itself already the wrong way of thinking — a thinking in a gadget mindset. There’s nothing unique about a wearable — it’s just an attachable gadget. Adding a strap to a cell phone also makes it a wearable. You may regard an iPad as a bigger iPod Touch, but it’s their ways of contextual sense-making that differentiate them.

So, why don’t we just cut the crap, no more wearable. And no more gadget mindset.

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