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From the editor

Form over function? The challenge to designing fashion-forward wearable devices

The old adage "the early bird gets the worm" holds truth in many circles, even when applied to wearables. When a shiny new toy comes out, early adopters flock to it, eager to be one of the first to sport the 'smart' tech. Brands that focus primarily on being the first to deliver a new product may benefit with increased attention at the onset, but in rushing to beat competitors to the finish line they overlooked something important: to not just design solely for design aesthetics or usability, but to marry the two.

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A smart watch or other wearable device that people actually want to wear will combine the best of design – usability and fashion

I remember this alarm clock I bought a few years ago purely to match the décor in my bedroom; I thought it was perfect, with a design that was minimalistic and refined, and nothing but four small buttons on the front. It looked nice, but unfortunately I soon came to regret my purchase. Those four buttons were the only way to navigate the screens and required me to click through options repeatedly – and blindly – without any direction or expectation of what was to come. I had to refer to the manual to learn how to set the time properly. Once Daylight Savings came – forget it! It wasn’t worth the hassle of trying to decode this device again just to change the time. In this case, I realized, the manufacturer (and I) compromised form over function, designing something that satisfied consumers’ requests for a ‘pretty’ looking device but failing to measure up when it came to usability.

While this alarm clock wasn’t something that I strapped to my wrist (and thank goodness for that), the same concept applies to wearable devices. In fact, it’s something we hear echoed everyday by our designers. Senior user interface manager Jonathan Bloom explains:

“What is often thought of as “good” design is, in actuality, cool design. While there is nothing wrong with cool design per se, and while cool is something to which we should always aspire, cool does not automatically denote usable. In fact, the two can often be in direct conflict.”

It’s when we achieve both superior design aesthetic and usability that we create something truly great. Wearables are just as much fashion accessories or status symbols as they are devices you count on to perform daily tasks. If something looks cool, it should be just as impressive usability-wise. A device that looks cool but that isn’t usable is going to cause users a lot of frustration, and  is likely to fairly quickly end up relegated to a drawer rather than attached to your wrist.

With headlines reading, “I want wearable technology that doesn’t look like wearable technology,” this idea isn’t a novel one. People are hungry for wearables but they are grappling with having to choose between the dichotomies of fashionable versus functional wearable technology. Even the article’s author declares that he would rather see companies integrate smart functionality into existing devices over newly-designed, wholly ‘smart’ products that fail to appeal to him and others aesthetically.

Recently, we’ve seen great progress in devices that marry form and usability. Years of work in crafting smaller, more powerful processors such as Intel’s Curi wearable processor have made it possible – in part – to physically shrink devices down to a wearable form factor like a smart watch. Simultaneously, advancements in natural language understanding and virtual assistant technologies have made it possible to deliver intuitive and more efficient user experiences, removing the need for once clunky interfaces. (My colleague Tanya Kraljic explores these considerations more thoroughly in her post, “The essential formula for designing user interfaces for wearable devices.”)

What’s more, these wearables in question need to not only be ‘appealing’ but should take into account varying preferences, personalities, genders, bodies. One size does not fit all. Think of a standard smart watch, for example. The design may be deemed fashion statement-worthy to a broad audience, but the size and shape itself may not fit other wrist sizes or blend with individuals’ existing wardrobes and accessories. New innovations such as the Misfit Swarovski Shine collection seek to narrow this gap for women, presenting solar-chargeable wearables that are so design-savvy they could pass as jewelry while still performing ‘smart’ functions like counting calories burned and connecting to your mobile device. In this case, the Shine collection seeks to address three key areas of interest: battery life, fashion, and functionality.

 

 

Like many others, I want wearables that stand out to fit in. A wearable device that I choose to wear will be complementary in nature, both from a fashion and a functionality perspective; it should attract attention because of its beauty, not because its stereotypical ‘tech’ form sharply contrasts its surroundings.

In the direction we’re heading, wearable technologies will soon be considered staples, sometimes as standalone pieces, sometimes as complements to existing devices. As consumers, it’s our responsibility to not be distracted by the newest shiny object if it forces us to sacrifice function over form. The two should work in concert, a notion that brands are seemingly beginning to embrace.  We’ve already seen a specialty line of Tory Burch FitBit fitness trackers and a ring that connects to your phone to notify you of new messages, upcoming meetings, or even when your cab is arriving. With spring finally peeking through after a record snow winter in Boston, I know I’m excited to purge my closet of the old and welcome the new – and that might just include a wearable or two.

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