The essential formula for designing user interfaces for wearable devices

2014 was the year wearable technology went mainstream, with smart watches being one of the most buzzed about devices after the likes of Apple, Samsung and all introduced highly-anticipated devices. With this new category of gadgets, though, comes a unique set of design challenges that must be addressed to maximize efficiency and convenience on a sub-2 in screen. Elements such as virtual assistants, voice, and transmodality are key to delivering a compelling experience that doesn’t sacrifice quality.
There comes a unique set of challenges when designing a user interface for wearable devices with sub-2 inch screens.

It seems that 2014 was the year of wearable technology, with smart watches or other wrist-dwelling computers being one of the most buzzed about devices after the likes of Apple, Samsung and all introduced highly-anticipated devices. With the explosion of this new category of tech gadgets, though, comes a set of new design challenges that must be addressed to maximize efficiency and convenience on a sub-2 inch screen without sacrificing quality. So, what are the elements that go into designing user interfaces for wearable devices?


Focus engagements around an intelligent virtual assistant

Featuring a virtual assistant at the heart of your wearable device is a crucial factor in providing the consumer with a way to field and act on incoming requests, in addition to helping them discover the many features available in the system. Characterized by full awareness of the device’s functions, they act as a tour guide, navigating users and cutting down steps it would otherwise take to complete tasks. For instance, virtual assistants like Florence can reduce a multi-stepped process into a single voice interaction for a physician looking to order a prescription for her patient.

Virtual assistants have emerged as popular engagement mediums across healthcare, customer service applications in addition to wearable computing devices such as with AneedA on the i.amPULS. Adoption rate is growing rapidly, with 58% of those between 18 to 25 years of age using a speech-enabled virtual assistant on a regular basis to interact with their smartphone. A Conversational Interfaces Survey reported a 98% repeat usage rate, meaning that almost all those who used a virtual assistant visited every day, week, or month. These assistants should be contextually aware and outfitted with cognitive computing abilities that enable them to be anticipatory and proactive rather than just reactive – learning complexities about users over time to deliver better and more relevant results.

And in the future, the virtual assistant that you come to know and love on your wearable device will be the same as what you interact with on your smartphone or TV. Ultimately, personal assistants should be device and OS independent to make way for a wholly consistent experience no matter where the user is or what they’re doing.


Integrate voice capability

Over the last year, Nuance Cloud Services reported that people used voice 250% more on wearable devices than on smartphones. To be honest, I’m not that surprised. Voice provides a convenient way for users to engage with a device – it’s simple and intuitive; it’s the unifying modality across a multitude of user interfaces that feature varying menus, buttons and processes that take incremental time and effort to learn. With natural language understanding (NLU) technology, voice interactions can be fluid and mirror familiar conversational rhythms. Rather than being tethered to rigid commands such as “Play artist ‘Vance Joy,’” a user can voice a thought they’re having like, “I think I’m in the mood to listen to some Vance Joy,” and the system does the work of interpreting that request and responding with a favorite track. Voice streamlines the interaction and removes unnecessary steps to allow the user to navigate different functions more quickly and efficiently.


Deliver a transmodal experience

Depending on what function a user is looking to execute or what context he or she is in (e.g. a crowded bus versus a private room), he or she may want to touch, swipe, gesture or speak. Wearable devices that combine all of these modalities are better positioned to satisfy convenience expectations and reduce friction for users as they text, email, play music, tweet, monitor their exercises – whatever it may be. Tapping may not be convenient when your hands are full, but it might be preferable over voice when watching a keynote presentation. And with shrunken screen sizes, integrating grandfathered communication elements like keyboards for texting also need to be rethought. An alternative like Swype – a predictive input keyboard that allows people to swipe their fingers across the screen to input text – presents a solution.


Reflect a coherent visual design

In terms of optimizing for usability, the visual design elements of a user interface are just as important in guiding the consumer through various features. The placement of appropriate visual indicators like a microphone icon on a screen lets the user know when and where they can speak, for example, while labels and graphics can provide guidance as to what functionality users can speak to.  Design should be holistic, with all available modalities supporting the same consistent and cohesive message.


Design with the consumer in mind

Lastly – but perhaps most importantly – know who it is that you’re designing for. What will they use this device for? What do they expect in a device? What do they enjoy? If your target consumer likes sports over fashion, you should focus on functionality that caters to those preferences. A wearable’s virtual assistant, for instance, should not only be useful from a functional standpoint, but should be well thought out to embody a persona that your consumers will identify with. Even knowing where your audience lives can help in the design process as engagement preferences (like using voice to dial or to check the weather) range region-to-region.

It takes a great deal of research and collaboration to bring to market any wearable device. Designing the right user interface is just one piece of the puzzle, but it’s one that cannot be overlooked. With the right tools in place, wearable devices will have the opportunity to change the way we get information and connect with the world around us.


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Tanya Kraljic

About Tanya Kraljic

Tanya Kraljic is a Principal Interaction and Dialog Designer for Nuance Communications. Her work focuses on the strategy and design of speech experiences in mobile, wearable, in-home, and other emerging technologies. She has helped clients from startups to Fortune 100 companies navigate the space of natural language technology, conversational design, and predictive intelligence. Prior to joining Nuance, Tanya earned a PhD in psycholinguistics, the psychology of language use.