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Five Myths About Designing Wearable Products

Impact resistance and ruggedness are key for wearable devices such as headsets or glasses, which, although they are less likely to suffer direct impacts in everyday use, are more likely to be dropped.
Image courtesy of Intelligent Product Solutions.

Although products like Google Glass and the Apple Watch have everyone from early-adopter techies to teenagers buzzing about wearable technologies, the truth is that “wearables” have been around for a long time.

With roots going back several decades in military applications, products like wrist-mounted computers, wearable wireless communications devices, and hand-mounted barcode readers have been around since the early 1990s. Many of these products have gone on to evolve into technologies that are now so embedded in our everyday lives that we hardly notice their novelty.

What is new, however, is that wearable technology is increasingly finding its way into mainstream consumer applications—and with this progress comes a whole new set of design and engineering challenges.

It would be easy to think that design of wearable devices is routine and involves common design and engineering knowledge, yet having been involved in the creation of wearable devices for more than 20 years, I can attest to the fact that missed efforts in development will be remembered once the devices are used in the field.

Here are five common myths around designing wearable technology for consumers:

Impact Resistance Isn’t Key for Consumer Goods
Has this thought ever crossed your mind? “My product doesn’t need to be ‘rugged’ because it is for the consumer.” Given the realities of how consumers use (and misuse) goods, good design demands giving this common misconception a second thought.

Unless your product is consumable, ruggedness should absolutely be a design consideration. Oftentimes, there’s a concern that ruggedization will affect the aesthetics or ergonomics of the product. While that may be true to some extent, consider these “design constraints” that will require creative thinking to work around.

For example, a wrist-mounted device is going to get smacked into hard surfaces on a regular basis (just look at what happens to your watch face on an almost daily basis). And while devices such as a headset or glasses are less likely to suffer direct impacts in everyday use, they are more likely to be dropped (most often at inopportune moments).

So, impact resistance and ruggedness are key. Product displays, electronics, and contacts need to be designed to survive the abuse of daily living in the hands of consumers.

A Strong Seal Isn’t Important
Here’s a truth about consumers that can’t be ignored: People perspire. Perspiration is salty, so you are not just dealing with moisture. When salty water intrudes into a device, it wreaks havoc with contact corrosion and possible circuit board damage.

This issue is prevalent in any technology product that will come into direct contact with skin. The issue is exacerbated by heat from the device and non-breathable soft goods. If the product is going to have any long-term reliability, it has to be tightly sealed.

As with ruggedness and impact resistance, if the device is a consumable, this may not be an issue. However, consider that most wearable technology products starting out costing around $100 (and the sky’s the limit from there), so few consumers are likely to view wearable technology purchases as throwaways.

It’s OK to Sacrifice Ergonomics for Functionality
A piece of wearable technology that feels comfortable to wear for 10 minutes during a demonstration in a conference room may not necessarily be comfortable when worn for hours and hours as party of everyday life.

That’s why it’s important to watch out for “hard” edges, non-breathable soft goods, or pressure points throughout the design process.

Just as with a pair of hiking boots, a minor rub at the beginning of a long hike might be barely noticeable. Yet a few hours later, it becomes an annoying blister.

The same goes for wearable products. Even a slight pressure point from a pair of glasses, for example, can become a sore red mark after a few hours—or worse. The effect of the device’s heating up will not help the cause, either. Considering ergonomics and how the device will perform—and feel—when worn for long periods of time is important.

Lower-Capacity Batteries Are Usually Sufficient
Poor power management translates into battery drain. Of course, it’s always an option to select a nice, compact battery for aesthetics or ergonomic considerations. But how long will that support the device under typical use conditions?

Creating a usage profile is an essential design activity. Did you know that the Apple Watch is only expected to operate for two to five hours in actual use? What happens over the span of an entire waking day of 16 hours? Ideally, a person doesn’t want to take off a watch during the day to charge it. It remains to be seen if such limitations restrict widespread, long-term adoption of consumer wearable technology.

The takeaway is that battery life has a direct impact on a product’s real usefulness. The challenge is balancing battery capacity and size with efficient power management (i.e., low-power modes, efficient consumption design, etc.) and a realistic usage profile. It can be quite tempting to make assumptions about usage profiles that would lead a designer to believe that a lower-capacity battery will do the job. These trade-offs should be made with a mind toward practical utility to the user.

Heat Dissipation Won’t Be an Issue
Heat is obviously related to power management. It’s a fact that all electronic devices get warm (or even hot) under even normal use conditions. And the harder you work them, the hotter they get. While the risk of an actual burn may be remote, heat can make a device very uncomfortable to wear (this is one of the observed issues with Google Glass).

The more use you want to get out of a wearable device, the more heat dissipation becomes an issue. The designer needs to consider how heat will be managed, from both an energy consumption and comfort perspective.

Being aware of these common consumer wearables design myths can help you avoid pitfalls when developing your own products. Overall, wearable tech devices are here to stay. Products like those from Fitbit, Jawbone, Garmin, and others have established a solid foothold and use cases in sports-related applications. Others are sure to follow.

Products with the right combination of ergonomics and useful features will evolve over time. And while the current crop of products is certainly novel and interesting, stay tuned to see what will be possible in the years ahead—and how much more exciting (and useful) wearables technology can become.

Mitch Maiman is president and co-founder of Intelligent Product Solutions (IPS), a product design company headquartered in Hauppauge, New York. Mr. Maiman has more than 30 years of product design experience and holds a portfolio of United States and international patents.

This technical information has been contributed by
Intelligent Product Solutions

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