Designing wearables

By Nick Rhodes, Programme Director • Central Saint Martins

September 29, 2015

Developing new technological products always present challenges. When it comes to designing wearables there are additional considerations. The implicit intimacy of wearables – their visibility on, and proximity to the body – requires particular design sensitivity. Just as clothing and accessories express identity so must wearables. In other words their value resides not only in their usefulness, but also in the ways in which they convey symbolic meaning to ourselves as well as others.

So when designing technologically enabled wearable products there are some key principles to bear in mind:

Design is about people. Not things.

The process of designing starts (and ends) with people. Investigate, at close hand, people’s behaviours, needs and desires and ask a crucial question:

“How might this technology ameliorate problems, extend or amplify people’s existing wants and desires?”

You have to look closely, and question not just what people say is important, but what their habits and behaviours tell you about the values underlying them. In relation to contactless payments for instance, might these behaviours talk to ideas of privacy, control, and security? Having identified authentic values, the subsequent question is: “how to develop products that address the values uncovered through their utility and their meaning?” Put simply: the product has to work well and tell a meaningful story about its owner. Really successful wearable products will provide a platform through which individuals can articulate their sense of identity whilst being a source of usefulness. In that order.

Really useful

The product has to be a genuine answer to an authentic need or desire.

Customer insight is, again, critically important. By borrowing sociological and anthropological methods one can uncover powerful product opportunities, some which may reside in interactions so routine and everyday that they often drop from view. It is critical to be clear about the issues you are addressing before you start. Single-mindedness is usually best, while apparent complexity is rarely successful; Swiss Army Knife solutions tend to confuse.

It’s not about technology

Surveys show that much of today’s wearable tech would make a high proportion of people feel very self-conscious and embarrassed if they wore it.

Put simply: a product has to make the wearer feel good about themselves. For broad acceptance, technology needs to enable people’s stories of the self, not to be the story.

Design for pleasure

According to the sociologist Patrick Jordan there are four different forms of pleasure: physiological, ideological, sociological and psychological. It’s a given than any wearable product must deliver in the first category – it has to be comfortable. However, a new product that does not provide pleasure in at least one additional category will not survive.

However, compelling products and services that are a source of usefulness, meaningfulness and pleasure; that respond to authentic insights, will not only survive, they’ll thrive.

We’re still in a period of discovery where wearables are concerned. But those products that address these issues are best placed to truly connect with people and really take off.

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