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The next opportunity for wearable technologies: aesthetics

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Many of us have seen both the hype around wearables as well as the growing number of critiques of the hype. But one thing is clear: what we see in the market now is just the beginning, a warm up band for the main act to follow.

In my previous post I discussed the problem of sustainable use of tracking devices and how consumers abandon them within months typically. But is the battle for the wrist and smartwatches really the future of wearable technology? Why the wrist and why do products designed for the wrist and marketed for their aesthetics such as the Fitbit Alta fail to impress from a design perspective?

Furthermore, could user experience be wrapped up with aesthetics and could this be an important factor even for medical devices? Of course it is. We need only go back nearly a decade to find examples of how aesthetics were used to rethink wearable technology. It might be time to re-visit the past to see the future.

Nearly a decade ago, diabetes blogger Amy Tenderich posted a blog bemoaning the fact that diabetics needed their own Steve Jobs to re-design the insulin pump. The device worn by many diabetics to manage insulin levels was viewed as a clunky medical device devoid of any aesthetic considerations. Functionality trumped aesthetics. But sick people, or those struggling with chronic diseases and/or aging, do care about aesthetics, especially if they have the device on the body.

A design firm in San Francisco discovered the blog post and within a short time re-designed an insulin pump that could make diabetics feel better about wearing the device. We hear a lot about patient engagement these days and in this context, aesthetics mean a lot.

Devices are not solely about data and the data are not the only dimensions of disease or wellness. These can become aspects of identities.  To illustrate the case, a similar design effort was sponsored by the UK Design Council over a decade ago to rethink the hearing aid and create “hear ware”.

At the time, ‘Hearing Aids’ were viewed as stigmatized and associated with the aging body. Introducing an aesthetic component helped designers to re-imagine hearing devices well beyond the hearing aid, to address hearing challenges we all face, such as being in a noisy restaurant or when exposed to noise pollution. The competition featured in the Victoria and Albert Museum featured devices resembling jewelry with a wider range of functions.

Now enter Amanda Parkes, a New York-based technologist/designer with a PhD from MIT’s Media Lab. Notice as well, the location: New York, the heart of high fashion in the US. Famous for her invocation, “Let Silicon Valley have the wrist, I’ll take the body”, Amanda is deep into re-imagining wearables from both a fashion perspective and materials design. From smart fibers to fiber batteries and bio-materials, she is rethinking the whole concept of the wearable from an aesthetic angle and materials. Wearables, meet Bauhaus design principles.

When we look at what is going on in the labs these days, with sensors in the form of tattoos that can detect ever more powerful biometric indications, we need to begin thinking about the body as an interface. Many of these sensors will be invisible. They may be connected to your mobile money application as well.

When the novelty of wearing a shrunken iPhone on the wrist wears off, there is much more work to be done from an innovation standpoint. Parkes makes the case for diversity, as many in the tech sector do these days, but for rethinking form, function and appearance.

Perhaps in no other sector will diversity in design from an age, gender, ethnicity, you name it subjectivity; aesthetics follows broader cultural norms and trends. And this matters in healthcare too. I’m betting the next generation of market leaders in this sector will grasp this, and in doing so will find themselves pushing on an open door. Aesthetics matters for the afflicted as much for the well, if not more so.

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