Wearables aren’t going anywhere. As consumers become more familiar with wearing sensor-based technologies on their physical bodies, 2018 promises a new wave of wearable innovation and experimentation.

It’s a sexy space for designers that are intrigued by the idea of working at the intersection of fashion, technology, and all too often wellness, and it adds an additional layer to the significance of user experience design. No longer are experiences consumed merely by engaging with a screen or a device. Our bodies themselves have become key players in the game.

We spoke with two wearables experts about what UX designers new to the space need to be aware of as we head into a new frontier of wearable technology. Wearables have graduated from basic fitness trackers to include augmented reality, enterprise solutions, and beyond. The opportunities — and challenges — that come with it are what make the field so exciting.

1. There are two sides to wearable technology UX: hardware and software

Tom Emrich, considered one of 2017’s most influential people in virtual reality and wearable technology, said one of the unique opportunities with user experience in wearable tech is that the design process is multi-faceted, including both a hardware and a software component.

“From the hardware side, it’s all about the wearability of the device because unlike a smartphone or a computer or a laptop, this is a piece of hardware that you are putting on your body and therefore comfort, fit, fashion — including sometimes offering a variety of styles — all come into play,” he said. “When you’re thinking about user experience for wearable technology, the first thing you need to be considering is where is it going to be on the body? Is this actually going to be worn, and — maybe more importantly — what are some of the user experience choices that need to be made in order for it to be worn?”

As important as this is, it’s usually the software side that makes or breaks a wearable, Emrich said. This is where user value comes in. Typically taking the form of a smartphone application, the software is where many of the key UX choices are made. It goes beyond figuring out which operating systems the application will support, but also where sensors will be placed on the body, how data will be collected, and how the information will play into the user experience.

“The majority of wearable tech is about presenting biometric data back to the user, almost like a data mirror,” Emrich said. “It reminds users that we are actually machines, biological machines.” The caveat, however, is that users generally don’t want to analyze information and be hit with mounds of data.

“For those wearables that are presenting data back to the user, there are those really key user experience decisions that need to be made on what data needs to be presented when, how much data, etc., and typically those applications that present really simple, easy-to-chew-on data points that are either contextual or easy to digest and understand are the ones that succeed.”

Fitness trackers, Emrich said, are a perfect example of wearables being well-received within the consumer market. Fitbit, he argues, was so successful because of how it relayed information back to users, and also because the software allowed users to share their data, connect and be social with other users, encouraging each other to continue using the product.

“Steps are easy to understand and often times you may not even see numbers at all. That’s another user experience choice that can be made in software. You can just literally tell them if they’ve achieved a goal or not achieved a goal, and if they wish to go into more advanced settings they can dig deeper into the data,” he said.

2. There are many categories of wearables, each with its own UX considerations

Wearables aren’t just fitness trackers anymore. The space has grown exponentially and now includes many subcategories that fall under the wearable tech umbrella. There are fitness trackers, smart watches, EEG headbands, AR/VR devices, and so on.

“That is something to note as there’s going to be different user experience decisions in those categories, and also those wearables all fit on a different parts of the body, which is another interesting thing as a UX designer to consider,” Emrich said. “On the smartphone side, sure maybe you would need to consider how that device is held in the hand, but you didn’t need to worry about how does it fit on different noses, or how does it look on different-shaped faces, or how does it fit on women’s wrists versus men’s wrists, so it’s that intersection between fashion and technology that’s really interesting.”

Beyond this, users have different expectations and needs for different wearables, not just on a consumer level but an enterprise level too. We’re now seeing wearables becoming safety certified. Microsoft HoloLens, for example, recently became certified protective eyewear. Workers in fields such as elevator repair and car manufacturing use the mixed reality device on the job, which means UX designers must factor in how these wearables improve these employees’ abilities to do their job. Again, this ties into the two sides of wearable technology and shows where software has the opportunity to shine.

“UX designers and creators should be thinking about how this application is underscoring and highlighting how this hardware is enriching that person’s life — making it better, safer, healthier, superhuman. However it might be related to this distinct wearable tech and the sensors that are within that device, the software is what needs to make it sing,” Emrich said. “If you open the app and you’re not able to immediately understand the value of that wearable device, you have not done your job right.”

3. Wearables are a connecting point between the digital and physical worlds

Scott Sullivan, author of “Designing for Wearables: Effective UX for Current and Future Devices,” said one of the things that first attracted him as a designer to wearable technology was how vast it was compared to traditional UX.  

“What wearables meant to me was a crossing over into the real world,” Sullivan said. “It theoretically opened up a lot of possibilities in terms of data collection, taking advantage of more location-specific things and being out in the real world. A whole new level of information was on the table because of that.”

This is one of the reasons why there are now so many subcategories of wearables, and likely many more to come. Technology is now an integral part of many people’s everyday lives, and the lines between technology and reality often blur. Wearables represent an opportunity to make that line less fuzzy by using data to improve people’s lives in the physical world.

4. With wearables especially, it’s not just about empathy, but ethics

For Sullivan, wearables reiterate to him the fundamental component of UX design and the increased importance of advocating for your users. Even in today’s age, UX is still often treated on a UI-level, but when you’re incorporating technology into devices, fashion, clothing, headpieces — anything that people wear on their bodies — there needs to be consideration made for ethics and empathy throughout the entire process. This means user experience design isn’t something that can just be applied at the very end.

“If you’re a designer, you have this almost-mandate — you’re almost a technological judiciary in that sense, where you have to keep people’s best interests in mind,” Sullivan said. “I think that’s what designers should do, and in order to achieve that, they need to come in at a higher level than just interface or device.”

This means in an ideal world, UX designers have a say in how agency is given to users of wearables. Sullivan considers many wearables to be invasive and questions if they’re improving or taking away from a user’s life. When we asked him about misconceptions around UX design and wearables, he mentioned it’s the role of the UX designer itself that is not often understood.

“You’re not going to be able to deliver on that promise of making someone’s life better by taking notifications from their pocket or from their phone to their wrist,” he said. “In terms of misconceptions, it’s really about misconceptions around the role of the designer. I think how designers can and should play into these things should be at a higher level than they usually are.”

5. At the end of the day, it’s still UX design — Go back to basics

Emrich consults and invests in numerous startups and companies operating within the wearables space.

“In general, my two pieces of advice for any wearable company is design it in a way that people will wear it, and ensure that no matter what — at all costs — you’re delivering value that’s integral to that person’s life,” he said.

“The biggest thing that you need to do as a startup is understand who your audience and who your market is, and talk to them as quickly as possible. I think that’s useful whether you’re on the technology side, UX side or the business side. If you don’t have the user at the center of your strategy at all times, and not just know your user from a stat perspective and from what you think of that user, but actually go and talk to that user and do some rapid prototyping and engage that user in early on, then your chances of failing are exponentially higher.”

It doesn’t matter how fancy or cutting-edge your wearable is. If you don’t know who your user is, you won’t have anyone to wear it.