The ugly experience of smartwatches

The ugly experience of smartwatches

Smartwatches and other wrist wearables have been prominent at this year’s CES, the consumer electronics show which provides an early look at annual product trends.

Surely if everyone is announcing products in a new category, it must be on the cusp of mass market adoption, right? I disagree and think this is a classic case of engineering (the ‘can we?’ voice within a company) shouting louder than customer experience (the ‘should we?’ voice).

Try this simple test:

  1. Find a real person, i.e. someone who can’t tell you what version of Android they’re using.
  2. Ask them which of the smartwatches pictured below they would wear.
The ugly experience of smartwatches.  Image source:

Image source:

In my experience most declined any of them and, tellingly, didn’t even ask questions like “What does it do?” or “How much does it cost?” They fail on looks alone.

Even if we set aside the geeky aesthetics, none of these products is functionally ready for the mass market and all are beset with user experience problems.

The opportunity for new categories of wearable technology remains wide open for companies creative enough to think beyond putting digital chips in badly designed versions of existing form factors like watches. Long term, wearable technology is likely to be more effective as a source of information input (e.g. sensing body movement and environmental conditions) than a place for information output (e.g. small screens).

Some questions to consider if you’re working in this area:

  • What statement will the user be making by visibly wearing the product? Image is everything, even to those who claim not to consciously style themselves. If there’s no need for it to be visible, focus instead on making it convenient to carry hidden.
  • Does the product do something unique or better than existing products, even if they are in a different category? For instance, the ability of a smartwatch to alert users to an email is not unique simply because it is being delivered on the wrist rather than on their phone – most people have enough ways of knowing when new email has arrived already.
  • Does the user gain any benefit from visual interactions with the product? Most wearable technology will have no need for a display of its own and will be better controlled by connecting to a device with a larger display.
  • How easy is it to connect? If it relies on connecting to other products for any aspect of its functionality, it will live and die by the quality of this connection experience.

What do you think? Have you found any good user experiences with wearable devices? What principles should designers adhere to when working in this area? Please post a comment with your feedback.


Add yours
  1. 1
    Marek Pawlowski

    p.s. before anyone asks, there isn’t a smartwatch I’d chose to wear personally yet, but my favourite (or, more accurately, the one I dislike the least) is Pebble’s new Steel. In terms of other wearables, I might consider using Jawbone’s UP or Misfit’s Shine.

  2. 2
    Sarah Lipman

    MEX of course was first to reveal this category with the award to My Link (see 2008 MEX Award’s entry) way back when. (Wish I’d patented the thing!)

    Seriously… Why ignore 50% of the population and make them all for men? Seems to me that the design process compelling the necessary size and appearance parameters would be a great way to get better appearance and function.

    I agree with you, Marek, that the Pebble Steel is the only really good looking one. Personally, I’m waiting to see what Tory Burch comes out with for Fitbit…

  3. 3

    No speaker or microphone as there is too much unnecessary noise in the world already. Display what was texted or e-mailed, who is calling, time, weather, and perhaps fitness information. Monochrome display to preserve battery life. Metal and glass construction.

  4. 4

    Completely agree with this assessment. I am even a lifelong techie (Have held CTO position several times in web and other tech companies) but, as much as I love technology, I think smart watches are a dumb, very impractical idea. The one point I disagree with is that its existence should be blamed on techies, since I don’t know any techies that like the idea. The main failing most techies have in my experience is that we tend to be too focused on function at the expense of style, and these products do not offer any real improvement in function. The are basically just (less) smart phones with reduced functionality and ridiculously small screens at a time when smart phone screens are actually getting larger.

  5. 5
    Jim Warner

    Your points are well taken. The Razer Nabu appears to be a particularly ingenious way of looking orthogonally at a wearable I/O device. As a notification device or as a programmable gesture detection device, it is more of a discreet accessory to the smartphone than trying to be some kind of screen replacement.

  6. 7
    Marek Pawlowski

    Thanks for your comments so far.

    Sarah: good point about design bias towards men – and specifically men with large wrists. Most of these things are too big, not to mention unstylish. A few years back, a design agency called Artefact worked with the designer Jennifer Darmour to do some pioneering work on wearables which actually look and feel good for both men and women.

    Lugus: you’re right and my intention wasn’t to say this is the fault of a specific group of geeks, just that at the moment the tantalising possibility of ‘we can put a computer on your wrist’ seems to be trumping the good business sense of ‘is it actually a good experience’.

    Jim: the Nabu has some good aspects to its approach. I like how it is conscious of the need for a public face and private face, switching between them with a movement. Also that it doesn’t try to display too much. Doesn’t feel quite right aesthetically though. I feel like some of the companies here would do better to spend a day at Museum looking back over thousands of years of jewellery trends and material uses rather than relying on the typical tech palette of rubber, metal and glass.

  7. 9
    Doug Reeder

    Seven years ago, I modified a wrist brace to carry a Palm OS Treo on my wrist, so I could try a wrist computer like in science fiction. (Treos were far too thick and heavy, but I wasn’t testing that.) I quickly realized that using it still tied up both hands, since I had to position it. Thus, it wasn’t more convenient than a handheld device.

    • 10
      Marek Pawlowski

      Doug: thanks for sharing your experience with this. That must have been quite a project! I agree – there are ergonomic reasons why staring at or interacting with something on your wrist for extended periods of time just isn’t comfortable for most people. There’s a basic test you can try: hold your arm bent, with the palm facing downwards as if you are looking at a watch on your wrist, and time how long it takes before you get tired. Repeat the exercise, but this time with palm facing upwards as if you are studying an object cradled in the palm of your hand. Our muscle and bone structure is designed to make the latter much more comfortable and we can hold that position for longer.

      Ian and Matt: maybe smartwatch pioneers could learn something from the traditional watch companies about naming too? Seamaster, Daytona, Royal Oak… But, then again, maybe not…I’m looking at you ‘Oyster Perpetual Lady-DateJust’! Joking aside, there’s an interesting comparison to be made here: I wonder what would happen if you asked users to choose between a selection of traditional watches and a range of smartwatches, all priced around the average ‘smartwatch’ selling price of about $200? As it stands today, I can’t imagine many would choose the richer feature set of the smartwatch over the aesthetics, brand and build quality of the traditional – not to mention that most smartwatches are also missing the retail buying experience, where people can try different models and feel like they’re treating themselves.

  8. 11
    Matt Plested

    A smart watch by a watch company would at least be a better move. You wouldn’t see omega or tag etc doing a one piece rubber affair!

  9. 13

    Yes. Simon is right on the money with his statement. Most of us can probably remember the first mobile phones too. They were not exactly stylish.
    The stuff coming out of CES seems to me to be very much initial concept product but there is an acceptance these days to bring initial concepts to market rather than wait for the finished, polished product. We see that with online services too.
    My only disappointment is that I thought the industry was more advanced than it clearly is. It’s an exciting area for sure, but looks like we just have to wait a bit longer for some beautiful, optimised killer products.
    There’s also a great opportunity for a newcomer to come in and totally disrupt as well.

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