Since I started my business in healthcare-focused market research, I have been paying attention to wearable devices. Wearables devices have great potential for monitoring health parameters and improving care for certain chronic conditions.
The business press has been making a big deal of wearable devices, predicting exponential market growth over the next few years.
I am interested in the user perspective – how useful are these devices, actually? Some statistics show that, similar to fitness club memberships, many people who purchase fitness tracking wrist bands abandon them after a few months of usage.
As an anthropologist, I believe the best way to learn about a certain area of life is to immerse yourself in it, to experience what it feels like and to understand how it works. So I started going to these meet-ups for people engaged in the world of wearable devices. They are awesome!
Run in Steve-Jobs-style corporate presentations by the inspiring wearables guru Tom Emrich, companies in the wearables space present their prototypes and the audience gets to try stuff out in the post-presentation mix-and-mingle. My favorite so far has been the mind-controlled beer tap.
I have met many people in the wearables community, and they are certainly very different in style and outlook to my usual clientele (executives from pharma companies). However, I have hesitated to take the plunge into trying a wearable myself.
I am a pretty fit person, working out two to three times a week, to maintain my health and my sanity, eating pretty healthy, and most of the time walking to public transit rather than taking the car. Whether I run 5 minutes less today than I did last week is not really important to me, as long as I get some exercise every few days. Competing with others along fitness goals does not interest me at all. But I realized that not trying out a wearable myself would deprive me of certain insights that could be essential for conducting the user research that I am so interested in doing.
So I bought a Garmin Vivofit last week. Three things enticed me to purchase this device rather than some of the other ones that are very popular (Jawbone Up, Fitbit, Fuelband).
- It shows the time. I am of a generation that still wears a wrist watch, and wearing both a fitness wrist band and a watch separately seemed silly.
- Its battery life is supposed to be one year. Charging devices is a big pain, and in my household we are competing for outlets and charger cables to charge the various cell phones, iPods etc for the next morning.
- It has a red progress bar that shows up after you have been sitting around for too long. My occupation requires a lot of sitting in front of the computer. I tend to get into a state where I push myself to concentrate only half an hour longer, then another, then another, and then become all tense because I have not taken enough breaks. So a little nudge to get up and walk around seemed like a very useful feature to me.
Here are my first experiences with the device:
- Putting it on is quite uncomfortable. You have to press down on this clip to go into these holes, and doing that hurts the inside of my wrist. Watch wristband makers have certainly figured that one out better. Maybe if you are a tough man you don’t mind. But I’m a lady.
- The red progress bar is very useful. It has actually helped me take more frequent breaks when I am doing computer work, and I feel better after getting up and walking around for a few minutes.
- The red progress bar is dumb. This so-called smart device apparently registers only walking activity, i.e. when I swing my left arm back and forth. I was frustrated to see the red bar show up after I spent an hour in the kitchen preparing dinner, and after I was in the back yard, raking and bagging leaves. Apparently, either the sensor or the algorithm don’t realize that these are physical activities.
- The red progress bar can be fooled. Just for fun, I tried out swinging my arm back and forth for a minute while I was sitting at the dinner table, and it actually tricked the device into registering this as physical activity, so the red bar disappeared.
- The dashboard that shows my steps and my sleep is kind of interesting. I have only worn the device for a few days, so can’t say yet how useful this data is going to be long-term, if at all, but it’s neat to look at in a narcissistic way – the same way I look at my Twitter account from time to time and delight in the fact that I actually have some followers.
Anyway, it has been a very interesting experiment so far, and definitely proof of the value of ‘walking in the shoes of’ to really understand something.
The true potential of wearables is difficult to tell at the moment. There could be all sorts of useful applications that have not yet been developed or that have not yet gained broad acceptance. After a lot of enthusiasm in the media, there seems to be a bit of a backlash now.
Here’s a recent page from The Atlantic, with quotes of tech opinion leaders all questioning the enthusiasm for wearables:
And here’s an article written by a health IT consultant about the more technical challenges of integrating mobile health monitoring devices into electronic medical records.
While I share some of the skepticism, the wearables space is certainly an area worth watching, and with great growth opportunities for companies who ‘get it right’. I am excited to be part of this journey.