From Syuzi Pakhchyan, Experience Design Lead at BCG Digital Ventures
As the whooping cheers for wearables quiets to a whisper, impatient technophiles are as quick to deem them dead as they were to champion their rising star three years prior. When crowdsourcing darling, Pebble, came to an abrupt end and rumors flared that Jawbone was exiting the consumer market altogether, these fair-weather fans quickly leapt to the hasty conclusion that wearables hadn’t “lived up to their promise.” But what, exactly, was this promise?
Depending on who you ask, the answer could be different. For some, wearables were supposed to untether us from our smartphones, yet the smartphone was positioned at the core of the product experience. For others, wearables were supposed to make us fitter, healthier versions of ourselves, yet our own data was virtually inaccessible, locked away in digital fortresses. For the even more ambitious, wearables were supposed to offer new paradigms for interacting with the objects and environments around us, yet they naively interfered with human interaction. The truth is, whatever aspiration we may have had for wearables, they failed to capture our imagination.
Many of these first generation wearables anchored their core experience around a bet on a technology rather than genuine user needs. The resulting product experience was often not only contradictory to their lofty vision, but created gigantic barriers to achieving it. The UX burden of these wearables stripped them of their utility and once they fell off the wrist, there was not a good enough reason to put them back on again.
So, does this mean that wearables are dead? Far from it. The hype may be over, but now the real work must begin. The obvious place to start is to ask ourselves why wearables failed to reach their full potential. What failed to resonate? Was the UX burden too high? The utility not enough? Were they just too darn ugly?
These are all pieces of the puzzle, but more importantly, most wearables failed to develop a distinctive point of view or tell an aspirational story. Every decent product designer knows that a successful product must meet its users’ emotional needs, and every great CEO knows that this must fundamentally involve weaving a distinct point of view and a compelling narrative into the fabric of the product.
Few wearable companies to date are very good at telling stories, and by stories I don’t mean product stories or user stories—I mean human stories. To consumers today, what your brand stands for is arguably more important than the latest sensor technology.
Technology companies often rely on differentiation driven by technology alone or a set of features with no compelling story. However, we must remember we are designing some of the most intimate products competing for finite real estate—products we are asking users to wear on their bodies 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Those that appeal to the heart, like a watch passed down from generation to generation, or help people reflect their aspirational selves, like a delicate garment designed with thoughtful detail, have a better chance of remaining on the body than those relying on utility alone.
As we have seen with fitness trackers, most technologies quickly become commodified and their features are easily copied. Today you can purchase the Xiaomi Mi Band 2 for less than $20, so why would you want to spend $250 on a Kate Spade hybrid watch? What the fashion industry does, and does well, is tell a story. It is the aspirational part of fashion that captures people’s imagination, and it is this storytelling—not just an aesthetic revival—that is missing from wearables today.
The Future of Wearables
Walking the floor of the Sands Expo at the CES this year (the Consumer Electronics Show, for those not familiar), I got a glimpse of the future of wearables with Fossil’s display of hybrid and smartwatches. Displaying a wide spectrum of brands from Diesel to Kate Spade, Fossil presented a range of watches and activity trackers that told a unique story through both materials and user experience. In 2016, Fossil launched its Q line of connected wearables. Rather than expanding on features or adding new sensors, they focused on delivering each brand’s distinct POV to the smartwatch category. The end result was over 40 smartwatch hybrids launched across brands as diverse as Diesel and Michael Kors.
Each watch contained a unique app and functionality reflective not only of the brand’s aesthetic, but also its personality. For example, the Kate Spade app offers a clever countdown feature that the user can personalize to celebrate a life event. From software to hardware, users have been missing this kind of unified experience in current wearable offerings that often take a superficial approach to collaboration with a fashion or apparel brand. The number of SKUs might make a technology company dizzy, but this need for brand differentiation is what makes wearables an incredibly hard nut to crack.
Fossil’s strategic approach to wearables has shattered the idea that the technology industry will own the next evolution in computing, perhaps the greatest misconception surrounding them today. Wearables indeed are the next evolutionary step to augmenting the smartphone, but the experience will be distributed across the body—and more importantly—across brands.
The apparel industry hasn’t yet wrapped its mind around wearables, which many dismiss as gadgets shrouded as unattractive accessories. Considering that the majority of the industry makes its profit from accessories, however, we can be assured they are indeed paying attention.
Fashion or Technology First?
As we’ve established, successful wearables require a brand-centric approach which takes a special hybrid of design expertise and technology talent to achieve. Larger fashion conglomerates have a built-in advantage over startups as they naturally design products fashion first, integrating technology with skilled talent sourced from startups, as was the case when Fossil acquired Misfit Wearables.
Startups typically create wearables technology first, integrating branding and fashion elements almost as an afterthought. Startups that seek to learn from the fashion industry to craft their own unique and authentic brand will benefit.
So, how can a startup learn to think like a fashion company? Drawing from my hybrid background working with both fashion brands and technology companies, I’ve created some step-by-step guidelines that startups should follow to ensure success.
Step One: Tell an Authentic Story
The first step is to create an authentic narrative through your branding, design and experience decisions. In order to do this, you must have a clear understanding of your company’s values and how they align with your users’ values. In fashion, heritage plays a critical role in the identity of the fashion house. Designers create subtle nuances that make garments feel relevant six months from now, if not prophetic, by viewing the past through today’s cultural lens.
Begin by asking your team: What will be our heritage?
Step Two: Design for Flow
For the end user, there is only one experience. Brands that unify the software, hardware and industrial design with a distinct POV told through their brand messaging will feel more authentic to users.
While it’s important to create consistency throughout the user experience, its just as important for us to understand that we, as humans, are not fixed data points, but moving bodies fluidly navigating through multiple layers of identity. Our wardrobes, for example, are shaped by who we want to be at work and who we want to be at play, and the fashion industry knows this very well.
Why can’t my wearables, then, be conscientious enough to stop buzzing my wrist when I’m at home from work and playing with my son? It is the rhythm of our of lives—the flow between one need state to another— that we must consider when designing wearables.
Step Three: Obsess Over Materials
Choice in materials tells a story. It is what people touch, feel, and remember and it is why they will hold onto a wearable when the the battery depletes or the technology becomes obsolete.
Step Four: Consider Context Over Technology
Designing for the body is more than designing for ergonomics or washability. It is using the lens of the body in context as a starting point to understand technology. What this translates to is viewing the body as a vehicle for communication and self-expression. For example, it is important to understand the nuances of what motion and movement (how we walk, stand, flirt, etc.) mean in our everyday lives as much as it is important to know what our increasing heart rate signals. The body does not exist in a vacuum, and we cannot design for it in one either.
Step Five: Design with Empathy
Lastly, we must design with empathy. This is actually one lesson that must be acknowledged across all industries. The products we design shape cultures, experiences, behaviors, relationships and personal identities. Designing with an empathic lens means being cognizant of the implications on our society.
Do we want to live in a world that treats people’s bodies as illuminated billboards or doesn’t take into consideration our neighbor’s privacy? I certainly hope not.
Whatever your opinion may be about the fashion industry—too superficial, too froufrou, too driven by trends—there is no denying that they are masterminds at creating aspirational visions and dream-like worlds we all want to be part of. I, for one, celebrate the death of yesterday’s wearables if the vision for tomorrow’s is the ordinary made extraordinary made possible by subtle enhancements thanks to technology.
Syuzi will be speaking on a panel at SXSW this Sunday, March 12th, joined by Steven Holmes, VP of New Devices Group and GM of Product Innovation and Engineering at Intel; and Pauline Van Dongen, Fashion Designer specialized in wearable technology. The topic: “Beyond the Interface: Designing Wearables We Love.” If you are interested in learning more about the intersection of fashion and technology, please drop by JW Marriott Salon F-G at for the 1230pm start time.