Fitness trackers, health, and activity monitoring ‘wearables’ are increasingly prevalent yet focus primarily on data capture. Design and materials approaches that merge precise data capture with clinically relevant reporting and positive user experiences are more likely to succeed. Here are key performance indicators for successful wearable design and adoption.
Think of fitness wearables as New Year’s resolutions. Acquiring one is an act of optimism. “This will be the year I get more active, more physically fit, you think, more in tune with me, more in control”. For many people the act of acquiring a fitness tracker symbolises taking decisive action to improve their future. Yet like many New Year’s resolutions, we quickly discover that fitness and behaviour changes rarely respond to enthusiasm and gadgets. As care and health providers know, making active, productive change takes sweat equity (literally) and a willingness not only to take an unflinching approach at one’s own motivations but to seek assistance from others.
Depending on the individual, of course, the social component of a fitness programme, receiving the advice and encouragement from others, may make the difference between keeping those New Year’s resolutions or seeing them fall by the wayside. Interestingly, however, the most effective fitness wearables available today are encroaching on the traditional role of activity coaches and care providers even when they lack key elements of the equation required to inspire lasting behavior change.
Let’s envision the future of fitness wearables, drawing upon their practicalities and promise for supporting a ‘better you’ by examining current trends, technological capabilities and fitness philosophies. Let’s create a roadmap for maximising the future of fitness wearables.
Wearable fitness trackers are not particularly new, but they are experiencing growth as popular gadgets, as aids for helping sedentary persons to become more active, and for helping those who are already active to achieve more challenging fitness goals. One of the key factors in the increasing success of these devices, both in terms of sales numbers and efficacy, may be attributed to technology integration. Where many wearables provide summary data to users through small, shock-protected interfaces, they also connect with external data repositories and reporting engines which can be accessed via mobile applications, websites, and other devices. This opens a world of reporting possibilities where individuals can track their activities, evaluate their progress, receive automated coaching, and more from the comfort of a chair. Remarkably, as a motivator, a fitness tracker can help quantify an individual’s exertion in relation to their identified goals and by doing so make the individual, in a sense, their own support system. This digital partner can help individuals see themselves in an unflinching light that rewards progress, however small, and by illuminating daily goals can encourage even the most sedentary to become more active step by step. While this works for some, two problems emerge: data alone may not be a sufficient motivator for sustained change (fitness devices are great at reporting, but not always sufficiently encouraging), and by being a clique of owner and device, the fitness process does not inherently involve the advice or guidance of care professionals.
For medical, health, care, and activity professionals, wearables create their own set of problems. Fitness trackers are not qualified medical professionals, they lack a holistic view of their wearers, and they are not usually integrated into providers’ health records systems. As a result, the trackers cannot adequately coach or communicate with those who could best shape a fitness regimen to an individual’s needs. Moreover, what is a care provider to make of a patient’s fitness data? During a time-limited office visit, when faced with an encouraged (or discouraged) fitness tracker, and a wearer who is toting reams of highly granular digital activity data on their smartphone, how is a care provider to respond? They have neither the time to review it nor the clinical certainty that the data is meaningful, and may be at a loss to do more. They may fall back on traditional admonishments to ‘eat less and exercise more,’ waving away data that fails to communicate its importance in a clinically relevant manner.
The challenge for wearable designers, and for medical, care and health providers attempting to make sense of their patients’ data, is integration. The future of wearables is not simply a better device, or a device that collects better data, but one that can provide data in a manner that is appropriate for informing and encouraging patients and that is informative for clinicians. Great opportunities exist for partnership between technologists and clinical care personnel, and identifying what data providers would prefer to receive and how best to present it is an appropriate challenge for information and interaction design specialists. This brings a third, vital, component into the mix: interaction design. We’ve all encountered products, particularly in the clinical realm that give the impression that they were designed “by engineers for engineers.” We know them by their ruthless efficiency and brutal aesthetics. For the fitness tracker of the future I would add “designers” to this ideal partnership between technologists and providers. If we can’t communicate it simply, then, as the saying goes, it doesn’t exist.
This is especially important in lieu of the exponentially expanding types of data that fitness trackers and their partner devices (smart watches, smartphones) are able to capture. Current and future fitness wearables are moving far beyond simply calculating step-to-calorie ratios. In conjunction with smart watches and smartphone data applications, fitness trackers contribute to an increasingly specialised data capture process that can measure and quantify menstrual cycles, blood sugar tides, caloric intake, moods, gait irregularities, and virtually any health-related data that the wearers care to capture, input, and track. The complexities for patients attempting to interpret their activity data and for care providers attempting to support their patients will only grow as this technology continues to evolve. Thus a shoulder-to-shoulder collaboration between technologists, providers, and user experience designers may prove uniquely beneficial, ensuring that what can be captured can be presented in meaningful and clinically relevant ways.
Thus the future of fitness trackers and wearables depends on integration: with wearer’s lives, their health goals, and the increasing constellation of potential sources of data. As electronic health records become more ubiquitous, the temptation to broaden their boundaries will become technologically pressing (as this becomes more possible) and clinically beneficial (as dental records, traditional EHR content, fitness and diet information and other disease-or condition-related data is captured more reliably and made available).
Wearables’ success also depends on the form factor of the wearable and its ease of use. It would be foolish to downplay the importance of the materials design, technology, and interface challenges awaiting our ideal future wearable. What could be more intimate or in need of durability than something we choose to wear? Wearables are simultaneously a form of expression and a functional life-support. Visually, they are a personal statement and as such should be as variable as the uses they are put to. Are they a general all-purpose tool to be worn in any circumstance? Are they casual wear or formal wear? Can they be both? Form and function come together in wearables in unique and potentially dramatic ways. Coiled around a wrist or an ankle the physical and visual aesthetics of wearables are undeniably important. We may opt for an ugly wearable because it provides a function we value, but ultimately wearables’ success may be attributable not only to what they do, but to how stylishly they accomplish their intended functions.
Conversely, there’s a truism in design circles that the best tools are invisible– valued more for their ability to support your tasks than to call attention to themselves. (A pencil or an unadorned teapot is a good example of this.) Future wearables might be functionally invisible — sensors woven into clothing, embedded in a blanket, a bandage, or an earring. But visible or invisible, the materials we choose to place next to our skin will reveal how we feel about their contributions to our personal style in relation to the functional value they provide.
What will these successes mean? Achieving New Year’s resolutions, improved health outcomes, better disease and condition management, and more focus on life experiences than activity minutia!
The most effective future wearables will conduct their data collection tasks reliably and with greater precision, provide an artful physicality and an aesthetically pleasing ease of use, and most of all present data in an easy to read, meaningful, and clinically-relevant formats. In summary, and in no particular order, here is our list of key tenets of the successful wearable of the future.
The ideal wearable of the future should:
Work: The scope of a wearable’s purview should be clearly defined and well executed. If it fails to function it will be left behind.
Be Easy: Interfaces should be clear and understandable, interactions should be obvious and simple, and attendant resources (websites, apps) should be similarly efficient, understandable, and encourage both goal setting and meaningful exploration of data.
Reflect Collaboration: A wearable’s success is not purely a result of technology-related factors. Success will come from a collaborative partnership between technologists, providers, and user experience designers in order to ensure that data is reliably collected, parsed in clinically appropriate ways, and communicated to both wearers and their advisors in summarised, straightforward, clinically meaningful ways.
Think Ecosystem: Where and how a wearable communicates will determine its longitudinal utility. The ability to share meaningful, appropriate, summary data with electronic health records and decision making systems brings with it radical new opportunities and responsibilities.
Pass the Sniff Test: Infamously, a popular early fitness tracker developed an unfortunate and persistent odour after several days of use, and washing did little help. As aesthetic contributions to our bodies, wearables should be comfortable, artful or invisible, and protect us from embarrassment, chafing, or other social or physical injury.
Be Audience Appropriate: For whom is the wearable intended? Couch potatoes and marathoners view activity in very different ways. Motivating them to change sedentary behaviour (or form) requires different approaches and identifying core and edge audiences is a vital part of ensuing positive user interactions and experiences.
Support Longitudinal Use: Behaviour change occurs most often through concerted effort over time. Wearables should support novices as they become experts and experts as they become masters. Wearables that support behaviour change should be durable and reward/encourage individuals according to their evolving behaviour patterns. One size does not always fit all. As behaviours evolve, the wearable and its attendant information systems should as well.
Connect Effortlessly: The strength of a wearable not only lies in its tabulation but its ability to communicate the relevance of those tabulations. Data transfer should be simple and reliable.
Be Artful: Wearables should contribute aesthetic value to individuals and thereby enhance their courage when making behavioural change.
Support Clinical Care: As data trackers proliferate, patients will increasingly want to share their data, and care providers will benefit from reliable, summary data relevant to patient care that is presented meaningfully.