2014 seems like it will be the start – and who know, maybe the end – of the wave of wearable devices being unleashed. If you're believer in wearables then you see it as the next logical step for technology to take. If, like me, you're a cynic, then you see it more as a desperate land grab by companies looking to positioning themselves for a potential gold rush.
Either way, wearables are coming. Limited success of devices such as the Pebble has shown that at least a modest market for such devices, and with PC sales close to freefall, and Apple dominating the smartphone and tablet markets, it presents an opening for device makers.
But, as with any other device, wearables aren't a slam-dunk, surefire winner. Nothing is. And just as with tablets before the iPad, there have been plenty of companies in the past who thought they had wearables cracked, only to find that no one was really interested in what they had to offer.
With that in mind, it is my belief that any company planning to release a wearable device – be that a smartwatch, smartglasses, or whatever – needs to have their ducks in a row if they have a chance at success. That means having compelling answers to the following questions.
What does this device do for users?
Sorry, but "it's a smartwatch" or "a computer you wear on your face" just doesn't cut it. Consumers need a clear idea of what the device does, not a vague description of what it is.
Is this device bringing something new to the table or is it just duplicating something that the potential user already owns?
"It tells the time."
"It shows you if you have messages."
"You can view your contacts."
I can do all this with my smartphone, my tablet, and my PC. This is also the issue holding back NFC payments – now much harder is it to whip out my wallet than it is to futz with a smartphone?
Wearables need to bring new stuff to the table. If they don't they're dead.
Could the potential users do what this device does better/quicker/easier/cheaper on an existing device?
Again, if a developer can bring out an app for an existing platform that does what your wearable does, and sell that for $0.99, you're wearable is toast.
Is the device fiddly to use, or does it have parts that can be lost?
Tiny buttons, caps to lose, microscopic displays that require you to have compound eyes to view – all of this doesn't bode well for efficient usage.
Case in point – The Jawbone Up. The cap on that is far too prone to loss.
How much proprietary kit will the user need to cart around?
Think carefully about going down the proprietary route. If they need a special cable or connector, consider giving them a second as a spare.
Again, the Jawbone Up is a good example of how to do this wrong. This needs a proprietary charger, and it comes with one. Lose that, misplace it, or forget it, and the device goes flat, and the user loses momentum using it.
Are updates and apps smooth and painless to apply? Is getting at any data it holds easy?
If not, your device will end up in a drawer.
Is the battery life long enough to not be a hassle?
If it doesn't last a good few days – a week would be a good number to aim for – the user will start to have recharge fatigue as the device spends too much time off their face/wrist and too much time on charge.
Is the device comfortable to wear?
Not just for you, the person who designed it, but everyone else. Is it cold? Hot? Sweaty? Bulky? Be honest. If it is, the device is not ready for release.
You need to be able to actually wear wearable devices, and anything that's uncomfortable is going to get abandoned quickly.
What are the times when the users might not want to wear the device?
Does the wearable have a style that fits in both at home and in the office? What about when out on a dinner date or business meeting? What about on the beach?
The problem with current wearables is that they are glorified sports items, and while they look fine in the gym, they tend to look a bit goofy in the office, and look really out of place when wearing more fancy attire. The ideal situation would be for wearables to be wearable under as many scenarios as possible.
The more users have to take the wearable off, the more likely it is that the wearable stays off.
What does the device look like after a month of wear? Three months? A year?
Wearables look nice and shiny when they're new, but what do they look like after they've been worn in for a bit?
Wristwatches are, on the whole, designed to take quite a beating, but smartwatches and other smart devices seem to be fragile things that fall apart and scratch easily.
Over the years I've had wearables where parts have fallen off, where straps have broken, where the plastic has become scuffed and rough, and where the nooks and crannies of the devices are caked with gunk that has worked its way into the device and can't be cleaned.