5 questions to ask before you buy a wearable

As we welcome more smart products into our homes, on our bodies, and into our everyday, it’s timely to start asking some questions about what we should look for in a wearable, if it is to make sense in our lives.

Samsung Smartwatch

I remember giving a talk about emerging technologies in ca. 2016, I asked the audience: “who owns a smart watch?” No one raised their hand. In an audience of 400 at a tech conference in Copenhagen.

Danish version: 5 spørgsmål du skal stille, inden du køber en wearable

Today, wearables are ubiquitous – from the tech savvy first adopters to runners tracking their progress, even to children, to encourage fitness and play. 

As we welcome more smart products into our homes, on our bodies, and into our everyday, it’s timely to start asking some questions about what we should look for in a wearable, if it is to make sense in our lives.

In this article, we’re not necessarily looking at the technical ability of the wearable, but rather, how it can become a useful object which fulfills our needs and caters to our identity. Here are 5 questions to ask yourself before your next wearable purchase. 

1.What is the primary purpose of this wearable? 

You might want an activity tracker, but do you want one for walking, running, swimming, biking, or something else? There are plenty of options in each category as well as some wearables which specialize in one area, and others which generalize over multiple areas.

Maybe you want to have a better night’s sleep, in which case, The Oura Ring might be a consideration as it’s renowned for its excellent sleep tracking ability.

If you’re a swimmer, then Form Swim  might be the choice for you – swim goggles which track your stroke rate, pace, and distance. Maybe you just want something which tells you how many steps a day you’re taking, then you could turn to anything from a Fitbit to a Xiomai to a Garmin. 

So the first question is, what is the purpose? Here’s a quick list of some of the purposes of wearables: 

  • Activity (general, steps, running, biking) 
  • Swimming
  • Sleeping
  • Menstruation
  • Trail running
  • Biking
  • Heart rate 
  • Blood pressure
  • Stress
  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Breathing
  • Pregnancy
  • Diabetes

2.Where do you want to wear this wearable? 

Many wearables are wrist-worn because people are used to wearing watches. We have a history of keeping information ‘at-hand’ and everything from a regular watch to James Bond spy watches have existed on the wrist.

However, there are also a number of other wearables. As mentioned above, there are smart rings, smart shoes which track your activity and even offer a coaching program, smart jewellery which monitors activity and stress, workout wear that measures your muscle activity, and EEG headsets to measure your brainwaves and give real time feedback and guidance for better meditations.

So before we all start wearing 4 or 5 wrist worn wearables, consider

  • what you need it for and
  • where you’d like to wear it.

3.What kind of experience do you want? 

Do you want to glance at your wrist, and know how many steps you’ve taken, or do you want to deep dive in an app, gaining insights on data from the past hours, days, weeks, or years?

As an Interaction Designer, I look at how people’s daily routines, habits and behaviours are impacted by the technologies we are developing and one of the most important questions is how the technology fits into your life, and how you want to interact with it.

We can take three examples here: The Apple Watch, a FitBit Inspire, and the Oura Ring. On the Apple Watch, it’s a click and a scroll, you have to choose the icon, then scroll to see your steps. On the FitBit, you can just glance at your wrist, and on the Oura Ring, you have to unlock your phone, go into the app and review the details.

Deciding how you want to interact with your wearable is important, as well as if you want to wear it 24/7, or only use it on occasion, such as the swim goggles. 

4.How do you want to be notified? 

A primary criticism of technology today is the impact it has on our lives, our relationships and our wellness. We are bombarded daily with notifications and prompts, “Take 2,682 more steps to reach 10,000!”, “Did you eat lunch?”, “You’ve got 2 hours left in your fast!”, “Did you sleep a full 8 hours last night?”, and so many more. 

While these can sometimes be helpful, it’s often overwhelming to be confronted not only with updates about all the digital ongoings in your life but also, to have your activity (or lack thereof), eating, sleeping, breathing, and social habits examined and commented on, constantly.

Ask yourself, what information is important to you? Which question would you like to have answered? Is it “

  • Am I being active enough?
  • Have I taken 10,000 steps?
  • How has my quality of sleep been, on average, for the past 7 nights and what should I do to sleep better tonight?

It’s often useful to check out YouTube videos of wearables to learn about how the notifications and data visualizations work, before making the commitment to bring this new technology into your life. Further, you may want to explore how these notifications appear, are they all via your smartphone?

Are they via haptics (small vibrations from the device itself), or via audible cues (beeps)? You might be interested in reducing your screen time and therefore, some of these more tangible cues might be interesting to you. 

5.Will this be something I treasure? 

So often, we get caught up in the excitement of new technologies and products. The promises these new wearables offer us sound amazing, and we’re hooked. But sadly, and all too often, wearables end up in a  kitchen drawer less than 6 months after purchase, where they remain.

Not only is this a waste of our money and energy, but it has a significant impact on the planet, as creating new technologies requires conflict minerals which greatly affect humanity and the planet. Consider asking yourself these questions to find out if this wearable might be something you continue using: 

  • Do I like the look and feel of it? Does it fit with my sense of identity? 
  • Will the information this wearable provides be relevant to me in 3 months? 
  • Does it help me to thrive? To live a better life? 
  • How will my life be different if I use this every day / week / month / time I workout / whenever I sleep?
  • What are my goals, and how does this wearable help me reach them? 

Buying a new wearable is an investment in your body, and your understanding of yourself including your habits and your health. Sometimes it takes two, three, or six tries to find the right wearable, and hopefully this list will have you considering some elements you hadn’t thought of before. You’ll also want to consider aspects such as compatibility with your phone (iOS or Android), battery life, privacy, and not least, cost. 

Vanessa Julia Carpenter holds a PhD in Designing for Meaningfulness in Future Smart Products and is the founder and Design Director at Kintsugi Design, where she helps companies to develop new products – including wearables – which aim to push the boundaries of human computer interaction.