Designing Wearables

Learning how to design wearables will be an exciting challenge for user experience practitioners. Designers need to consider use cases that span both the digital and physical worlds, and figure out how best to meld the two. Information is our new material to build with, as pliable as clay in the hands of talented designers and developers.

Designers already have a pretty good handle on the digital aspects of wearables. If the device has a small screen, many of the same techniques and heuristics that are used to create digital experiences on mobile phones can be applied. However, many wearable devices do not have that screen so their users have to get information from the device in other ways. LEDs, haptics, and even sound can play a part in letting the user know what the device is up to.

Though the interface may differ, a core trait of wearables is that nearly all have some kind of cloud-based service that is an integral part of the user experience. Many devices now come with a companion mobile app that allows users to configure the device and provide much more involved access to the functions of the physical device. Many devices can completely forego any kind of screen by moving complex inputs and output to the companion device. Since the device is pushing data at the smart-phone, it's a short step to getting that data over the Internet and making it accessible over the web.

In fact, it can be argued that the service is significantly more important than the device itself. For example, I have a number of devices that I interact with in my daily life that can play music from my personal collection. That collection lives in the Amazon cloud and has grown over the years, and it's the access to that music that is important to me, rather than the physical device that happens to access it. I can always buy another Echo, but losing my collection of college bootlegs would be devastating!

Designing the physical device is a multidisciplinary endeavor because factors of branding, ergonomics, and industrial design must be considered as well as aesthetics and context. A medical device needs to safely provide information or treatment, yes, but it also must do so in a way appropriate for the user. Understanding the psychology of a device — especially one that directly touches a patient — is essential. In terms of context, designers need to ensure that the design accommodates the environment, whether that's the ER, OR, or any other clinical setting.

FDA Takes Notice

Perhaps the most exciting thing about the medical portion of the IoT market involves changes coming to the industry courtesy of the 21st Century Cures Act of 2016. As part of this legislation, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has established processes to help reduce the time to market for new medical devices the agency classifies as Class 1, or low-risk, devices.

To provide guidance and help companies that develop medtech navigate this shifting landscape, FDA released “Changes to Existing Medical Software Policies Resulting from Section 3060 of the 21st Century Cures Act.” This important document explains some of the agency's current thinking in regard to devices and medical-related software systems. FDA's “Digital Health Innovation Action Plan” document further describes this shift in thinking and outlines a plan that allows nine major companies to become precertified to market these low-risk devices with minimal FDA review.4 So look for a whole slew of new wearable medtech in the coming months and years.

As the IoT becomes ingrained in modern life, wearables offer convenient and clever ways to improve people's lives, whether by diagnosing illness, providing treatment, or simply by making the user more aware of health-related metrics. As designers, our job is to make that tech appealing and easy to use. This way, everyone gets to feel like a superhero.

This article was written by Jeff LeBlanc, Director of User Experience for both Boston UX and ICS, Waltham, MA. For more information, visit here.