Because We Can

We’re at a crossroads right now in terms of wearable devices. On the one hand, we’re still exploring: new technologies are pushing the envelopes of both technical ability and social conventions, reshaping how we understand ourselves and the world around us. On the other hand, we’re beginning to see patterns and we’re seeing the commoditization of certain ideas that have been introduced in only the past couple years. This is a tipping point at which we can look back at products that we’ve been living with, understand the impact of those products in the greater ecosystem of our lives, and reflect on whether those contributions are worth keeping around or whether we are better off doing something else.

I think of this moment as being a wave that we’re surfing. The wave is propelled by the idea of “because we can,” meaning that we figure out how to do something from a technological perspective and introduce a new product to the public as a hypothesis. Because the technology is so new, we really don’t know whether the product will be beneficial or useful, because it’s never existed before. A lot of the time, technologies will be released into the world with a specific use case and prove to not only fail to deliver on the use case, but also to compound the issues, real or invented, that they’re claiming to alleviate. For example, a smartwatch that is touting the ability to simplify your life constantly commands your attention and pulls you out of situations that you’d otherwise be focused on, or a fitness tracker that claims to give a full picture of your health, but only has the ability to tell half of the story.

What is Design’s Role in This?

I’m sure when most people think about designing a wearable device, industrial design comes to mind. After all, we’re talking about physical devices and the most obvious designed element is the device itself. If we want to talk about user experience (UX) design specifically, we can talk about the interface of the device, like the screen on a smartwatch, or any number of configurations of LEDs on a fitness tracker, because most popular definitions of UX tend to skew toward digital interfaces, or at least manifest as them. The specific design role that I feel is most appropriate here is service design. Here is how the Service Design Network (SDN) defines service design:[1]

the activity of planning and organizing people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service in order to improve its quality and the interaction between service provider and customers.

Thinking of design for wearables as service design works best because it’s not encumbered by the silos of the design process, having access to the product as a whole instead of one aspect of the design. There are a lot of decisions and experiences that happen in those gaps and service design can be accountable.

Thinking of wearables as a service also speaks to the nature of the devices themselves. The value of any given wearable device does not come from the device itself; rather, it comes from the service that it provides. Mike Kuniavsky refers to the devices as service avatars, because the devices are generally single-purpose, low-power objects that act only as a gateway to their cloud-based accompanying services.[2] For example, let’s look at the functional difference between a pedometer from the 1990s and any Fitbit; the devices themselves measure the exact same thing, but the reason pedometers didn’t balloon in to a multibillion-dollar industry in the 1990s is that they provide no additional insight into the data that they measure.

Who Should Read This Book

This book is about the design of these services and the devices that support them, but it’s about a lot of other aspects of wearables, as well, such as sales, adoption of new technology, the history of wearables, and research.

This book should be particularly useful to you if you:

  • Design and/or develop software

  • Design and/or develop hardware

  • Sell or attempt to sell software or hardware

  • Want to launch a wearable product

  • Work in the Internet of Things (IoT)

  • Are at all interested in wearable technology

  • Have given up on wearable technology

How This Book Is Organized

This book comprises 11 chapters. Here’s what each chapter discusses:

Chapter 1: Design Follows Technology

This chapter focuses on the history of wearable devices and the particular decisions that have shaped how we think about wearables.

Chapter 2 through Chapter 8 go through individual types of wearables, beginning with the most common available as of this writing, and ending with the emerging and future-focused categories. Each chapter focuses on experience from embodied research as well as interviews of people about their experiences.

Chapter 2: Activity Trackers

Chapter 2 covers the evolution of fitness trackers beginning with early mechanical devices. We will cover how the devices are sold, how they’re perceived in society, where they excel and how they fall short of providing a complete health picture.

Chapter 3: Smartwatches

In this chapter, we cover the evolution of watches that do more than just tell time. We discuss the long history of watches with exceptional functionality, how they currently work in our technological ecosystem, and how they fit in to our lives.

Chapter 4: The Glass Experiment

Chapter 4 looks at the rise and fall of Google Glass as a consumer wearable device. We talk about its development, launch, public perception, and the reasons why the product eventually failed.

Chapter 5: Wearable Cameras

Chapter 5 begins with discussion of currently available wearable devices such as the Narrative Clip and GoPro cameras. It then moves on to a discussion of design considerations when dealing with high volumes of image data, and then explores what services are possible with this information.

Chapter 6: Cognitive Wearables

This chapter covers the growing product category of cognitive wearables—wearable devices that measure, affect, and optimize our cognition. There are a number of issues with both objects based on the seemingly subjective nature of cognition itself and the level of insight they provide.

Chapter 7: Service Design

Here, we provide an introduction to designing wearables out of the “Wild West” phase and into the world of truly valuable and considerate services. The difference from being a cheerleader—“Only 3,000 more steps”—to a coach—“You’re getting less sleep, and that’s having an effect on your overall health in this way, and you need to do this.” The reach and tools of the field of service design will be what turns wearable devices from novelties to legitimate tools.

Chapter 8: Embodiment and Perception

Chapter 8 covers two key concepts about how these devices/services are designed. We discuss how our physicality shapes our understanding of ourselves and the world around us, and how certain products have an effect on that physicality, and thus, our behavior.

Chapter 9: Prototyping

Chapter 9 looks at current prototyping processes and tools such as Arduino and Processing. This is an overview of the tool capabilities, and then how to use these tools to prototype and validate ideas, which isn’t all that much different from the screen-based prototyping that you’re most likely used to.

Chapter 10: Selling the Invisible

This chapter covers the very difficult task of introducing new technology to a market that has little to no context for what the device does or the potential impact of the service that it enables. We discuss the importance of storytelling and the innovative ways retailers are introducing people to technology.

Chapter 11: Moving Forward

Finally, we end by taking a look at where wearable technology is headed and how this technology will change our relationship with computers as a whole.


First, I’d like to thank my wife, Marita, who gracefully endured a year of her husband being absent for most nights and weekends while writing this book. Marita patiently helped me work through some of the more complex concepts of this book and was always available to give advice and feedback. There’s no way I could have accomplished this without her.

I’d like to thank Angela Rufino for being an amazing editor and being very patient with me through the very long process of writing this book!

Thanks to Erik Dahl who taught me how to be a designer; that design cannot be confined to traditional media, processes, and artifacts; and that the role of the designer is fluid. Many of the foundational concepts of this book are a direct result of explorations with Erik, and I’m very lucky to continue to work with him.

Thanks to everyone at Adaptive Path and Capital One, from whom I have learned so much from over the years. Thank you, Maria Cordell, for being supportive of my technological forays. Thank you, Brandon Schauer, for the writing feedback. Thank you, Jesse James Garrett, for listening to all of my ideas and clarifying everything. Thank you, Nick Remis and Jamin Hegeman, for helping me talk about service design without sounding like an idiot. Thank you, Peter Merholz and Chris Risdon, for the many discussions that shaped my understanding of wearable technology. Thank you, Kristin Skinner and Patrick Quattlebaum, for the writing advice and support.

Thanks to Alastair Somerville for letting me bug him with questions for hours on end and providing feedback on the book. Thank you, Matt Nish-Lapidus, for many of the foundational concepts of this book, amazing feedback throughout the way, and for writing the forward. Thank you, John Follett, for support throughout writing this book, the great feedback, and the writing advice in general.

Thanks, Tayler Blake, for teaching me about data science and providing a ton of feedback on the book.

Thank you, Frank LaPrade, for reminding me about how mind-blowingly cool this technology has always been and for the support while writing the book.

Thank you to Andrew Hinton, Mike Kuniavsky, Alex (Sandy) Pentland, Haig Armen, and Karl Fast for being major sources of information and inspiration for this book.

Thank you, Kelly Beacham and Colby Beacham, for continued feedback on a bunch of different devices and concepts. And, finally,

Thank you, Frank Sullivan, for sitting next to me while writing the entire book and being an amazing listener.

[1] Meghan Lazier, “What Is Service Design?” Designlab Blog, Accessed October 1, 2016 (

[2] Mike Kuniavsky, “8.2 Devices Are Service Avatars,” in Smart Things: Ubiquitous Computing User Experience Design (Amsterdam: Morgan Kaufmann Publisher, 2010), 102–104.

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