No-one wants to look like a ‘Glasshole’ sporting the latest piece of clunky wearable tech. We want technology that is unobtrusive, fits into our day-to-day lives and existing habits (if you don’t normally wear a watch, why would you wear a smartwatch?) and looks like a fashion accessory you’d choose to buy even if it didn’t possess techy powers.
But even if all these boxes are ticked, do people really want to wear technology on their wrists, faces and around their necks?
A profitable future
Wearable tech has been around for a while, but it has plenty of potential. As uptake improves, the profitability of the industry is set to soar. By 2018, retail revenue from smart wearable devices, including smartwatches and other accessories like Google Glass, is expected to reach $19 billion – while the overall market will grow by around 900% to between $30 and $50 billion.  High price points, combined with anticipated strong demand, will drive growth. 
Wearable devices represent a new threshold in aestheticsBill Wasik, Wired (2014)
And the boom has already begun. By the end of 2014, around 1 million devices will have been shipped. By 2017, analysts predict this number will have rocketed to 300 million.  “Wearable devices represent a new threshold in aesthetics,” says Wired writer Bill Wasik. “The tech companies that mastered design will now need to conquer the entirely different realm of fashion. Technologists could be required to unlearn a great deal of what they think they know.”
But do people want to make space in their closets for wearable devices? Yes they do, according to Accenture’s Digital Consumer Tech Survey 2014, which canvassed opinions across six countries. More than half of people surveyed (52%) were interested in buying devices like fitness monitors for tracking physical activity and managing personal health. They’re also interested in smartwatches (46%) and internet-connected glasses, like Google Glass (42%). 
If you don't normally wear a watch, why would you wear a smartwatch?
Intel (2014) ©
But how far would people go in the quest for connectivity? A US survey found that 25% would wear sensors on their wrists, or clipped to their clothes. And some went further still. A full 15% said they’d embed technology into their clothing, while 4% would wear smart contact lenses, and 3% would even have sensors tattooed onto their skin – but only if they thought they’d see enough benefits from doing so. 
Most wearables available in 2014 fall into two camps – they’re either a health and fitness product, or they’re like a mini mobile phone that you can tie to your wrist. But between the two, many products seem to demonstrate technology simply for its own sake – there’s no real underlying need, so they lack mass appeal.
The wearables industry is an extension of the mobile revolution, which is already transpiring and has less barriers to entryMahin Samadani, Fjord (2014)
So how can brands make their wearables more attractive? According to Rachel Hinman, a wearable technology and former senior research scientist at Nokia Research Lab, two main themes are the key to widespread adoption. Firstly, aesthetics are vital – they have to make you look beautiful. People don’t want to wear something that’s clunky and clashes with their carefully-planned outfit. For Hinman, the aesthetic design and product quality needs to appeal to people to the degree that these devices extend into people’s projection of self. 
Secondly, according to Hinman, it’s important to recognise how people will use the devices – they should serve an underlying, unmet need. Paying close attention to aesthetics means nothing if the product doesn’t offer anything new. Simple gadget lust won’t generate widespread appeal. 
Along with these, Mahin Samadani, vice president of London-based design agency Fjord, claims that pricing is another highly important factor.  For Samadani, the adoption of wearable tech requires a different economic mindset. “The wearables industry is an extension of the mobile revolution, which is already transpiring and has less barriers to entry,” he says. “For example, purchasing a cell phone will technically cost you $1,160 per year. But add a one-time purchase of $99, and a consumer can add a Fitbit to their accessory collection. The Fitbit extends the functionality and value of something they already invest in.” As Samadani explains, people are attracted to the increased utility of an already necessary device – “so long as the price point aligns to their lifestyle and income bracket.” 
People want designs that can easily complement any outfit
Misfit Wearables (2014) ©
The role of design and aesthetics
For many people, the term ‘wearable’ is synonymous with ‘fashionable’ and ‘stylish’. But – at least for now – there’s a dichotomy between what people would happily wear and the ‘wearable’ devices available. A study from NPD Group found that 50% of people see the look and design of devices as “extremely important” in their decision to purchase them.  For these image-conscious consumers, wearable devices should sit at the intersection between fashion and functionality. After all, if they’ve taken the time to pull together a co-ordinating, stylish outfit, why shouldn’t their smartwatch complement it?
Design has always been a key motivator for technology purchases, but for wearable devices there is a greater focus because the devices are worn externallyBen Arnold, NPD Group (2014)
“Design has always been a key motivator for technology purchases, but for wearable devices there is a greater focus because the devices are worn externally,” says Ben Arnold, Executive Director and Industry Analyst at NPD Group. “For device manufacturers, this is an opportunity to differentiate their product lines with special colours or designs, or even to partner with other fashion or design focused brands.” 
Allison Lewis, president of Switch Embassy, believes that designers and companies need to focus on making fashionable tech products more ‘human-centric’. “I'm pretty tired of staring into a screen all day; let's do better,” she says. “Let's have fabrics, textiles, and furnitures around us that sense our needs and respond in-kind through touch, play, sounds, smell, movement or vibrations. I believe we need to work towards being more human.” For Lewis, wearable pieces should fit into our lives, habits and desires – not the other way around.
Misfit Wearables founder and president Sonny Vu agrees. “Wearables need to be either exquisitely gorgeous, or invisible altogether,” he claims. And he’s backed up by market research from his company, which found that 30% of women would never wear a device on their wrist because they already own watches and bracelets – or because they refuse to wear anything on their wrist at all. 
Aesthetics and design are vitally important, even for personal fitness trackers
Fitbit (2014) ©
Moving toward aesthetic integrations
It’s clear that people want good-looking wearable tech. And brands are taking note – since 2012, there have been several notable examples of technology and retail companies partnering up to address the aesthetics challenge.
Fitbit, for example, has joined up with Tory Burch to develop a collection of stylish wristbands, bracelets and pendants designed to hold the Fitbit Flex tracker. Meanwhile, Intel’s ‘Make It Wearable’ campaign was launched with Barney’s, Opening Ceremony and CFDA, in order to pool knowledge of both technology and fashion design. And in early 2014, San Francisco-based start-up Cuff announced a new line of wearables with the main focus being technology that you’ll actually want to wear and show off.
The technical specifications of design
But despite such a heavy focus on aesthetics, it’s equally to remember the other side of design – functionality. If you’ve ever taken the battery out of your mobile phone, it’s not hard to imagine the challenge designers face when trying to reduce its size to fit a delicate bracelet. Reducing its complexity would limit the device’s functions, but leaving it unchanged would result in a chunky, inelegant wristband.
According to Hinman, there are four key areas of design that need innovative improvements in order to stimulate and sustain the wearable tech industry. Firstly, a focus on material science is needed – materials will need to become more flexible in order to align with the dynamic shapes of the body. Secondly, innovations in batteries, energy harvesting, and power will be vital to fuel the wearable future. Thirdly, infrastructure is crucial – because data and functionality will be everywhere. Networks will need to be faster, more powerful, predictive, and ubiquitous. Additionally, interfaces will be contextually driven – so they’ll need to be more intuitive. Eventually, they’ll even begin to disappear, says Hinman. 
And that’s not all. “Stability and accuracy is another important component of design,” adds Samadani. “Many wearables are returning 20% variances in results. Bad sensors or components will ultimately lead to customer dissatisfaction. Winning in the specifications of wearables will likely be a two-blow knockout when it comes to design. It will be the right product that also has the right solution for battery power. These go hand-in-hand.” 
There are further challenges when it comes to the user interface, says Samadani. “There are no standards for gestures, interactions, etc. for how they are used now,” he explains. “As all of these companies are building proprietary systems, it makes it very difficult for people to cross over from one device to the other, and the speed of adoption will be slowed until those standards are set.” 
Cuff pieces are carefully designed to look like high-end jewellery
Verge (2014) ©
Insights and opportunities
Wearable tech has been around for many years, but it’s still only in its infancy. The revolution will require significant investment into research and development. “Companies should consider investing in wearable product innovation and building ecosystems that connect wearables to the broader array of interactive digital networks,” says Mattias Lewren, global managing director of Accenture’s Electronics and High-Tech Industry Group. “Every consumer is a digital consumer, and the keen interest in wearable technology provides further evidence of that.” 
Companies should consider investing in wearable product innovation and building ecosystems that connect wearables to the broader array of interactive digital networksMattias Lewren, Accenture (2014)
Innovation and building interactive ecosystems are directly correlated with human-centric design. “I’m really concerned about how we integrate human beings into the growing web of technology,” says Kelsey Breseman, engineer at Technical Machine. “Currently, the product lines haven’t caught up with the technology.” But once the technology “recedes into the background of our lives,” Breseman believes that “we could stop interacting with our devices, stop staring at screens, and start looking at each other, start talking to each other again.” 
Success in the wearables markets will be driven by companies that continually put consumers’ needs first – asking why people want technology connected to their physical selves, and then asking how it will augment their lives in the real world. By adding information accuracy and device stability into the overall experience, companies can successfully create beautiful, intuitive products that people will want to buy as their desire for social connectedness grows.
Macala Wright is a Los Angeles-based content strategist and research analyst with a passion for journalism. As a strategist, she merges her passion for storytelling and narrative with her deep understanding of technology to help bring innovative ideas, products and programs to life. She has worked with Hearst, The Smithsonian Channel, ALDO, PSFK, American Express and numerous technology companies. You can follow her on Twitter: @Macala.
- By 2018, retail revenue from smart wearable devices is expected to reach $19 billion 
- By the end of 2014, around 1 million devices will have been shipped - but by 2017, it will be 300 million 
- 52% of people are interested in buying devices like fitness monitors for tracking physical activity and managing personal health 
- 46% of people are interested in buying smartwatches 
- 42% of people are interested in buying internet-connected glasses 
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1. ‘Smart Wearable Devices’, Juniper Research (September 2013)
2. ‘Wearable Technology Market Set to Explode’, The Business of Fashion (May 2013)
3. ‘Digital Consumer Tech Survey’, Accenture (January 2014)
4. ‘Building A Fitter Business With Wearable Technology’, Forrester (January 2014)
5. Interview with Rachel Hinman conducted by author
6. Interview with Mahin Samadani conducted by author
7. ‘Wearable Tech Device Awareness Surpasses 50 Percent Among US Consumers, According to NPD’, NPD Group (January 2014)
8. ‘Opportunities in Wearable Tech’, Wearable Tech World (January 2014)
9. ‘I, Cyborg: being better cyborgs may make us – paradoxically – more human’, O’Reilly (February 2014)