You wear it well!

Speaking at the Wearable Technology Show

Wearable technology is progressing so fast that it’s easy to get bogged down in the technology and associated facts and figures — the gadgets, the sensors and the data volumes they are going to generate. All interesting to a point, but actually what difference can and will wearable technology make? I’d like to think about the “how” rather than the “what” for a moment, and propose an approach for how we can place the technology in a meaningful context, and do things that matter with it.

Power to the people

We as an industry have spent over 100 years focusing primarily on IT as a tool for process improvement; machines automate and digitise what were manual or paper processes, and this for a long time gave organisations a competitive advantage: a digitised database or CRM system is a massive step forward over a card filing system. We sometimes refer to these as “Systems of Record” and they sit at the core of most businesses. The currencies in this world are data, facts and certainty — our inventory must be right, money must be transferred correctly, patient records updated reliably. In this world, the machines dictate to the humans that use them.

The rise of what we’ve come to know as “consumer IT” has brought with it a new class of systems that focus on the much more fluid and unstructured world of serving people in pursuit of their desired outcomes. Now people build loose flows of shared knowledge in social networks, and use pictures from their mobile phones to speak a thousand words, and do so at any time of the day and night. We sometimes refer to these as “Systems of Engagement” where the currencies are emotion, design values and uncertainty. The machines adapt to the needs of the humans. This is has become the new expectation of IT.

The key to delivering these differentiated experiences is the degree of personalisation now possible. The rise of the smartphone was the trigger for the trend towards Systems of Engagement — what better vehicle to provide a personal experience than a device you have with you most of the time (unlike a PC or a main frame)? Wearables take this to new levels again; now my device is not just personalised, it is what we might consider intimate. It is worn against my skin, under my clothes, it knows where I am, whether I’m upright, my pulse and so on. It’s so close I forget it’s there. Many more and great things are possible in terms of the beneficial effect technology can have on my life, career and wellbeing.

Curb your enthusiasm

Actually what we’ve done so far in terms of wearable apps is relatively simple; many of them act as a relay to pass messages from our smartphones to our wrist.
If we look at sports wearables such as GPS watches, actually the majority are designed for a specialist markets where the end users have a particularly deep interest in fitness; there are fewer apps that exploit wearables to positively impact users in domains they are not already experts in. Even in those specialist markets, the zeal to introduce the technology trend du jour is often evident. But things are moving fast. For example we are already seeing smartwatch technology that is connected, has sensors and doesn’t need to tether to a phone.
The possibilities will only grow, and how we harvest that progress will be the difference between success and failure.

But the thing is, just because the technology’s there, we engineers have a habit of leading with the technology, rather than the problems it can solve. We had smartphones for nearly fifteen years before the iPhone became popular but whilst they gave a glimpse of the future, it was technologists mainly that used them. We built them because we could without really thinking through the experience; networks were slow, apps were buggy, platforms were inconsistent and fragmented. Other than the excitement that future was coming, did anyone really enjoy using them? The reason why Apple succeeded? They actually focused on delivering a great experience for people at a point where the technology was ready. In fact the first iPhone looks remarkably rudimentary compared to the smartphones we use now, yet it become a must-have well before its launch. We can learn from this as we think about how to harness the power of wearable tech.

Design rather than accident

Starting with the technology for the sake of it can have at best mixed results if nobody really cares. Where we actually want to start is with the needs of the person whose life we’re looking to change. A special experience is the difference between someone buying your products or services and someone else’s, or whether your employees take best advantage of the expensive kit you’ve bought them.

In Design Thinking we have a formal method for design that centres on empathy for the user — what they think, feel, say and do as they achieve their desired outcomes as world is today, and how they will do so in the future. Design Thinking is an iterative process of understanding, ideation, experimentation and learning. Savvy organisations are recognising that the old thought process of sticking a thin veneer on top of a System of Record probably won’t cut it any more and are adopting this methodology. Design Thinking focuses on the outcomes that the user wants to achieve rather than the mechanics of how they achieve them. Technology supports the desired experience and the achievement of the user’s goals in realising that design.

A simple model for a great wearable experience

So how can we inject the potential of wearable technology into a Design Thinking led approach to a solution? Actually we can take our cue from a couple of places; one is one of the best understood wearables scenario of healthcare. We collect data from a wearable device (e.g. a blood pressure cuff), perform some assessment of the data collected based on a variety of contextual information and then take some form of intervention — e.g. prescribe medication, advise a reduction in salt intake etc.
Another similar model is the pplkpr app. pplkpr is a learning system that monitors blood pressure to determine spikes in arousal and stress, and correlates the data with whom the user is interacting to proactively intervene when it thinks a meeting or a conversation is likely to stress you out.

So from the medical and pplkpr cases we can identify three aspects that we can abstract as a conceptual model.

• As much context as we can gather about the situation (e.g. data from the blood pressure cuff).
• Insight arising from analysis of the context (the impact assessment).
• Some concrete action arising from the insight (the intervention).


None of us operates in a vacuum, and the number of digital footprints we leave both unstructured and structured means the raw data about “us” as individuals is getting exponentially greater. Wearables clearly give huge potential for gathering detailed data about an individual — whether directly measured or inferred. We can of course bring this together with other sources of information — our behaviour on social media for example. What is paramount is that this should be “non-intrusive” — not only do we not wish to alienate our users, but also there’s the danger of the “observer’s paradox” where if someone believes they are being measured, they change their behaviour. For users to participate and share potentially intimate data they must also be confident it will not be shared or worse maliciously leaked. Security of data, identity and verification are all key disciplines whose need is heightened in this aspect.


Ok so we’re gathering data, but what does it really mean? For this we need to introduce analytics to the mix to blend our knowledge of human behavior and the subject matter with the data being collected from the wearable device. Machine analytics can help us determine what has happened (descriptive), what to do now (prescriptive) and understand what might happen and suggest a course of action (anticipatory). The mapping to human behaviour is the important bit — how can what we know influence the user’s achievement of their outcome in a positive way?


Then of course the tip of the arrow is what we do with all that context and insight — we have to turn it into something that matters for individuals. The action may be something done reactively (i.e. to give a better answer when we ask the application for something) or proactively — for example the notification that recommends when you’re shopping and your trainers need replacing because of patterns in your cadence. Either way this action must be designed to work in an empathetic way — don’t wake me up in the middle of the night to tell me to buy fruit next time I go shopping, or remember that I wear gloves when it’s cold and a touch screen isn’t the easiest thing to use.
We can start now
The final thought I’ll leave you with is that actually we already have a lot of instrumentation already, and the market it moving fast. As discussed above, we also have the methods and a model to truly understand what people need, and marry that with the potential of technology. We should now have the confidence in that kitbag of tools that we will find the valuable scenarios and not try and force it.

If we can crack that, then we’ll also be wearing a smile as well.

Martin Gale is the CTO for Mobile at IBM UK and Ireland