Blog Post

Wearable tech: It’s not a device, it’s a system

You’d be hard pressed to find a tech company who hasn’t jumped into the wearable tech space. Some make a big splash with game changers like Google Glass, or they come more quietly like Microsoft and Intel. But they are coming – even car manufacturer Nissan introduced a smartwatch. And why shouldn’t they? The potential is huge. ABI Research estimates the global market for wearables in health and fitness alone could reach 170 million devices by 2017.

But while the hardware players have been first on the scene, they are struggling. Building stuff at a price point people will buy is thought to be the easy part, and goal accomplished: fitness trackers like the Nike Fuelband and the FitBit (see disclosure) are flying off the shelves. But building stuff that works well has been tough – to note, I’m on my 4th Fuelband (this one, finally, seems to be lasting). And building stuff people will incorporate into their daily lives and use to improve their lives – that’s a whole other story.

Nike Fuelband

Why the disconnect?

The majority of products to this point haven’t successfully married the hardware and the software in such a way that there is anything that actually makes life better, easier, smarter for the consumer. We have a lot of products that can add value, but there is a heavy onus on the user to continually plug in, check in, and get the most out of the experience. We’re feeding the big data machine, but we’re not solving any problems. That’s where the opportunity lies.

To move from “my thing” to mainstream, wearable tech device manufacturers need to get out of the hardware first mentality. Devices must have a user experience that hardly involves the user. Collected data has to feed a system that yields analysis, rewarding the user with information – dare I say, advice – that means they’ve done more than just counted their steps. The knowledge of the number of steps they’ve taken informs a decision on living an active life.

How do we get there?

Brands need to invest in the digital product just as much as the physical product from day one. Build something people will buy, and people will wear, but even more so something people will continue to use. Incorporating user motivation into the design of the product — which involves a heavy emphasis on the digital experience with smartphones — will create wearable technology that keeps customers coming back. You want to know how to retain and grow your user base? Build for the user. Digital partners and hardware suppliers should be at the table with product developers from day one.

There are some companies finding their way. FitBit actually leapt too far too fast when it ditched the user interface on its Flex device. It has since taken into account user feedback and evolved the Flex to include a watch and other visual controls with its newly announced Force – showing we can’t go too far too fast, and we must always take into account what the user wants. FitBit’s evolution of its fitness band showed that people want to interact with their devices right then and there, and not wait to sync.


Other companies, like MapMyFitness, know their users have multiple devices, and thus multiple data points to collect. So the company wisely opened up its APIs to bring together user data from multiple sources into its app, for the convenience of its user.

Beware the “mobile”

Remember how for years mobile meant the cell phone? And now mobile means so much more than that? Yep, same thing here. While the device is important, it’s just a jumping-off point. the form factor is what brings consumers in, but it’s just temporary. In wearables, it’s the knowledge – the ability to change for the better – that will make all the difference and keep users coming back for more.

As Stanford professor BJ Fogg believes, technology serves as a major platform for persuasion, but without an innate understanding of how human behavior works – including the motivation necessary for change – and utilizing that understanding in your product, it just won’t happen.

Today, we’re essentially wearing fancy pedometers. In the future, we’ll see an aggregation of body data from customized, perhaps even implanted, sensors which gather information much meatier than number of steps taken or calories burned. We’ll see devices, apps and data working together, and across platforms, to create entire systems.

We’ll see systems – hardware and software – built for groups, like co-workers, family members, friends, classmates. We might even see systems devised across species – examining questions like do people with dogs live happier lives, and what role does your pet play in your health picture.

It’s all coming. But to get there, we must beware of a fixation on the hardware and start ensuring software, and smart design with the user in mind, is at the table from day one.

Sam Gaddis is the CMO of Mutual Mobile.

Disclosure: Fitbit is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.

9 Responses to “Wearable tech: It’s not a device, it’s a system”

  1. Great post. I could not agree more. A while back, IDC heralded the arrival of the “3rd platform” for application development, that being big data driving cloud-based services to mobile devices. I would extend that now to the 3rd+platform or 3rd platform+, being cloud-based services to wearable devices. A fixation on hardware only is somewhat to be expected at this stage of the “gold rush”, but the need to quickly develop and deploy the cloud based services that complement that hardware should not be forgotten and is ultimately the key to success. Many if not most wearable applications will relate to location (where is the user and what is around them) and to information sharing. We saw a hyper-verticalization of applications with the arrival of smart phones, and can anticipate this verticalization will be even greater with wearable devices, meaning a premium on anything that can get an application to market faster and provide a maximum of adaptability.

  2. A good post. Already in the world of smart phones there has been an over emphasis on the “app” as if most important applications existed only in the phone, and did not depend on data and business services in the cloud. This abberation seems to be even greater in the world of wearable devices, with few people and companies taking a comprehensive systems of view of wearable applications. I think this will change soon for a number of reasons including 1) need to integrate multiple wearable devices for an application, 2) the increasing importance of location in many wearable applications, 3) the need to share information amongst wearable users. As a result I anticipate we will see the rise of 3rd+ platforms for wearable applications providing support for back end services (data collection, data management, data analysis), with client end support via suitable access libraries in iOS and Android. IDC has heralded the 3rd platforn (big data, cloud services, mobile devices) and I think we will see this take off in the 3rd+ platform with mobile being replaced by wearable.

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  4. Rick Meider

    Well said! Having built a health/wellness platform that allowed data to be ported via an open API from any compatible device….device agnostic, we did have discussions with the popular device companies including those mentioned in this article, and found the common thinking and emphasis is on the device/technology and possibly the “carrying solution”. We need to embrace and incorporate the understanding of professor BJ Fogg’s beliefs, “technology serves as a major platform for persuasion, but without an innate understanding of how human behavior works”. Technology does not sell for the sake of cool technology! The goal should address the age old design principle of “fulfilling a need and not a want”. Couple this with axiom with adding value to the user, which maintains sustainable engagement through intrinsic motivation, and you could grow an awesome business. Yes, it is not about the media coverage of devices, it is about the platform, the problem that it is solving, and its enriched user experience.

  5. Sam, this is a great post and very aligned with what my startup, EveryMove, has set out to do 2.5 years ago. There is a proliferation of devices and apps to track your physical activity and we realized we were uniquely positioned to connect that data with health insurance companies to provide users seamless benefits from their plans. As you can imagine, this is a very long road that involves technology advancement, consumer adoption, privacy and regulatory hurdles and many more. Just to give one example, members of LifeWise Health Plan of Washington can earn $120 a year by connecting their Fitbit (or other devices) to EveryMove and achieving a certain level of activity. This is the tip of the iceberg, and a healthy ecosystem of services that bring additional value to these devices will be critical for the success of the entire industry. Check us out at

  6. Enjoyed the article. So true that motivation for change is what drives use. At MOVABLE we go where groups gather (schools, companies, families), use a wearable which was designed for engagement (colors, simplicity, instant feedback) tied to an online system that provides the user with feedback to their goals, position in a group… and it’s mainly our program – a MOVchallenge – that creates the motivation… Ultimate goal is moving population to 5 miles a day. A simple construct with goals (reach 100 miles in 4 weeks) and incentives (get a day off work, gift card, acknowlegement.). I can jump into my school, company, family group, and/or get involved in National MOVchallenges to earn rewards. This month there is a MOVchallenge that donates to feed families based on movement and miles of users. That’s pretty motivating.

  7. What’s so special about your fuelband?

    I’ve had my fitbit for 2 years, on my second because I lost my first. I also have an aria scale that links to the website. Because of this open “system” it links to many websites where I’ve earned points, gifts, money, and motivation. I’ve even used my steps towards donating to charity. It’s a WONDERFUL system and will keep me tied to fitbit for a long time because I’m excited to see who else they will partner with. Im surprised I haven’t seen someone blog about this.

  8. I’ve had a fitbit for 2 years, on my second fitbit. The first I lost. I’m committed to it because it links to other websites that lets me earn points, gifts, money, and motivation. I’ve even used my steps towards donating to charity. What does the fuelband do?