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The three critical factors wearable devices need to succeed

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At least 10 new wearable devices were introduced at CES in January, from makers such as Sony, Pebble, Meta, LG, Garmin, Razer and more. Yet despite the enthusiasm in the market, the dirty secret of wearables remains: almost all of the current generation of products fail to drive long-term, sustained engagement and behavior change.

Endeavour Partners’ research recently found that while one in 10 US consumers over the age of 18 now owns a modern activity tracker, one-third of US consumers who have owned a wearable product stopped using it within six months, and more than half of US consumers who owned an activity tracker no longer use it. Consumers are buying them and trying them, but rarely end up relying on them.

Key challenge of wearables: Long-term engagement and behavior change

Sustained engagement is the key challenge for companies developing wearable devices or complementary services. A surprising percentage of devices fail to achieve even short-term engagement because they suffer from one or more fatal user experience flaws: they break, they’re a pain to sync with a smartphone, the battery doesn’t last long enough, they’re ugly and uncomfortable. Any one of these flaws is enough to turn off a user; more than one often lands these devices in a desk drawer or, even worse, the trash. Unfortunately many of the apps, portals and other services that use data from wearables suffer from similar UX problems.

Even if products and services avoid these traps and provide very powerful functionality, they will end up failing in the market if they fail to have a meaningful impact on users’ behaviors and habits. This dependence on behavior change means that traditional product design criteria are only part of the key to developing successful wearable products and services.

Three factors for long-term engagement

Human behavior is complex, but behavioral science offers three factors that can lead to sustained engagement over the long term.

1. Habit formation. Sustained engagement depends on a device or service’s ability to help the user form and stick with new habits. Wearable devices have the potential, all too often unrealized, to make the process of habit formation more effective and efficient than ever before. The best engagement strategies for wearables move beyond just presenting data (steps, calories, stairs) and directly address the elements of the habit loop (cue, routine, reward), triggering the deep-seated psychological sequences that lead to the establishment of new habits.

For example, as users of the Basis Health Tracker navigate the initial goal-setting process, the device sets up a sequence of key habit formation elements — cues, routines and rewards. Users can unlock the ability to add new habits by acquiring points (reward) after completing a previous goal related to successfully establishing a habit. From here, daily cues, routines and rewards are continuously sequenced to develop habits for better health.

2. Social motivation. To sustain engagement beyond the initial habit formation, a device or service must be able to motivate users effectively. Social connections are a particularly powerful source of motivation that can be leveraged in many creative ways. In addition to using social connections to influence behavior, social media and networking sites can be exploited to alter habits for positive outcomes.

Three key social mechanisms support motivation and broader goal attainment. First, when users are able to share or compete for goals, they are more committed to achieving those goals. Second, social cognitive theory suggests that we learn not just from our own experiences, but also vicariously from those around us. Third, social factors are huge determinants in our overall health. Connecting socially with others is as basic a need as food, water and shelter. The extent to which wearables facilitate social connections has a broad secondary effect on users’ health and wellness.

The Nike+Fuelband SE platform motivates users by effectively leveraging social connections. It encourages users to challenge friends from Facebook and their contact list who also use the Nike+ platform. The FuelBand’s Nike+ software allows users to separate friends into specific lists and groups, so a user can compare his activity with other Fuelband or Nike+ users and separate them into microcommunities, say, based on similar pace for running.

3. Goal reinforcement. To achieve sustained engagement, a user also needs to experience a feeling of progress toward defined goals. Research shows that achieving several smaller goals provides the positive momentum necessary for achieving bigger goals. Wearable products and services that help people experience continuous progress can do so, for example, through real-time updates that are powered by big data and insights. Facilitating personal progress in this way leads to improved health, user satisfaction and long-term sustained engagement. Fitbit Force uses haptic buzzes and text-message push notifications to constantly but gently reinforce progress and remind users that they need to do something in order to achieve their established goals.

The Future of Wearables

“There remains a great deal of potential for the wearables industry to embrace the complex science of behavior change and habit formation,” said Daniel McCaffrey, behavioral scientist and product manager of SyncStrength, in a recent white paper on wearables. “Advancements including real-time biofeedback and contextual data will change how technology impacts consumers’ health-related attitudes, beliefs and behaviors even further.”

A deeper understanding of habit formation, social motivation and goal reinforcement will allow companies to create more effective and successful devices and services to promote health and wellness. Looking forward to seeing the wearables at CES 2015!

How Do Current Wearables Stack Up

Endeavour Partners assessed eight wearables currently on the market based on 12 key criteria. This graph reveals that while some companies are clearly thinking about their products holistically, some are missing the mark.
How do current wearables stack up?

Michael A. M. Davies is Chairman of Endeavour Partners and Senior Lecturer at MIT. Find Michael and Endeavour Partners on Twitter @michaelamdavies and @endeavourprtnrs.

7 Responses to “The three critical factors wearable devices need to succeed”

  1. Interesting article, but the elephant in the room is not being mentioned, and that is the notion of ‘wearable’. My PhD research is informative in highlighting that most ‘wearables’ are designed by product designers, therefore the design of these devices is exactly that a ‘product’. What needs to be considered is how this can be worn? and what makes it ‘wearable’? There are many layers to this concept, and these need to be addressed before a ‘tool’ can be worn on the body.

    At present there are no wearables that I would wish to wear on a long term basis, so the device has already failed for me in its wearability before I even begin to consider its usefulness. This also goes further than ‘aesthetics’ or fashion (which is fleeting) especially since these just become an add-on function in most designs that attempt to consider this.

    Those objects that we wear habitually have meaning for us in very particular ways, and wearable designers need to open up their thinking and explore these many layers of meaning to make those desirable objects we would wish to wear.

  2. Márcio Cyrillo

    it’s a great piece Michael, thanks a lot. i do agree with you re: the 3 critical factors, but those are the same critical factors governing adoption of fitness apps in general, nothing really specific to wearables. i developed a running app (my first start-up) in the early years of the iPhone and i faced those same challenges.

    we are living the infancy of wearable value. right now they are more of a sensor-augmentation support to smartphones phones and, as you mentioned, most of them lack good product design and awesome software.

    you briefly mentioned what i consider critical for the future of wearables: to tackle the power of the cloud, big data and machine learning to create a personalized experience to the user, to anticipate their needs. what the industry is calling “predictive apps”. you mentioned the motivational cues of the Fitbit Force. i own one and I can tell you: it’s way too basic. the device will send me a text message when i am close to my daily goal, but i am usually running when it happens. it never adapted to my routine.

    today was as incredible day in New York after a few rainy cold days. Fitbit could’ve texted me in the morning with something like “It’s a great Saturday in New York and more than 324 people near you went out already, what are you waiting for?”, just to give an example.

    • Michael A M Davies

      Márcio – thanks for the feedback.

      Yes, there’s some truth in this being about fitness apps in general. The more general theme would be thinking about the complete system, and actually driving behavior change.

      And yes, good as it is relative to its peers, even the Fitbit Force is not there yet. And now, unfortunately, has been recalled.

  3. The entire logic is based on fitness tracking device , but that’s a small niche (at a global level).
    Wearables are a lot more than just that and the best selling ones will sell on functionality not on “dressage”.
    Right now there aren’t any compelling devices and that is the problem not something deeper.
    From a design , functionality and pricing perspective everything on the wrist worn market if far behind what is needed and very few good ideas have surface. In glasses it looks a bit brighter.but the relevant products are yet to hit retail.
    We don’t need to sell the current not-good-enough-devices , it’s far easier to actually make a good device.

    • Michael A M Davies

      realjjj – yes, we’re focused on devices that measure activity and health; we used the term ‘wearables’ for this particular group.

      My key point is that the while ‘functionality’ of devices may drive initial sales, for these devices to create long-term value they’ve got be used. And continue to be used. And drive behavior change.

      And while I’d agree that none of the devices on the wrist worn market do not yet deliver what is needed, it’s not just about the device. A compelling offer is *much* more than just a device; it’s the smarts to deliver changed behavior.

      And, FWIW, it’s first, not easier to actually make a good device, it’s hard; and second, although that’s necessary, it’s not going to be sufficient.