Monday, December 23, 2013

Wearable Tech: A Cure for Focus or another Distraction?

It's no secret that technology can be distracting and often takes our attention away from whatever's going on around us. In the work place, we tend to get so absorbed in our email that we disengage from the task at hand. Technology "addiction" is also an increasing presence in our social lives. At any given meal or event, you can find people texting at the table or quickly diverting back to their digital lives whenever they get bored or feel the slightest bit of awkwardness.

I read a very interesting article about how wearable technology, Google Glass specifically, is being designed to combat this trend. The piece was written by one of the lead designers on Glass, Thad Starner, who has been designing wearable computers since 1993 (I can't even imagine what those were like). Starner is extremely confident that Glass will enhance our natural interactions rather than detract from them. While I'm not claiming to have nearly the experience that Starner has (I've only begun to explore user experience design) I'm not sure that I agree with his assessment about Glass and I certainly don't think it can be generalized to all wearables.

*First let me caveat that I have not played around with Google Glass so my opinions are based only on what I've read about the product.

There are two main issues that Starner says a technology like Glass will address that I want to discuss. The first, is that gadgets (read: laptops) place a physical barrier between you and everyone else around you. The second is that Glass is designed to work in micro-interactions that minimize the time you are distracted from the world around you.

In regards to the first point, Google Glass is meant to act like a HUD, or heads up display. A true HUD overlays relevant data onto the world around you so that you see more detail about everything you're looking at. The data is integrated into your field of vision in a way that enhances your experiences. Glass is different. The article states that Glass is designed specifically to be out of your direct line of sight so that it's never in-between you and whatever you're doing. From a purely physical standpoint, I think this was a good idea. Most of the general consumer population hasn't dealt with technology that really tries to become part of your environment, and, much like the bluetooth phenomenon, I think at first many of us would find it strange to interact with another person who had a little screen over their eye. Only being able to see the gadget, but not what the person is seeing is going to be awkward at first. So while I agree that the intention of that design is good, let's think about the implications if the screen is always tucked away in the top right of your vision. Though the design is meant to keep the screen from being a barrier, it seems odd to force the user to look away, even if only for a few seconds. I can see the point that Starner is trying to make, especially as the novelty wears off and people learn to use Glass, but because it's such a unique product, I don't think the experience will be quite as intuitive as the designer always hopes; at least for the general population. My bet, is that for awhile people are going to be awkward and tentative with Google Glass. It will be cautious exploration, trying to balance the excitement with the desire to truly understand the technology. My bet, is that there's going to be a lot of people who simply appear to be staring off into space.

Despite this, Glass is apparently designed (the second point I wanted to address) to get users the information they need to receive in no more than 2 seconds. Take a picture, check an email, start a call. All in two seconds. According to Starner, studies have shown that checking your phone can take you away for up to 20 seconds at a time. I believe it. I also believe that people will be a lot more likely to spend 20 seconds with Glass than two. So much of the interaction is going to depend on internet connectivity. Try to Google something with one bar or low wifi and you'll be left staring at your periphery for longer than you expected. We also have a tendency, especially when tasks are short and easy to complete, to check a few things at a time, knowing it will only take another second. I do that with my phone or with video games all the time and next thing I know I've lost an hour. This is an exaggeration obviously and not a situation I actually expect on Glass, but the premise is the same.

The way I see it there are two types of wearable technology and I think one is truly suited to being natural and "out of the way". Active wearables are those designed to be interacted with, like Glass. Passive on the other hand are meant to be worn in a way that help us track or monitor things, but that we don't have to actually engage with to use; think pedometers or, you could argue, even pacemakers. That passive technology allows us to keep track of things while we engage with other people, places, and things. Those products are truly designed to stay out of the way but as long as something is designed to be interacted with, engaged with, it will inevitably take us out of the moment, even if only for two seconds.

In truth, I know that Google is putting a lot of effort in to ensuring their experiences match the purpose of Glass and I'm really excited to see what using it is all about. But as people start to learn what it can do, they will find more and more ways to use it that are immersive and exciting. There's so much potential for good and bad.

When we think about designing experiences for people we should always try to make them feel natural. A good experience is one that you want to engage in, one that you can transition to seamlessly from whatever it is you're doing, wherever you are. As Starner says, you should consider the best way to integrate the platform or the technology into the experience but maybe we don't need to try and keep it out of the way, especially if the goal is to have it assist us. I think, that as the capabilities of technology increase, and the more it's integrated into our lives, that the definition of natural needs to change.

If you'd like to read the article, you can find it here. As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts about Glass, wearables, experience design, etc. To get you started, I'll leave you with this: if what is "natural" is we need to design the technology around the experiences or do we rethink the experience based on the technology?

Let me know below.

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