Opinion: For unobtrusive wearables, consider the UX from all angles

Unobtrusive wearable tech used to be an oxymoron, but some of today’s technologies are getting close to achieving this lofty goal — devices that function so naturally, wearers don’t even notice they have them on. And it has potential to alter the healthcare industry in major ways. 

Monitoring patients for overall health and to track recovery has become a round-the-clock endeavor. Unobtrusive wearable devices are able to gather some of the highest quality data available, and their mostly autonomous operation elevates them beyond the human error and bias that plague traditional monitoring techniques, such as patient journaling. 

The sheer quantity of data wearable tech generates is another advantage. Apple’s ResearchKit and CareKit, for instance, mean that more valuable information than ever before will be generated by a device that millions already carry in their pockets.

Most wearable tech, though, hasn’t yet reached the truly unobtrusive stage — many designers fail to take into account the behavioral aspects of the device and focus solely on the physical. 

More Than Looks 

When people think of obtrusive tech, they might envision clunky VR headsets or unwieldy first-generation cell phones. It’s true that we long ago solved the most glaring physical annoyances of personal devices, but we still have a few pieces of the puzzle to figure out.

Take the Apple Watch. The device is physically unobtrusive but behaviorally a bit of a nuisance: It’s not normal to have to remove your watch every six to eight hours to recharge it. The watch gets less and less important, usable, and effective the further away you are from a power source. 

Even though the Apple Watch isn’t wholly unobtrusive, healthcare tech designers can still learn a lot from the efforts of Apple and companies like Fitbit and Jawbone. These companies dedicate an enormous amount of resources to making their technology as usable as possible. The investment is obvious when you look at the final products, which are simple, elegant, and intuitive. Organizations in the medical field likewise invest in complex and increasingly important technologies, but they often overlook the user experience. 

Designers must think about the universality of use and how the wearable interacts with users’ skin and bodies. The device must be comfortable, and it also must be waterproof, shockproof, and damage resistant. The more that companies like Apple, Fitbit, and Jawbone focus on these aspects of wearable tech, the better it will be for everyone: Their efforts drive the costs of those investments down, paving the way for more groundbreaking healthcare-related applications of the technology. 

It’s All About User Experience 

Phillips delivers numerous innovations in healthcare, but allow me to pick on it for a moment. Among the many technologies the company develops, several are specifically designed to treat sleep apnea. These follow the traditional approach of having the patient wear an ungainly mask to regulate breathing. But Provent’s design — a small, disposable device the user applies to the nostrils — accomplishes the same thing in a far less obtrusive manner. 

The lesson to be learned here: A treatment doesn’t have to be something unpleasant that people will endure because they don’t have a choice. A greater focus on user experience can drive improvements to wearable tech so they’re effective, effortless to use, and comfortable. 

With that in mind, here are a few tips for designing technologies that are unobtrusive and easy to embrace: 

1. Remove every obstacle between the patient and the hardware.

Making tech as easy to use as possible is the overarching mission of every great design firm, so make sure you’re enlisting a top-notch design partner. Anyone who’s ever seen the work of Lunar (whose clients include Provent) can quickly understand that design firms put a huge amount of research, energy, and effort into creating unobtrusive products in every category, not just healthcare and health technology. 

2. Understand your audience and your sensor needs.

What problem are you solving? If you’re trying to better understand patient activity, consider which sensors you really need to use and those you don’t. Understand the technology, and be an informed consumer. This will enable you to push your design firm and partners to take advantage of existing platforms, hardware, or software that can help you efficiently accomplish your goals. 

3. Connect with your existing customers and get feedback.

Especially when it comes to healthcare-related wearable tech, don’t be afraid to ask for feedback from users and use it to drive improvements. Patients are going to be willing to provide the kind of detailed feedback they believe will improve their quality of life and degree of control over their condition. After all, this isn’t a survey about an online shopping experience; it’s about how well your patient is able to monitor her blood glucose levels and gain freedom and flexibility in the choices she makes concerning her health. 

Surveying and interviewing are vital to understanding the patient perspective. Once you accomplish that, you’re going to be able to get very close to the unobtrusive wearable that will improve both the provider and the patient experience.

What are your thoughts on current wearable designs? Let us know in the comments.

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