Google’s very public experiment with Glass in 2013-2014 provided an important lesson for the designers of wearable devices. Glass failed not because of the product itself but because the design generated socially awkward situations at every turn.
The idea of designing for context isn’t new, but to date it has been applied to mobile web and applications, where "context" meant taking advantage of GPS and sensors on the phone to offer information relevant to the user’s immediate surroundings. But for wearables, context means something else altogether: you have to design for the people in the surrounding environment as much as you design for the wearer of the device.
A wearable called the Narrative Clip (formerly Memoto) epitomizes this issue. A camera that takes a still image every 30 seconds, the Narrative is meant to capture the parts of your life that you wouldn't deem significant enough to pull out a camera and document, but that are in fact the moments that make up the bulk of your existence. The idea is that with benefit of hindsight, you may consider the images of value in the future. I recently spoke with Martin Källström, the CEO of Narrative, who gave me a master class in contextual design for wearables. Martin emphasized two things above all else in the design of wearables: honesty and subtlety. Those big design principles became three rules that guided the latest design of the Narrative Clip and could apply to many types of wearables.
1. It's not a secret, but it shouldn't be distracting.
The first prototypes for the Narrative were circular objects with the camera in the center. It was primarily designed in a way that made it difficult to conceal—the last thing the designers wanted to make was a camera used to spy on others. When they tested the prototype, the camera was visible and obvious to those around the wearer—a good thing—but so obvious that it ended up being distracting—a bad thing. Because the shape closely resembled a human eye, people just ended up staring at it. This led the designers to change the overall shape to a rounded square and eventually make the decision to put the camera lens in the square’s top left corner.
2. You should know exactly what it is when you see it.
Back in late 2012 when Narrative was designing the first Clip, the most popular camera in the world was the one on the back of the iPhone 4. To make it evident that the device was in fact a camera, the design of and around the lens directly referenced the iPhone 4 by putting a silver ring around the camera lens, because that's what cameras looked like at the time.
For the upcoming Narrative Clip 2, the camera design is updated to reference the camera design on the iPhone 6—a larger lens that's flush with the body of the camera and without of the shiny inset edge surrounding the lens in the original Clip.
3. You know when it’s on.
The best design decision for the Narrative Clip is that it doesn't have an off button. This may sound odd, but it’s central to the idea of transparency and the consideration of the context. To turn the camera off, you put it in your pocket—there's no "don't worry, it's off." This design decision forces honest behavior between the wearer and the surrounding environment.
Of course there are many different kinds of wearable devices, and no single set of rules applies to them all. A passive smart watch might not need to take into account surrounding company as much as a camera. But with the new array of sensors, visual and otherwise, we have to be as intentional as possible in designing devices, thinking about the perception and awareness of those who may come across them in the wild.
The pace at which wearable technology advances is impacted by the ever-adjusting social norms of the users. When camera phones first came out, they made the sound of a shutter snapping to alert people of their picture being taken. (When Glass was announced, I did a project where I strapped a GoPro to my head all day and vowed to publish the unedited content online to see how people would react to having a camera recording them in public. People were legitimately uncomfortable—as was I). We share a lot of our lives on the Internet, but we curate what we share. A loss of personal agency in that curation process presents a problem. Wearables that aim to capture more than the vital stats of their user must be designed with all users in mind.