"Think the Nike Fuelband—for babies! Suckling gamification! Wet diaper alerts! Potty training achievements! An altimeter that tracks standing! And a pedometer for the baby’s first steps!"
This is the VC pitch I imagined in my head the first time I heard about the Sproutling monitor, what may very well become the first big wearable for babies. Even typing that absurd phrase now—"wearable for babies"—makes it feel like my brain must have gone hypoxic inside the Silicon Valley bubble. But once I get past CEO Chris Bruce’s slick talking points—that it’s a tool to "make first time parents feel like second time parents," or that it’s like "Nest for family products," I realize just how much psychological and scientific intent is driving its design.
The Sproutling monitor itself is a band that fits around a baby’s ankle. It analyzes both the baby and his or her environment. So it tracks a child’s heart rate, skin temperature, and movement at the same time that it tracks the room’s ambient temperature, humidity, and light levels. That’s a lot of data, and by working with researchers from Xerox Parc, Sproutling is developing a new statistical model to cut through old wive’s tales and lead parents to actionable advice.
"All of this isn’t for the sake of data; it’s for the sake of insight and foresight," Bruce tells me. "One big thing we’re doing is predicting when your baby will wake from a nap. We’re trying to get that to the minute."
This advice is given to parents in the framework of push notifications. If a child has been waking a lot at night, for instance, the statistical model might see that the baby might benefit from going to bed 15 minutes later. So a parent would receive that tailored tip. But how they receive that tip—right down to its language—is particularly important. Advice packaged the wrong way could be offensive. Or it could drive parents to feel even more anxiety, which completely defeats the purpose of using the Sproutling monitor in the first place.
"Parents have a lot of personal decisions and opinions, we don’t want to tell parents what to do one way or the other," Bruce explains. "We’ve spent a tremendous amount of time on this language. One problem I had with the Jawbone Up: The first time I used it, I woke up, and it said I got 70% sleep. If Sproutling said your baby was 70% below average in sleep, you’d say, ‘Oh my gosh! I’m going to call the doctor!’"
"We’re trying to be direct and nonchalant at the same time," designer Gadi Amit adds later. "If something comes up, it’s being discussed quickly and simply."
Amit’s firm NewDealDesign—the same firm behind the Fitbit line, actually—partnered with Sproutling to take on everything from the industrial design, to the branding, to the app—a whole ecosystem that needs to accommodate the physiology of babies and the psychology of parents. It’s why, among the design studio’s spine of desks, sat many fully assembled cribs for several months. The designers, in essence, became parents.
"I think the fundamental decision at the beginning was, this is a product for the parents rather than a baby product," explains Amit. "Most of products in this market are actually driven by baby feel and baby style. Sproutling is a device that doesn’t look like it’s made for a baby."
But even though Sproutling monitor looks age agnostic, its industrial design was carefully tailored to fit young skin—a challenge even beyond that of the latest Fitbits, in a technical sense, as Sproutling’s sensor pebble actually has to touch the baby’s flesh to work.
"Babies are kind of squishy and they have extremely sensitive skin: Rashes, accumulation of fluids and God knows whatever," Amit laughs. "We developed a unique design that allows us to excerpt very, very subtle pressure. And then there is a strap that’s disposable, made of soft material—I can’t say which material because it’s sensitive information—but it’s both very delicate and replaceable. So if there’s an accident and you need to really clean that strap, you could just replace it."
Designers also had to develop a unique clasping mechanism, so that overzealous parents wouldn’t cinch the band too tightly—or, again, worry that they’d cinched the band too tightly. And this careful, concern-averting tone spreads from the industrial design right through to the app design, which uses simple, central "things are OK" or "things are not OK" iconography.
"Keep in mind, the whole purpose of this is peace of mind and harmony," Amit says. "We’re trying to bombard you with not too much information."
Sproutling will soon entering alpha testing, with the goal of releasing in late spring or early summer of 2014. The project is specifically not Kickstarted because Bruce couldn’t imagine expectant parents suffering through the anxiety of delays. (Even in this sense, we see that theme of parental anxiety circle back to influence the product.) It’s a maneuver to protect the brand early on, as Bruce hopes the Sproutling will be but the first product in a whole new category of smart family-focused devices. In fact, they’re already working on a more clinical version of Sproutling that tracks vitals like blood oxygen levels, but are avoiding that space for now, due to complicated FDA mandates.