The User is King: Designing and Selecting Wearable Hardware

Written BY

Emily Friedman

September 1, 2016

One theme that emerged over and over again, phrased in different ways, at the 2nd annual Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit this past June was the idea of the user as king: In determining a viable use case for your business, start with the user or worker by observing and talking with members of your workforce. Indeed, workers exert tremendous influence over how wearables will be used in the enterprise – in which applications – as well as over which devices are going to “make it” in the workplace. You could even go so far as to say that the success (or failure) of wearable technology in enterprise depends upon the user’s involvement and acceptance.

Beyond ascertaining possible applications for wearables in the workplace directly from the workforce, the user is also critical in the design and selection process for enterprise wearables.

Lance Anderson of Vuzix said, “If you’re doing your pilot in a conference room, you’re doing it wrong.” Likewise, if you’re manufacturing or developing a wearable solution or choosing a device to trial in your business without referring to the ultimate end user, i.e. the employee, then you’re doing it wrong.

Lance also said that “wearability is absolutely everything.” Wearability is a relatively new concept in the world of technology; and it’s probably the number one factor in the design of enterprise wearables along with the number one criterion in an enterprise’s choice of hardware. Chris Croteau of Intel posed the question “How much technology can we actually put on people?” He remarked that when you put on a piece of technology, you make it a part of yourself: “It becomes an embodiment of who you are…it says something about you and your identity to the world, which adds a whole other level of complexity.” And ‘complex’ is right: Did we have an identity crisis when we first began using smartphones and tablets, on the job or otherwise? Perhaps those early cell phones caused us to call something about ourselves into question; perhaps the introduction of tablets into the workplace reflected upon workers’ self-identities in some industries. But not to the degree that Chris describes.

These devices are worn on the head, on the wrist, on the body; and that opens up almost a Pandora’s Box of considerations and issues and consequences that are essentially new, that didn’t really exist with previous mobile technologies. I probably sound like a broken record but I don’t think humans have ever been such an integral element in the conception or execution of a technological revolution. Yes, we’ve been inventing things and using technology for ages, but in the wearables revolution we become the physical conveyors of digital transformation.

So how do we treat the user as king in designing and choosing wearable solutions for the enterprise? By always asking “Can a worker comfortably (and safely) wear this device?” Can it be comfortably worn and used on that part of the body, in this specific job scenario/environment, for X amount of time (an entire job shift, for example)? It involves imagining the technology in action in the real world on a real person; or imagining the device integrated into a real business process in a real workplace on a real worker, and testing it like so.

The elite solution providers who spoke at EWTS have discovered many worker-centered design factors that may not be readily apparent to enterprise decision makers. The issues raised by Lance, Chris and other wearable hardware insiders are not only critical to their work but also to those business leaders responsible for evaluating emerging technologies and choosing promising devices to give to their employees. In other words, the considerations very much overlap, whether you’re a wearable manufacturer or head of technology/innovation for your organization.

In his opening keynote, Tom Bianculli of Zebra Technologies shared a list of “human factor lessons” learned by Zebra in developing wearable solutions for its enterprise customers. Tom’s advice was to “focus on the nuances,” for it is the numerous subtleties that make each worker physically unique that will either enable wearables in the enterprise or kill the technology.

You’ve probably heard that wearable technology in the enterprise is not “one size fits all.” As Tom pointed out, enterprise wearables are a shared experience: “A workplace wearable is a non-personal device, shared between shifts of workers.” While traditional mobile devices like tablets might be shared within a workforce, the fact that wearable devices are worn on the body brings up a different set of considerations in addition to those like efficiency of transition, or how the devices are handed off from one worker to the next.

Tom brought up human physiology–this varies, and includes factors such as the worker’s head size and physical body type, his or her dominant hand and dominant eye, even pupil distance. An enterprise-grade wearable has to accommodate such variances, perhaps by being adjustable or allowing for ambidextrous usage. Tom spoke specifically about Augmented Reality, which “has to be done in a way that doesn’t require registration to the user’s head in any specific way…[you] don’t want to go back to a shift-based worker, making adjustments worker by worker, [which] slows everything down. [You] want something fairly forgiving.”

Then there are less individualistic considerations like employee hygiene and workplace safety: Sharing devices in a hygienic manner; thinking about peripheral vision and how that might lead to visual occlusions (in the case of smart glasses); and maintaining a worker’s environmental awareness. The user is still king, but a business is often a group effort, so you need to consider wearables in the context of a workforce (multiple users to a device) as well as in the context of a physical space–a group of workers, some or all of whom are using wearables, and navigating the same work space. After all, the goal of using wearables in the enterprise is to enable or empower employees, enhancing human performance and productivity. Enterprise decision makers have to consider KPIs of employees, not just business KPIs.

Tom also raised seemingly obscure concerns like “What happens when someone turns with the device on [his or her] head?” Certainly, “inertia” and the weight of the wearable is something to be sensitive to. And human beings have a cognitive corporeal envelope, “a sort of built-in, unconscious understanding of how much space we take up in an environment.” So while the idea behind using wearables in your organization might be a great one; if the user must be extremely mindful of moving his head while wearing a pair of smart glasses or those glasses cause him to lose peripheral vision or the wearable device interferes with other physical senses, then what should be a tool will become a hindrance.

Preventing visual occlusions with smart glasses and other head-mounted devices ins’t just a physiological matter. Joakim Elvander of Sony brought up what he calls the “terminator UI.” Information overload in a smart glass display can “obstruct the user from seeing what he should see,” diminishing the worker’s awareness of his environment and causing cognitive stress. Joakim advised keeping the information presented to the wearer sparse, visually simple, and purely contextual–only what’s relevant to the task at hand.

And once again, beyond physiology, Lance Anderson alluded to individual preference and making sure the wearable is appropriate to the user’s job or how the user works. For instance, “Frames are good for some people; others need it to fit on a regular, store-bought hard hat. Doctors may need a headband, [while] pharma may need goggles. [Or] you may need a ring scanner to go with [the glasses].” And, of course, the device has to be durable. Lance recalled one client asking him whether the M100 could be dropped from eight feet because “our guys are going to do that for sure.” Hardware manufacturers, according to Anderson, walk a bit of a tight rope: Enterprise customers want wearables with plenty of features like GPS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, a good display, long battery life, etc., and they also want workers to wear the devices on their bodies. What do you really need to “pack into” the device to get the job done? Or, more aptly, what do your employees truly require from a wearable?

In short, when it comes to hardware and wearability the user is king. So ask the worker! “It is the worker who wears the device for hours at a time who gives the most valuable feedback.” – Lance Anderson, Vuzix.

Further Reading