The wearable dilemma

My old friend Dawn, who frequently eats lunch while hula-hooping and has been known to visit the local Y three times a day… had a Fitbit as well, and swore by it. Others I met weren’t quite so taken. These were people who had worn one until the battery died. Then, instead of recharging it, which couldn’t be simpler, they’d stuck it in a drawer, most likely with all the other devices they’d lost interest in over the years.”
Calypso, 2018

Sedaris’s words sum up two common attitudes toward wearables pre-pandemic. Covid-19 unlocked a new level of digital health that dismantled the 2010s’ apprehension or indifference towards wearables. For instance, The Economist claims that “wearables were often what we might call ‘dispensable’… the pandemic changed that.” They also predicted that “as wearables acquire more features, users are less likely to lose interest in them and shove them into the back of a drawer.” In other words, there seems to be an assumption made in this post-Covid world that as wearables advance in technology, interest will follow suit.

However, based on our individual experiences — and the first ever drop in wearable sales in Q1 of 2022 — we aren’t so sure this correlation is 1:1. In fact, according to Pew Research, less than 1 in 4 Americans own a smart watch or fitness tracker. And let’s remember that “own” doesn’t always mean “use.”

As an organisation that has worn and created wearables, we wanted to better understand this dissonance between media predictions and the attitudes we’re noticing. Why are some wearable users obsessive about their purchase, while others quickly lose interest in their watch or ring? Why have some never had interest in the first place? And what will it take for wearables to finally be commonplace?

To help answer these questions, we assembled an informal panel of 25 friends, colleagues, and strangers across generations and occupations. We chatted with students, parents, teachers, engineers, Astro designers, retired bridge players, and more.

Here’s a sample of what we learned:

Understanding the wearable connection

Many perspectives on wearables coalesced around three pillars: health, community, and identity, and had to do with the concept of connection — whether for better or for worse. The same feature that’s beneficial to some could be harmful to others. How one defined helpful connection influenced their sentiment towards wearables in the following areas.

Help me connect to my health

In line with our expectations, health — whether that be sleep, heart rate monitoring, or fall support — was a main driver for interest in wearable devices and an undisputed benefit to most.

“I’m not a gadgets guy, but I’d go for it if I needed it for health or if my doctor recommended it.” - Doug, 60, sales

How one defines “needed” varies. Some trust or simply want to rely more on their own intuition, which is how Ellie, 25, feels, amidst a slew of digestive issues and tissue disorders.

“I don’t find the health data helpful enough. I want to push myself and eat food based on what feels good and my own known limits.”-Ellie, 25, engineer

However, it is important to note that Doug and Ellie’s views on the health functions of wearables are based on an incomplete story. The wearable companies most referred to are consumer electronics, not health companies. And people are talking about ‘health metrics’ that aren’t really health metrics. They don’t reflect on the complete condition of your physiology.

In other words, the health data that we view as either helpful or harmful is not actually backed by much authority.

Help me connect to my self-image

Most of those who scoff at the mention of a “wearable” continue to write off future benefits, latching onto their current associations that feel conflicting not just with their health needs, but also with their identity.

If a device clashes with one’s vibes, then the benefits may never be entertained. Old, young, teacher, designer — vibes matter.

“There’s a fall alert thing for your neck, but I would never buy that. It’s made for old people. I like the Apple watch because it is ‘with it.’” – Barbara, 87, retired

But within and between generations, what is “with it” and under what use cases varies.

Unlike Barbara, some in younger generations (Gen Z+) equate tech-enabled wrist bands and rings with having “no swag.” For some, there’s no swag no matter the setting, and for others, the vibes are there, but only at the gym or on the job.

“I thought about getting the Whoop, but you then end up having a conversation about the Whoop all the time, and I don’t want to talk about the Whoop.” - Penelope, 28, consultant

Help me connect to the world around me

The teachers, nurses, and high schoolers we spoke with say they lean into their wearables’ LTE function for streamlined connectivity. Their connected devices allow them to stay focused on their students, patients, or schoolwork without picking up their phones.

“I got [an Apple watch] for work so I wouldn’t have to carry my phone. I could quickly see texts and continue to teach.” - Michelle, 58, teacher

While the high schoolers are looking to be even more connected with features for Snapchat or the like, for others, the connected feature in and of itself undermines other benefits. Many, in general older than Gen Z, are overwhelmed by “another thing to charge” or “another notification.”

“I want to be less connected. A buzz on my finger?! Absolutely not. Just let me live without all these notifications.” - Rebecca, 30, journalist

It seems that many like Rebecca find connection via wearables at odds with their ability to connect to the world and the people in front of them.

Winning the wearable wary

To be successful even amongst the wearable wary, companies must meet their desires for connection across dimensions of health, community, and identity. Given these needs and their subsequent relationships with tech devices vary, companies should be targeted in who they are winning and how they position themselves in-market. Some companies are already making moves, while other brands need a little push in the right direction.

Tech-enabled wearables beyond the fitness-first segment would be wise to brand themselves apart from mainstream wearables. Targeted health care devices are getting lumped into the generic wearable category. This lack of distinction muddies their value add.

While some companies need coaching, others have the right idea. For instance, in attempts to enable 24/7 self-expression and meet the needs of the “No More Notifications” and “Where’s the Swag?” cohorts, Norwegian brand NoWatch positioned itself against the smartwatch in name alone. NoWatch stands for “balance” and “body well-being” by offering sustainable stone watches that help maintain stress levels.

Companies can also target stress levels associated with devices by providing a more frictionless experience. From device maintenance to data capture, seamless technology can unlock a smoother end-to-end experience where the looming “another thing to charge” is less palpable.

Are drawers in wearables’ futures?

No matter how seamless, advanced, or personalized devices become, there will always be those who don’t want to be helped or have misguided conceptions. Even if all wearable developers and partners lean into the outlined customer needs like NoWatch, the notion of mass adoption may still be misleading. Despite companies’ best efforts, wearables may always have a foothold in drawers

However, there is no denying that wearables have the potential to help all in some facet of their lives. In our discussion with the panel, many of the wearable wary still see the potential for utility to some degree.

When seizing on these chances to appeal to their customer base, brands and developers should ask one question: How do I make the wearable connection more helpful than harmful?

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