Category Archives: UX

Designing for Smart Fabrics: Wear It’s At – Part 3

In Part 1 of this series, we looked at defining smart fabrics. In Part 2, we looked at some design ideas. In Part 3 we will explore things that could go wrong with this technology, and offer up two possible futures for products using smartfabric tech.

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(image via pixabay)

What are the Potential Drawbacks?

If we can access, visualize and interact with our digital lives with fabric, that brings a whole set of implications to design for (privacy, security, etc.) and the challenges of displaying and interacting with systems.

Imagine the possibilities. We will soon have clothing with:

  • built in displays that can show you information, images and video you would normally see on a PC or smartphone screen.
  • interaction with a system using certain gestures by touching your clothing.
  • powerful, tiny sensors that monitor biological functions.

Pretty cool huh? These technologies are currently being developed, and they could open the door to some fantastic possibilities. They also have a darker side, with potential pitfalls.

The most obvious pitfall is to needlessly annoy the wearer with notifications or prompts to interact with their clothing. Over notifying can over stimulate our senses. If vibration or lighting/color changes are used to get our attention, this might be useful if it is used sparingly. If we get a lot of buzzes against our skin, or our clothing rapidly is changing color or displays or lights are blinking at us too much, smartfabrics products could make people sick.

Accidental interactions can cause unintended results. What if I can control my TV shows with my jeans by gesturing on the fabric, but every time I change positions in my chair, I change the channel? Controlling inputs, determining touch targets and gestures, as well as what to display, and how to notify people of events are difficult to implement well on something that is constantly touching your skin. Over-notify and people will want to destroy their clothing, tickle people and they will go crazy.

Target areas for inputs and outputs are important to consider in clothing design. Inputs and outputs need to be placed very carefully on the body. They could draw unwanted attention to a particular area of the wearer’s body. Even if they aren’t highlighting private parts, they may trigger body image issues if it highlights a perceived flaw in the wearer. It’s also easy to imagine accidental or even purposeful unwanted touching – someone could use the input as an excuse to touch you. If the design encourages interaction, it could be easy for someone to be compelled to touch you when they normally wouldn’t. Inadvertently encouraging unwanted touching in our designs could have very serious implications. Unwanted touching is assault.

On the other hand, in private, intimate environments, that sort of touching can be welcome and fun. Context, as always, is key to understanding interactions with things you can wear.

Beyond unwanted touching, pranksters or “griefers” might think it is funny to reach over and mess with your digital interaction by touching the smartfabric device while you wear it. This could cause your data to become corrupted or trigger unwanted events in a system. (What if you were trying to book a calendar event, your friend reaches over and taps their fingers on your shirtsleeve, and now you have a thousand calendar events?)

We live in public, and smartfabrics might accidentally display personal information that we wouldn’t want others to see. What if a private text or email is displayed to my coworkers in a meeting because it is displayed on my shirt? (You might not want that nude selfie your significant other texts you to be displayed on your suit jacket when you are in a job interview.) What if I work in HR and my boss sends sensitive salary information that is displayed to an entire department I am presenting to? It could also be inappropriate for your dress shirt to display your photostream in church, or if your sombre outfit suddenly played the Benny Hill theme during a funeral. Understanding context and appropriateness of what to display and when, and how much control over who might see it users have is vital to understand and take into account.

Security and privacy is a huge issue with smartfabric devices. Data that is gathered from a user wearing smartfabrics is deeply personal. Any information that is passed to other devices or systems absolutely must be secure. That data should never be intercepted and stolen, it is very personal and could be misused and cause great harm to the user. If data transmitted from clothing or other devices could be intercepted by a 3rd party, that could be very embarrassing and potentially damaging if it is used against them. Also, if servers or cloud-based storage facilities are compromised and smartfabric generated user data is stolen, that could be catastrophic to the people whose data has been collected. The inevitable public backlash could be severe enough to destroy a company. Furthermore, data privacy laws could be broken and an organization could be faced with fines, lawsuits and the resulting bad publicity. Everyone loses if the data generated and used by these devices isn’t kept private and secure.

Private information should not be displayed publicly on my smartfabric device unless I want it to be displayed that way. I need to control what is shown, and when with speed and ease. Other people should not see my current status of what is going on with me and my body unless I want them to.

Smartfabric devices need to have their capabilities completely under the control of the wearer. When a feature isn’t appropriate in a particular context, or if something odd happens, the wearer need to be able to turn it off or mute it. Even active smartfabrics that change their form depending on outside triggers require user control to be able to turn it off.

Under controlled conditions (such as the development lab) you may never see irritating behavior, but in the real world strange things can happen. If your dress changes color depending on light and you are at a dance club, the lighting could cause the dress to rapidly change color. That requires a lot of energy if it happens over and over, so the power source could overheat and cause physical trauma (ie. burning) to the wearer. At best, it might wear your battery down prematurely.

Compatibility with other devices and services will also be difficult to address. What if my smartfabric jeans will only work with Android devices, and I only use Apple devices? What if the clothing that looks good on me and fits my budget is incompatible with my file hosting services I use and depend on? What happens if the smartfabric device manufacturer changes alliances, and my favorite suit company now only supports a platform I hate using?

Reliability is another issue that is difficult with clothing because we have to clean it constantly. How do we create hardware that can survive different weather, food and drink spills, sweat and other bodily fluids, and constant washing and drying? Clothing takes an absolute beating, and we subject it to extremes when we wear it, and especially when we clean it. This is an incredibly difficult environment for electronics to survive in, let alone work reliably in.

Two Possible Futures

The Scary Future

If we design smartfabric experiences poorly, we will distract people from their real world experiences, causing them to live diminished experiences when they wear these products. Instead of using technology to enhance their lives, we could burden them even more than our always connected experiences do already. Also, having more devices reading more and more sensitive and private information creates the potential to track people and make decisions about them based on their movements and biological data. This has incredibly serious, far-reaching implications. If people or organizations use this technology to reward or punish people due to the data that is collected, we could literally have a dystopian future on our hands.

If we aren’t careful, we might just create smartfabric products that are expensive, unreliable, irritating and in some cases, downright dangerous. That will be the kiss of death for the technology. If the solutions aren’t designed with empathy for real people, using them in the real world, not to mention our user’s needs, bodies and state of mind, they will quickly be relegated to the dustbin of history. The good that we could do with this technology would be lost because we did a terrible job with the user experience when we introduced our products to market.

The Awesome Future

Back when I wrote programs to help people on software teams be more productive, we used to joke that we were giving them super powers. They could now get visibility and control within systems that was formerly hidden from them, and use that information to make better decisions, or to diagnose and solve difficult problems. Similarly, even though we have many senses and powerful observation skills, there is a lot about ourselves and our environments that we can’t see. Sometimes this information can be incredibly important to get insight into.

I was delighted when Shannon Hoover (MakeFashion) suggested a similar superpower design theme with smartfabrics. Shannon goes beyond the concept of visibility and control, and he believes smartfabrics will eventually provide us with different superpowers by extending our senses, or replacing those that are injured or defective. Shannon says smartfabrics can help provide “X-Ray vision” by reading and presenting certain kinds of important data that are invisible to us. Just like a radio interprets radio waves and brings sound into a living room, smartfabrics have the potential to show us our current location and alert us where to move if we are travelling and get off track.

There are also applications to help provide us more strength and stability, and while we don’t all have access to a SciFi robotic exoskeleton (at least not yet), they are being developed for commercial and health related applications. Shannon goes further pointing out “spidey sense” activities to sense hidden danger, or important events. If the smartfabric is alerted to something that is important for you to know, it can get your attention to warn you immediately. Smartfabrics can use haptic feedback by interacting with your sense of touch in various ways to get your attention quickly.

Smartfabrics that sense danger and warn the wearer can be incredibly powerful. In particular, if our own senses are impaired due to illness, clothing that can warn us when our bodies are unable to can be life changing. Orpyx have created a vest that notifies people who can’t feel their extremities properly. Diabetic neuropathy sufferers can be warned of too much pressure in their feet by using sensors to vibrate against the wearer’s back to warn them. If your feet are getting injured, but you don’t feel pain, you can cause irreparable damage. Augmenting your body with another system to help prevent damage is an amazing feature to improve the life of people with illness and physical conditions. This also has enormous implications for safety gear and clothing for workers.

Once the wearer gets used to the alternative, haptic feedback, it feels as natural as the normal pain signals your body generates that you no longer feel from damaged areas. The technical term for this is “neuroplasticity”. Smartfabrics have the potential to use this as an “extra sense” to seamlessly interact with us in our environments. Shannon sees a future of products that can provide extra senses even for healthy users, to alert them or aid them as they perform tasks in the world so they are safer, happier and more productive.

Smartfabrics also have more whimsical applications that are also important. Imagine that you are at a holiday party in your new dress, shoes and accessories to match. You’re feeling good about yourself until you spot your nemesis from accounting. “That #$%#! She is wearing the same outfit! Disaster!

What do you do?

Smartfabrics to the rescue! You quickly dart out to the powder room, and with a quick, discrete gesture, you change the color of your dress. Crisis averted! This might seem silly compared to important medical or other applications, but this kind of technology would be incredibly useful for our quality of life.

Conclusion

Enhancing our bodies and our life activities with smartfabrics has the potential to enhance our senses, extend our physical capabilities and greatly inform our knowledge and insight. The choice for what future we want to bring to our users is in our hands. Do we want to enhance the lives of people who will use our products, or do we want to needlessly distract them away from what they should be experiencing?

Once smartfabric technology is reliable and inexpensive enough, we designers have some important work to do and not much time to do it in. Therefore, we need to choose what future we would like our customers to have even before we start designing.

Designing for Smart Fabrics: Wear It’s At – Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, we looked at defining smart fabrics. In Part 2, we will look at designing for them.

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(image via pixabay)

Deciding What to Design

Work with a Clothing Designer (someone who works with fabrics)

I can’t stress enough how important it is to work with someone who understands making clothing, and other handicrafts out of fabric and textiles. I spoke with Jen Kot, a professional engineer who makes her own clothing, knits and creates all kinds of interesting objects with textiles. As a technical person, she understands how the underlying technology works. As a crafty person, she deeply understands the application and costs of different textiles, the pros and cons of using different materials, what is easier or more difficult to work with, and what looks good.

Clothing is one of the most powerful tools we have to create and reinforce our image, or how we want the world to perceive us. One of Jen’s criticisms of much of the current wearables such as bracelets, watches and glasses are that they look “nerdy.” To a techie, we might not find this to be important. We may overlook the form for the features, and even find something awkward looking to be appealing. When you are competing in a world where fashion dictates what is available for us to wear in stores, we need to
understand how other people want to be perceived
.

When Jen and I brainstormed uses for smartfabrics, my solution ideas were much more functional. Her ideas were much more whimsical and fun. I kept thinking about how the technology could be applied and impact our lives, while she thought about what would look appealing as well as be engaging and fun.

Shannon Hoover, co-founder of MakeFashion, an organization that brings technologists and designers together to collaborate with wearable tech also reinforced this view. He also understands both the visual and technical worlds that are possible with smartfabrics.

Shannon says that many designers and developers are looking at wearables as a suite of tools (detect with sensor, compute data, send it to something else) but he also believes that isn’t very much fun. It seems very engineering-dominated, where we tend to focus on technology first, then apply it to a problem. Instead, Shannon feels we should also look at wearables from an aesthetic perspective (it looks interesting) and as a vehicle for
human expression. This is an artist and fashion-designer focused perspective.

Shannon goes even further, and says that clothing helps people tell the story about who they are – it is a narrative generator. It also gets people talking to you – it gets their attention and evokes emotions. Clothing is a great conversation starter. So what conversations do we want people to have about what we are wearing?

Using fabrics is complex, you need to understand how something looks on a person, how it feels on the skin, what colors are in fashion and how different cuts and shapes look on people. Fashion changes constantly. To make smartfabrics work, we will need both the technical view (here is how we make the technology work) and the fashion designer perspective (here is how we make the product look great and be appealing to wearers.) As a technology designer, talking to people who design clothing and furniture is exciting and helps generate new ideas. I understand the basics of what they are talking about, but their experience and perspective is completely different. When design materials use combinations of different technologies, our solution ideas are much better when we work together with other disciplines and share expertise and different perspectives.

Beyond Clothing

Making clothing is one way to use smartfabrics, but fabrics are used in a lot more things than clothing. For example, Nomex was used in heat shields for the space shuttle, Gore-Tex is used as a tissue replacement in medical procedures, and Kevlar is used to create high performance vehicle components. In fact, IoT developer and bbotx co-founder Geoff Kratz feels that smart fabrics have even more potential in products other than clothing. For example, he sees using smartfabrics in vehicle upholstery could provide alternatives for inputs and displays and other feedback mechanisms for safety purposes. Geoff also sees furniture as another good candidate. Smartfabrics could integrate with entertainment systems to provide an even more immersive experience. Chairs could sync up with other systems and provide you with reminders or safety information. Carpets could have safety lighting that is triggered by darkness or emergency situations. There is enormous potential for these sorts of ideas as well as interactive, connected art applications for homes, and public areas.

Quilter and chemical technologist (and reviewer of this article) Cindy Johnstone shares Geoff’s views. Since she quilts, she immediately thought of applications for blankets. Cindy says that portrait quilts or family quilts are very popular. She says the resolution of the images would be so much better if digital technology could be incorporated. An active smartfabric quilt that could tighten the batting to make it warmer in the winter and relax the fibres for summer use would be useful. People could use one blanket for different seasons, rather than having more than one blanket. Cindy also sees health care applications where adding in technology into blankets used by patients could provide more insight and control into patient care.

Corporate Innovation

As computing and wireless technology “disappears” into real world devices there is enormous potential to solve more interesting problems. We often look to organizations with well-funded R&D (research & development) programs to set the tone for the rest of us. There will be likely be useful, popular smartfabric products developed by some familiar leaders in the tech sector. The space is also ripe for disruption by some new up and coming organizations we haven’t heard of yet. Due to the combination of physical and virtual worlds, investment in these kinds of products will be more expensive than software alone.

One area that organizations are working on developing smartfabric and similar technology for is the health and wellness sector. Calgary-based Orpyx Technologies is a company that provides a wearable sensor platform for healthcare. In one of their products, they use embedded sensors in footwear to help people with diabetic neuropathy. Those with diabetic neuropathy have nerve damage and often don’t feel their limbs as well as other people do. Because they can’t feel when their feet hurt, they can injure them permanently. In severe cases this leads to amputation. Orpyx have developed a system to warn patients before this happens. A sensor-embedded insert worn inside a patient’s shoe gathers info from the sensors (pressure, etc) and transmits it to a smartwatch which then alerts them to potential problems.

Stephanie Zakala, Marketing and Inside Sales Manager at Orpyx says that they have been watching smartfabrics closely as a next step for some of their solutions. For example, rather than using embedded sensors within shoe inserts, a smartfabric sock would be a fantastic solution. So far though, there are technical limitations with the smartfabrics they have looked at. It is difficult to make socks with sensing capabilities that are comfortable, washable, and reliable over time. Stephanie says that clothing is particularly challenging because it creates hostile environments for electronics. Shoes and under garments are worn in conditions with pressure, high heat and humidity. Also, the high cost of many smartfabrics is currently prohibitive for many mass market consumer applications.

Other organizations are using sensors embedded in clothing to measure heart rate, temperature and other vital signs for healthcare, and athletics.

As smartfabric reliability improves and prices go down, many organizations will find them to be a great alternative technology for some of their current solutions. Beyond that, they will create new products and services by using smartfabrics to solve problems we were unable to address without this technology.

Innovation from Maker Communities

Great ideas don’t just come from companies, they can come from crowdsourcing as well. Craft communities are important crowdsourcing resources where people share interesting ideas for clothing and crafts. In these communities good ideas rise up to prominence because they work and are easy to replicate. Currently, there are knitting and quilting clubs, fashion collectives and maker fairs sprouting up all over, where people support each other socially, teach each other new skills, and most importantly, share patterns and design ideas so that others can make the same item.

As people try different patterns that others have created, they put their own unique spin on things, and improve on the original ideas. With such a large community, many ideas are shared and tested at large scale; far outstripping the resources of most companies R&D budgets and timelines might allow. Failure isn’t tied to profits and loss, so people can experiment without fear, and the best ideas tend to win out by becoming popular and emulated more frequently.

Homebrewing was a hugely vital part of early Personal Computer (PC) development, and this spirit of creativity and doing it yourself is evident virtually in craft communities. Adding technology to traditional materials is a natural step. In fact, while researching this piece, I found more people from craft communities that were interested in smartfabrics than technologists.

One community that reminds me of early PC homebrewing and software clubs is Ravelry. Ravelry is a community for people who knit and crochet, and it has a unique blend of features that allow people to share ideas and patterns. Local real-life knitting clubs have been started as a result of people from the same geographic location meeting virtually on Ravelry, then getting together and helping each other out. Sharing patterns and pictures of finished items is a huge part of the Ravelry experience, and popular patterns that help people create things that look good and work start to emerge.

Crowdsourced ideas from maker communities are often more fashion-conscious and whimsical than their corporate counterparts. Sometimes as technologists we forget that having a product that looks good and is fun is just as important to people as a life-saving device. It just depends on context. In fact, products that look good and are fun have a much larger market appeal. Maker communities are an area to watch because they not only filter the ideas for us, they remind us techies that the world can be a fun, colorful place and we need to incorporate those aspects into our designs.

These communities have access to a wealth of knowledge, and as digital designers, we can learn a tremendous amount from them. Once they have experimented with smartfabrics for a period of time, we can benefit from communities of people figuring out what works best for certain applications. These sorts of organizations are filled with people who like to experiment and create things for themselves and their friends. If you’re wondering where to start, Jen Kot says, make what is interesting and useful to you and then share it. The crowd can create at scale, so the good stuff will get copied and become popular.

Frame Your Design Thinking

Solve a Real Problem

When looking at technology first, and then trying to find useful applications of it, we can mistakenly create products that people don’t like. It’s important that technology solutions are actually useful and will be used by real people. Many wearables are not worn after a few months of use. In 2014, Endeavour Partners surveyed people who use wearables and found that one third of activity tracker users stopped using it after six months. Once people get a sense of the data that is measured and how that is reflected in their activities, they don’t seem to find a lot of value in the wearable information anymore.

It is vital to use technology that actually solves problems for people. Author and thinker Simon Sinek talks about “starting with why” we are doing something. In technology, we work a lot with the “what”. We have access to cutting edge technology, and we need to spend a lot of time learning how to master it and apply it. Many wearable and smartfabric demos seem to reflect this. People talk a lot about the technology and how it works, but they fail to make a compelling case for why it’s useful to me in my life and world right now. Very few people care about technical details, they want something that serves a purpose, looks good and fits their budget.

Think of buying a new pair of blue jeans as an example. When I shop, I look for something that solves my problem (I need clothing, specifically a new pair of jeans), that fits my personal style, that I look good wearing, and that I can afford. Invariably, I am drawn to a stylish visual design and a certain level of quality of materials and workmanship. Unfortunately, that means the jeans I would like to consider buying are expensive. Most importantly, the jeans have to fit my body and look and feel good while wearing them. So I start compromising to see if I can find something that fits my budget. If you are a smartfabric designer, how are you going to convince me to pay more money for something that has electronic capabilities in my jeans? It may just feel like an unnecessary extra. You have to convince me, the buyer, why I absolutely need this new technology in my jeans. Will they fit better? Will they look letter? Will they keep me warmer or drier or more comfortable? Will they provide data or notifications that are incredibly handy, or that I just can’t live without once I have them?

Whenever I design something new with complex technology, I strip the problem down to its essence, and I remove digital technology from the solution ideas at first. If I can use paper, pen, materials readily at hand and perhaps some physical services like mail or parcel delivery, what would I do? If you can fully understand the underlying problem you are solving and provide alternate ways of solving it with different technologies, it’s time to add in the digital technology to form a solution. It’s amazing how your perspective changes, and that pet feature you just loved in the technology doesn’t necessarily translate into an ideal product for the people you are designing for.

An ideal product should be so superior using smartfabrics to other, older technology, the customer will want it and will wonder how they got by without it in the past.

Paul Hanson (bbotx CEO) warns designers for wearables to avoid focusing on technology first, then looking for solutions in people’s lives. Instead, when we design wearables for people, we have to think about the person wearing the device first, what they are doing in their lives and how the technology that the device provides is useful for that person. However, it can’t stop there. Beyond the device itself, the generated data and activities recorded or performed by the wearable are much more useful when you take an entire system (such as your interactions with other people) into account. Gathering a lot of data with a smartfabric wearable and displaying that data on a smartphone has limited usefulness.

What does it mean? What should the wearer do?

With passive wearables, which are usually used to gather data, there is limited value in providing activity data only to the end user. There is infinitely more value if that data can be shared with people who can interpret the data, and have special expertise to help apply that to help you improve your life. In healthcare for example, clothing that monitors heart rate is incredibly useful if care givers or specialists have access to the data to help put context around it and point you towards behaviors that will benefit you. This requires a complex, secure computing system to support not only the wearable and the user, but everyone else who needs to be involved.

Active wearables need to interact with a system too – the immediate real world around us. Imagine a winter jacket that changes form depending on temperature so you are always at optimal comfort, or a shirt that changes color depending on lighting. The data the wearable interprets around them can trigger change in the form or attributes to enhance the experience of the wearer. Ideally, the user should be able to control these changes themselves if they want to override them.

Interfaces and Inputs

In my last article on wearables, I suggested that the real world is your primary user interface. With smartfabrics that can be used as clothing, user interfaces can also be on people’s bodies. Not only do you need to understand where the user is, what they are doing and what the environmental conditions are, you also have to understand where on the user’s body the user interfaces and inputs will take place.

Finally, you have to understand the inputs and outputs and displays themselves. This is incredibly challenging.

On a PC, we are used to input methods (keyboards, pointers, stylus, microphones, fingers, etc.) and output on a screen, from speakers etc. The end user tends to use the PC in more ideal conditions, and we don’t think too much about what else is going on around them. Mobile devices complicate I/O matters, because now we have to think about limited actions, and what else is going on in their world as they use our programs on the move.

Wearables such as smartwatches and activity trackers complicate this further, since they can overly distract from our real world activities, and since we are wearing them on our wrists or clipped on to clothing, we can’t get away from them if they needlessly over stimulate us with notifications and alerts. With smartfabrics used in clothing or furniture, the devices are right up against our skin and have much more opportunity to distract and annoy us. Can you imagine how terrible an experience could be if your clothing was vibrating or lighting up and you couldn’t stop it? It could be embarrassing, irritating, and could even cause injury to the wearer.

Deciding where to provide inputs and outputs on smartfabric is incredibly important for a design. With furniture or objects we interact with, it can be more straight forward, but would still require a lot of user testing with different users to get right. For clothing, it gets much more complicated. What are sensitive areas of the body we would want to avoid for inputs? How about appropriate areas for screens or lights or other outputs? If outputs or inputs they draw attention to private parts of the body, that could be disastrous in public, or just the right thing in private. We do not want to expose our customers to unwanted attention or touching, and they need to be in control of their own bodies and what technology can do to enhance them.

Smartfabric designers need to think of inputs and outputs for smartfabrics:

  1. What is around users in the real world and what activities will be enhanced by the technology
  2. The human body – where and what is useful with regards to inputs and outputs what is and feasible to put on or around our bodies and appropriate given the context of use
  3. The inputs and interface designs themselves

Design for Simple Interactions

On mobile devices, we have learned that we can distract people needlessly and take away from their real-life experiences rather than enhance them. If an app is annoying, people just delete it and move on. As designers, we must understand the context of use, such as the environment around users, and what they want to do at a particular time with the technology. We also know that people have less time and space to interact with mobile devices than they do with larger screens, so we have to develop for quick, economic interactions rather than a long workflow. For example, if I am walking outside with my smartphone, it is much harder to interact with than when I am sitting comfortably at a desk typing on my PC. If I am in a hurry, or I am in bad weather, it is even more difficult.

Now think of clothing you are wearing that is designed with smartfabrics. They are even more difficult to interact with than a small smartphone. What is going on around us and our limited ability to see and interact as we move around are amplified with smartfabrics. Imagine how irritating it would be to not be able to control or turn off notifications on your clothing, or how dangerous it might be if the smartfabric distracts you when you are walking, driving or riding a bicycle. The simple interactions mantra that mobile designers repeat over and over is that much more important to take into account with smartfabrics.

MakeFashion co-founder and UX designer Chelsea Klukas says: “…the most successful mobile products have created experiences that quickly allow customers to continue a task after interruption. With wearables these interactions will become even briefer, and successful experiences will need to be quick with minimal interruption to the user. Interfaces will need to be designed to rely on simple one-tap inputs and voice commands that can be achieved instantly.”

With wearables, the real world should be your primary user interface because that is what holds the most attention for the wearer, not the technology. Wearable technology should be designed to work within that context to complement real-life experiences. Chelsea says: “As wearables gain widespread adoption, we are going to have to be increasingly sensitive to the amount of interruptions and distractions they cause. When used correctly, wearables can be incredibly useful in providing information, wayfinding, or accessibility. When used incorrectly, they can become distracting and provide interruptions to user’s tasks and routines.”

Wayfinding came up a lot when I talked to people about possible applications of smartfabrics. Shannon Hoover suggested that smartfabric clothing that could sync with a map service would be hugely beneficial for tourists and travellers. If clothing provided tactile indications (such as through the use of a vibration motor) and subtle visuals, finding your way in an unfamiliar place could be much more enjoyable than having your face in a smartphone or an old fashioned map. You could focus on your surroundings, and have a richer experience, without worrying about going off your planned route. The clothing would remind and guide you. This could also be safer, you wouldn’t be a target as an obvious tourist to pickpockets or scammers.

Others described ideas using smartfabrics for people operating a vehicle. This technology would not be as visually distracting as looking at a smartphone or GPS map. Motorcyclists and bicycle commuters in particular found this a welcome change. Instead of relying on a hand held or mounted device that would distract their visual attention away from where the vehicle was heading, they could get tactile indications of where to go.

Smartfabrics could provide the ultimate handy interface for quick reference, reminders and interactions on the go, or they could interrupt needlessly and distract away from our real world experiences. Furthermore, since the human body is a secondary user interface, there is really very little difference between touching fabric on your body and touching bare skin. Imagine rubbing your thigh in one spot 100 times a day. How do you think your leg would feel in an hour, in a day, or after a week?

Simplicity is not only necessary for a good user experience, it could be necessary for our health, well being, and our relationships.

In Part 3 we will look at things that could go wrong with this technology, and offer up two possible futures for products using smartfabric tech.

Designing a Gamification Productivity Tool

Gamification and Software Testing

I haven’t spoken about this project publicly because we never got to a public release. Software testing tools represent a tiny market, so they are incredibly difficult to fund. Some of you have asked me about gamification tools with testing, so I thought I would share this brain dump.

A few years ago, I was asked to help a development team that had significant regulatory issues, and frequently accrued testing debt. The product owner’s solution was to periodically have “testing sprints” where other team members helped the over burdened test teams catch up. There was just one problem: the developers HATED helping out with 2 weeks of testing, so I was asked to do what I could to help.

A couple of the senior architects at this company were very interested in Session Tester and asked me why I had put game mechanics in a testing tool. I didn’t really realize at the time I had put game mechanics in, I was just trying to make something useful and engaging for people. So I started talking with them more about game design, and they encouraged me to look into MMOs and co-operative games. The team played games together a great deal, so I learned about the games they enjoyed and tried to incorporate mechanics

I set up a game-influenced process to help structure testing for the developers, and taught them the basics of SBTM. They LOVED it, and started having fun little side contests to try to find bugs in each other’s code. In fact, they were enjoying testing so much, they would complain about having to go back to coding to fix bugs. They didn’t want to do it full time, but a two week testing sprint under a gamified, co-operative model with some structure (and no horrible boring test cases) really did the trick.

Eventually, I worked with some of the team members with a side-project, and the team lead proposed creating a tool to capture what I had implemented. This was actually extremely difficult.  We started with what had been done with Session Tester, and went far beyond that, looking at a full stack testing productivity tool. One of the key aspects of our approach that differed from the traditional ET and scripted testing approaches was the test quest. As I was designing this test tool, I stumbled on Jane McGonigal’s work and found it really inspiring. She was also a big proponent of the quest as a model for getting things done in the real world. Also, we were very careful in how we measured testing progress. Bug counts are easily gamed and have a lot of chance. I have worked in departments that measured on bug counts in the past, and they are depressing if you are working on a mature product while your coworkers are working on a buggy version 1.0.

One thing Cem Kaner taught me was to reward testers based on approach rather than easily counted results, because they can’t control how many bugs there may or may not be in a system. So we set up a system around test quests. Also, many people find pure exploratory testing (ET) too free form and it doesn’t provide a sense of completion the way scripted test case management tools do. And when you are in a regulatory environment, you can’t do ET all the time, and test cases are too onerous and narrow focused. We were doing something else that wasn’t pure ET and it wasn’t traditional scripted testing. It turns out test quest was a perfect repository for everything that we needed to be done. Also, you didn’t finish the quest until you cleaned up data, entered bugs and other things people might find unpleasant after a test session or two. There is more here on quests: Test Quests – Gamification Applied to Software Test Execution

As I point out in that post, Chore Wars is interesting, but it was challenging for sustained testing because of different personalities and motivations of different people. So we used some ideas from ARGs to sprinkle within our process rather than use it as a foundation. Certain gamer types are attracted to things like Chore Wars, but others are turned off by them, so you have to be careful with a productivity tool.

We set up a reward system that reminded people to do a more thorough job. Was there a risk assessment? Were there coverage outlines? Session sheets? How were they filled out? Were they complete? What about bug reports? Were they complete and clear?  I fought with the architects over having a leaderboard, but eventually I relented and we reached a compromise. Superstar testers can dominate a system like this, causing others to feel demoralized and not want to try anymore. We decided to overcome that by looking at chance events, which are a huge part of what makes games fun, so no one could stay and dominate the testing leaderboard, they would get knocked to the bottom randomly and would have to work their way back up. Unfortunately, we ran into regulatory issues with the leaderboard – while we forbade the practice of ranking employees based on the tool, this sort of thing can run afoul of labor laws in some countries, so we were working on alternatives but ran out of resources before we could get it completed.

Social aspects of gaming are a massive part of online games in particular, but board games are more fun with more people too. We set up a communication system similar to a company IRC system we had developed in the past. We also designed a way to ask for help and for senior testers to provide mentoring, and like MMOs, we rewarded people who worked together more than if they worked alone. Like developer tools, we set up flags for review to help get more eyes on a problem.

We also set up a voting system so testers could nominate each other for best bug, or best bug report, best bug video, and encouraged sharing bug stories and technical information with each other within the tool.

An important design aspect was interoperability with other tools, so we designed testing products to be easily exported so they could be incorporated with tools people already use. Rather than try to compete or replace, we wanted to complement what testers were already doing in many organizations, and have an alternative to the tired and outdated test case management systems. However, if you had one of those systems, we wanted to work with it, rather than against it.

Unfortunately, we ran out of resources and weren’t able to get the tool off the ground. It had the basics of Session Tester embedded in it, with improvements and a lot of game approaches mixed in with testing fundamentals.

We learned three lessons with all of this:

  1. Co-operative game play works well for productivity over a sustained period of time, while competitive game play can be initially productive, but over time it can be destructive. Competition is something that has to be developed within a co-operative structure with a lot of care. Many people shut down when others get competitive, and rewarding for things like bugs found, or bugs fixed causes people to game the system, rather than focus on value.
  2. Each team is different, and there are different personalities and player types. You have to design accordingly and make implementations customizable and flexible. If you design too narrowly, the software testing game will no longer be relevant. If design is more flexible and customizable from the beginning, the tool has a much better chance of sustained use, even if the early champions move on to other companies. I’ve had people ask me for simple approaches and get disappointed when I don’t have a pat answer on how to gamify their testing team approach without observing and working with them first. There is no simple approach that fits all.
  3. Designing a good productivity tool is very difficult, and game approaches are much more complex than you might anticipate. There were unintended consequences when using certain approaches, and we really had to take different personality and player styles into account. (There are also labour and other game-related laws to explore.) Thin layer gamification (points, badges, leaderboards) had limited value over time and only appealed to a narrow group of people.

 If some of you are looking at gamification and testing productivity, I hope you find some of these ideas useful. If you are interested in some of the approaches we used, these Gamification Inspiration Cards are a good place to start.

New Article – Designing For Smartwatches And Wearables To Enhance Real-Life Experience

I expanded on my blog post on this topic and wrote an article for Smashing Magazine: Designing For Smartwatches And Wearables To Enhance Real-Life Experience.

Now that smartwatches and wearables are in a huge growth phase, I shared my ideas on treating the real world as your primary interface, and developing app experiences that enhance our lives, rather than needlessly distract.

Lessons Learned When Designing Products for Smartwatches & Wearables

Lately, I have been doing a bit of work designing products for smartwatches and wearables. It’s a challenge, but it is also a lot of fun. I’m just getting started, but I’ll try to describe what I have learned so far.

Designing for these devices has required a shift in my thinking. Here’s why: we have a long and rich history in User Experience (UX) and User Interface (UI) design for programs written for computers with screens. When we made the leap from a command line interface to graphical interface, this movement exploded. For years we have benefitted from the UX community. Whenever I am faced with a design problem when I’m working on a program or web site, I have tons of material to reach for to help design a great user interface.

That isn’t the case with wearables because they are fundamentally different when it comes to user interaction. For example, a smartwatch may have a small, low-fidelity screen, while an exercise bracelet may have no screen at all. It might just have a vibration motor inside and a blinking light on the outside to provide live feedback to the end user.

So where do you start when you are designing software experiences that integrate with wearables? The first thing I did was look at APIs for popular wearables, and for their guidance on how to interact with end users. I did what I always do, I tried to find similarities with computers or mobile devices and designed the experiences the way I would with them.

Trouble was, when we tested these software experiences on real devices, in the real world, they were sometimes really annoying. There were unintended consequences with the devices vibrating, blinking, and interrupting real world activities.
“AHHHH! Turn it off! TURN IT OFF!!”

Ok, back to the drawing board. What did we miss?

One insight I learned from this experience sounds simple, but it required a big adjustment in my design approach. I have been working on software systems that tried to make a virtual experience on a computer relatable to a real-world experience. With wearables devices that we literally embed into our physical lives, that model reverses. It can mess with your mind a bit, but it is actually very obvious once it clicks in your brain.

Simply put, when I don’t have a UI on a device, the world becomes my UI.

Let me expand on my emerging wearable design approach to help explain why.

Understand the Core Value Proposition of Your Product

If you’ve been developing software for computers and mobile devices already, this may sound simple, but it can actually be a difficult concept to nail down.

One approach I take is to reduce the current features. If we cut this feature, does the app still work? Does it prevent the end user from solving problems or being entertained? If we can cut it, it might be a supporting feature, not a core feature. Remember, wearables have less power and screen real estate, so we’ll have to reduce. When I had a group of core features remaining, now it is time to summarize. Can we describe what these features do together to create value and a great experience for users?

Another approach I use is to abstract our application away from computing technology altogether. I map out common user goals and workflows and try to repeat them away from the PC with a paper and pen. With an enterprise productivity application that involved a lot of sharing and collaboration, I was able to do this with different coloured paper (to represent different classes of information), folders (to represent private or shared files), post-its and different coloured pens for labelling, personalization.

In a video game context, I did this by reducing the game and mechanics down to a paper, pen, rule book and dice. I then started adding technology back until I had enough for the wearable design.

Now, how do you describe how you are different? Have you researched other players in this market? Who are your competitors, or who has an offering that is quite similar? How are you different? What sets you apart in a sea of apps and devices? This is vital to understand and express clearly.

How do I know if I am done, or close enough? As a team, we should be able to express what our product is and what it does in a sentence or two. Then, that should be relatable to people outside of our team, preferably people we know who aren’t technologists. If they understand the core offering, and express interest with a level of excitement, then we are on our way.
If you are starting out new, this can be a little simpler since it is often easier to create something new than to change what is established. However, even with a fresh, new product, it is easy to bloat it up with unneeded features, so have the courage to be ruthless about keeping things simple, at least at first.

Research and Understand the Device

With wearables and mobile devices in general, the technology is very different than what we are used to with PCs. I call them “sensor-based devices” since the sensors are a core differentiator from PCs and enable them to be so powerful and engaging to users. The technical capabilities of these devices are incredibly important to understand because it helps frame our world of possibilities when we decide what features to implement on wearables and smart watches. Some people prefer to do blue-sky feature generation without these restrictions in place, but I prefer to work with what is actually appropriate and possible with the technology. Also, if you understand the technology and what it was designed for, you can exploit its strengths rather than try to get it to do something it can’t do, or does very poorly.

This is what I do when I am researching a new device:

  • Read any media reviews I can find. PR firms will send out prototypes or early designs, so even if the device hasn’t been released yet, there are often some information and impressions out there already.
  • Read or at least skim the API documentation. Development teams work very hard to create app development or integration ecosystems for their devices. If you aren’t technical, get a friendly neighbourhood developer on your team to study it and summarize the device capabilities and how it is composed. You need to understand what sensors it has, how they are used, and any wireless integration that it uses to communicate to other devices and systems.
  • If they have provide it, thoroughly read the device’s design/UX/HCI guidelines. If they don’t, read others that are offering similar. For example, Pebble smart watches have a simple but useful Pebble UX Guide for UI development. It also refers to the Android and Apple design guidelines and talks about their design philosophy. Pebble currently emphasize a minimalist design, and recommend creating apps for monitoring, notifications and remote control. That is incredibly helpful for narrowing your focus.
  • Search the web – look for dev forums, etc. for information about what people are doing. You can pick up on chatter about popular features or affordances, common problems, and other ideas that are useful to digest. Dev forums are also full of announcements and advice from the technical teams delivering the devices as well, which is useful to review.

Determine Key Features by Creating an Impact Story

Now we can put together our core value proposition and the device’s capabilities. However, it’s important to understand our target market of users, and where they will use these devices, and why. I’ve been calling these types of stories different things over the years: technical fables, usage narratives, expanded scenarios and others, but nothing felt quite right. Then I took the course User Experience Done Right by Jasvir Shukla and Meghan Armstrong and I was delighted to find out that they use this approach as well. They had a better name: impact stories, so that is what I have adopted as well.

What I do is create an impact story that describe situations where this sort of technology might help. However, I frame them according to people going about their regular everyday lives. Remember that stories have a beginning, middle and end, and they have a scene, protagonists, antagonists, and things don’t always go well. I add in pressures and bad weather conditions that make the user uncomfortable, making sure they are things that actually occur in life, trying to create as realistic situations as I can. Ideally, I have already created some personas on the project and I can use them as the main characters.

Most people aren’t technology-driven – they have goals and tasks and ideas that they want to explore in their everyday lives and technology needs to enable them. I try to leave the technology we are developing out of the picture for the first story. Instead, I describe something related to what our technology might solve, and I explore the positives, negatives, pressures, harmonies and conflicts that inevitably arise. From this story, we can then look at gaps that our technology might fill. Remember that core value proposition we figured out above? Now we use this to figure out how we can use our technology platforms to address any needs or gaps in the story.

Next, we filter those ideas through the technical capabilities of the device(s) we are targeting for development. This is how we can start to generate useful features.

Once we get an idea on some core features, I then write three more short stories: a happy ending story (what we aspire to), a bad ending story (the technology fails them, and we want to make sure we avoid that) and a story that ends unresolved (to help us brainstorm about good and bad user experience outcomes.)

Impact stories and personas are great tools for creating and maintaining alignment with both business and technical stakeholders on teams. Stories have great hooks, they are memorable, and they are relatable. With experienced people, they remind them of good and bad project outcomes in the past, which help spur on the motivation for a great user experience. No one wants their solution to be as crappy as the mobile app that let you down last night at the restaurant and cost you a parking ticket.

Use the Real World as Your User Interface

UX experts will tell you that concrete imagery and wording works better than abstract concepts. That means if you have a virtual folder, create an icon that looks like a folder to represent what it is by using a cue from the physical world. What do we do if we have no user interface on a device to put any imagery on it at all? Or maybe it is just very small and limited, what then? It turns out the physical world around us is full of concrete imagery, so with a bit of awareness of a user’s context, we can use the real world as our UI, and enhance those experiences with a wearable device.

Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) are a great source of inspiration and ideas for this sort of approach. For a game development project I was working on, I also looked at Geocaching mechanics. Looking to older cellular or location-based technology and how they solved problems with less powerful devices is an enormous source of information when you are looking at new devices that share some similarities.

I talked to a couple of friends who used to build location-based games for cell phones in the pre-smartphone era, and they told me that one trick with this approach pick things that are universal (roads, trees, bodies of water, etc.) and add a virtual significance to them in your app experience. If I am using an exercise wearable, my exercise path and items in my path that I pass by might trigger events or significance to the data I am creating. If you run past significant points of interest on a path, information notifications to help cheer you on can be incredibly rewarding and engaging.

Enhance situational activities

One thing that bugs me about my smartphone is that it rarely has situational awareness. I have to stop what I am doing and inform it of the context I am in and go through all these steps to get what I want at that moment. I want it to just know. Yesterday I was on my way to a meeting in a part of town I am bit unfamiliar with. I had the destination on my smartphone map, without turn by turn directions turned on. I had to take a detour because of construction, so I needed to start a trip and get turn-by turn directions from the detoured area I was on. I pulled over to the side of the road, pulled out my smartphone, and I spent far too long trying to get it to plan out a trip. I had to re-enter the destination address, get the current location I was at and mess around with it before I could activate it. A better experience would be a maps app that would help and suggest once it senses you have stopped, and allow you to quickly get an adjusted trip going. While you have a an active trip, these devices are quite good at adjusting on the fly, but it would be even better if they knew what I was doing and suggested things that would make sense for me right now, in that particular situation.

It is easy to get irritating and over suggest and bug people to death about inconsequential things, but imagine you are walking past your favorite local restaurant, and a social app tells you your friends are there. Or on the day you usually stop in after work, your smartwatch or wearable alerts you to today’s special. If I leave my doctor’s office and walk to the front counter, a summary of my calendar might be a useful thing to have displayed for me. There are many ways that devices can use sensors and location services to help enhance an existing situation, and I see a massive amount of opportunity for this. Most of the experience takes place in real life, away from a machine, but the machine pops up briefly to help enhance the real life experience.

Rely on the Brain and the Imagination of Your User

If we create or extend a narrative that can make real world activities also have virtual meaning, that can be a powerful engagement tool. One mobile app I like is a jogging app that creates a zombie game overlay on your exercise routine. Zombies, Run! is a fantastic example of framing one activity into a context of another. This app can make my exercise more interesting, and gets your brain involved to help focus on what might become a mundane activity.

With a wearable, we can do this too! You just extend the narrative of what you created on your job and delay telling you what happened until you are complete, and have logged in to your account on a PC or smartphone/tablet. You have to reinforce the imagery and narrative a bit more on the supporting apps on devices with a screen.

ARGs really got me thinking about persisting a narrative. It is one thing to apply virtual significance to real-world objects, but what happens if we have no user interface at all? What are we left with? The most powerful tool we have access to is our human brains, so why not use those too? Sometimes as software designers I think we forget about how powerful this can be, and we almost talk down to our users. We dumb everything down and over praise them rather than respecting that they might have different interpretations or alternative ways of creating value for themselves with our software. Just because we didn’t think of it doesn’t mean it has no merit. It does require a shift towards encouraging overall experiences rather than a set of steps that have to be followed, which can be challenging at first.

Wearable Integration – Data Conversion

If you are working with a wearable that doesn’t have a screen or UI, and is essentially a measuring device, one option to tie in your app experience is to think of converting the data from one context into another. This can be done by tying into APIs for popular wearables. You don’t have an app on the device, but your device ties into the data that is gathered by it and used for something else. For example, convert effort from an exercise wearable into something else in your app. One example of this is Virgin Pulse, an employee engagement application that has a wearable that tracks exercise. Exercise with the wearable can be converted into various rewards within their system. The opportunities for this sort of conversion of data that is measured for one purpose to another experience altogether are endless.

One app I designed extended data generation activities to a narrative in an app. We extended the our app concepts to the physical activity and tapped into the creative minds and vivid imaginations of the humans using the devices with a few well placed cues. This was initially the most difficult app for me to design, but it turned out that this was the overwhelming favourite from a “fun to use” perspective. The delay between generating the data out in the real world, and then coming home and using your PC or tablet to discover what your data measured by the wearable had created in our app was powerful. Anticipation is a powerful thing.

However, be careful when you do this. Here are a couple of things to be aware of:

  • Make sure the conversion rules are completely transparent and communicated to the users. Users need to feel like the system is fair, and if they feel taken advantage of, they will stop using your app. Furthermore, many consumer protection groups and laws could be broken in different jurisdictions if you don’t publish it, and change it without user consent.
  • Study currency conversion for ideas on how to do this well. Many games use the US dollar as a baseline for virtual currencies in-game, mirroring the real world markets. These are sophisticated systems with a long history, so you don’t have to re-invent the wheel, you can build on knowledge and systems that are already there.
  • Add Variability Design Mechanics to Combat Boredom

    It can be really boring to use a device that just does the same things over and over. Eventually, it can just fade into the background and users don’t notice it anymore, which causes you to lose them. If they are filtering out your app, they won’t engage with it. Now, this is a tricky area to address because the last thing you want to do is harass people or irritate them. I get angry if an app nags me too much to use it like some needy ex, or try hard salesman. However, a bit of design work here can help add some interest without being bothersome, and in many cases, add to the positive experience.

    Here are some simple ideas on adding variation:

  • Easter Eggs: add in navigation time savers that will be discovered by more savvy users and shared with friends to surprise and delight
  • Variable Results: don’t do the same thing every time. Add in different screen designs for slightly different events. One trick is to use time and seasons as cues to update a screen with themes that fit daytime, night time, and seasons. Another is to use the current context of use to change the application behaviour or look. There are lots of things you can do here.
  • Game Mechanics: levelling and progression can help people feel a sense of progress and accomplishment, and if there are rewards or features that get unlocked at different levels, it can be a powerful motivator. It also adds dimensions to something repetitive that changes the user’s perspective and keeps it from getting stale.

Provide for User Control and Error Correction

As we learned when designing notifications for a smartwatch, it can be incredibly irritating if it is going off all the time and buzzing on your wrist. Since wearables are integrated with our clothing, or worn directly next to our bodies, it is incredibly important to provide options and control for users. If your app is irritating, people will stop using it. However, one person’s irritating is another person’s delight, so be sure to allow for notifications and vibrations and similar affordances in your product to be turned on and off.

Conclusion

This is one of the most fun areas for me right now in my work, and I hope you find my initial brain dump of ideas on the topic helpful. Sensor-based devices are gaining in popularity, and all indications show that some combination of them will become much more popular in the future.