WEARABLES: Who's buying them, what they want from them, and are they here to stay

Apple builds the hype better than anyone. Picture: Getty Images

“Wearables are so new that most people don’t know what to think of them.”

So opens a white paper pulled together by customer experience technology company SDL, which took on the task of figuring out exactly what drives consumer interest as the launch of the latest wearable device approaches.

Wearables are like the 3D TV of our age. They sound exciting, and it feels like our sci-fi future is just a step away when there’s talk of them about to hit the market. Next, hoverboards.

Then it’s finally in our hands and the reality is, well, not like in the movies – which shouldn’t surprise anyone. The harsh truth is the best wearables are the ones that do one job, and do it well.

Think Fitbit, as opposed to Google Glass. The most useful wearables, the ones that don’t get packed back into the drawer two weeks later, have an incremental impact on our lives. They’re more along the lines of value-adding than life-changing.

That will all change, eventually. The Apple Watch 2 will no doubt be less fiddly, easier to read, maybe comfortable, even. A popular rumour has it featuring a FaceTime camera, which so many wanted in the original device, because that’s the future, right?

Piper Jaffray’s Erinn Murphy and Christof Fischer stated that “wearable technology will be the next generation of devices to transform how individuals consume and use information”. They estimate the wearable tech category will grow from 21 million units in 2014 to 150 million units in 2019, a 48% compound annual growth rate (CAGR).

Yet Google seems to have already given up on trying to sell Glass to consumers and looks like it has naturally drifted towards professionals for the troubled wearable’s first proper update.

And one interesting test looms when VR headsets hit the market later this year. On one side, lead by Oculus Rift, is a group of devices which fully immerse a user in a virtual world, promising ultimate escapism.

On the other, Microsoft’s HoloLens keeps one of our feet in reality, simply overlaying graphics over what we see, walking us through daily tasks, or projecting images and video on walls. Augmentation in the proper sense of the word.

There are very few consumer products which arrive with as much hype as wearables, purely because they promise so much. Yet the one wearable that promises the least – a device that records how far you travelled, how fast and how well you slept – is so far considered almost the sole success story in the increasingly crowded market.

That’s a huge challenge for those in the business of trying to figure out what makes a wearable that consumers will actually fall in love with. “Keep it simple” seems to be the winning formula.

But that just flies annoyingly in the face of developers who want to wow the world, which equally annoyingly, responds with a collective “meh” when the latest product evolution fails to propel them a satisfying distance into the future.

So SDL monitored 50 billion conversations on social media to find out what people talked about most, when they talked about wearables. Here’s what’s important to them:

Image: SDL

Battery life? Nope. Price? Nope.

They want apps, and they’re also prepared to wait for version 2.0, because they know it will be better. A very basic reading of that gives you the manufacturer’s dilemma in a nutshell – convince developers to create apps for a device that probably won’t sell very well for a year, but must tantalise consumers enough that they’ll hold off on switching to the competition until you can deliver an upgrade.

Oh, and with apologies to Patrick Stewart, they don’t want to look like this:

Picture: Paramount

Russ Taufa, SDL’s director of Global Insight and Analytics, told BI it was fair to say there was still a strong feeling out there that wearables are a novelty. But he said their research also showed “there is a wearable future ahead”.

“It’s mostly because there are so many benefits and a variety of industries that can harness their potential,” Taufa says.

“They can be used in retail, manufacturing, fitness and health. We’re even seeing it expanding into agriculture with fitbits for cows to track livestock health.

What it will take for wearables to acquire wholesale adoption is SDL’s next project, when they analyse post-launch data. For starters, there’s a definite “honeymoon period” that all devices have to push through, according to SDL, particularly in regard to fitness-specialised devices:

“It’s common for consumers to be heavy users during the first three to six months of ownership and during this honeymoon period, many report that a fitness wearable is fun and exciting. These devices provide so much interesting data!

“But after several months of continuous use, the data no longer reveals interesting stats as consumers develop an intuitive understanding of their key biometrics. While fitness trackers have so far proven to lose interest in the short-term, the same statistics haven’t yet been made available for other wearable devices.”

But Taufa said the pre-launch data showed there was already significant differences in the way consumers anticipated the arrival of the next big thing in wearables.

Not surprisingly, it had just about everything to do with who was launching the product. Here’s Taufa’s analysis of what consumers were saying before four of the world’s biggest tech companies went to market:

  • Apple Watch: Customer data shows that Apple was successful in creating pre-launch hype per usual, starting with a big event and announcement, then slowly and consistently releasing more info, toolkit etc. Our data shows the only exception deterring customers is the battery life.
  • Google Glass: Customer conversations show the pre-release through Google Glass Explorer program made participants feel special but a very niche launch was perceived as elitist by some.
  • Microsoft Band: The customer data didn’t reveal many pre-launch conversations.
  • Samsung Gear S: The announcement of a wearable device positioned alongside a smartphone as an add-on, played off the anticipation for and success of the smartphone.

SDL said conversations about Samsung’s Gear “skewed negative” as the company failed to reassure consumers there would be apps ready for launch. Apple, on the other hand, made regular mini media events over local developers who would have native apps ready for the Watch.

The interesting thing to note about Apple preconceptions was concern over the battery life, which struggles to make it through a heavy working day. And surprise – what’s the only wristwatch that’s showing any sign of being an Apple Watch competitor? The device that has comparatively no features compared to the Watch, yet will run for seven days – the Pebble Time.

“Whether wearables are here to stay is dependent on the key players in the marketplace meeting or exceeding these consumer demands,” Taufa says.

He said if he were a VC looking to back a wearables startup, there were three critical areas SDL’s research had highlighted which he would expect to see put on the table.

The first, most obvious capability would be applications. But wearable designers should also take into account they’re not working on a magical device that does everything.

“Research should focus on feature prioritisation to better understand the tipping point (and primary decision-making/buying triggers) that differentiate between customers investing now and waiting for the next version,” Taufa says.

“And a prominent ask in design conversations is customisation, so design and user experience research could also focus on customisable design elements that most resonate with target audiences.”

You can download the full white paper from SDL here.

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