Designing a problem, so you can design a solution

Written on 9 July 2015

Wearables are huge – everyone is talking about how to make the plethora of increasingly commercially-viable technologies into successful products for the mass market. Crowdfunding site already carries a broad array of products, from futuristic to unfathomable.

How will you use it?

Wearables have been on the radar for a while now, but recently there’s been developments that have made the commercial viability more immediate.

Levi’s and Google are joining forces to create the first wearable tech that’s also gesture-interactive. The company’s Advanced Technology and Projects group, known as ATAP, is working on fabric that can sense touch gestures. Using a new kind of conductive yarn and woven multitouch panels, they can turn normal clothes into interactive devices.

Wearing clothing made from the textiles, you could swipe your hand over the sleeve of a jacket or side of your jeans to silence a phone. Tap a finger to start playing a song.

In a quick brainstorming session we had in the office, we came up with a range of concerns about the use and practicability of just this project, let alone the broader applications of wearable technologies. Change the cultural or environmental location of our discussion, and many other queries may arise.

  • I don’t wear the same thing everyday, how will I get enough use out of it to make it worth the price?
  • I’ll look like an idiot patting my non-interactive trousers on other days
  • I feel like it’s for a younger market than me
  • It’ll never look cool, just dweeby
  • Why would I use it instead of just using my phone?
  • What does it add to my day/ life?
  • What happens when it rains?
  • I don’t want technology everywhere, I want to stay “unplugged” sometimes
  • I don’t feel comfortable with that level of autonomy taken away from me
  • what’s happening to the information I “give” it?

Providing an application that strikes the public as not just interesting but indispensable is key to igniting mass appeal. This simply does not do that. However, that doesn’t mean that wearables, or specifically interactive materials are gimmicky or limited to the luxury market. We came up with lots of examples where interactive material could be used to make the world an easier place to live.

  • Temperature sensitive heated blankets that can alter their setting through the night based on your body temperature. Humidity too.
  • Fabric that adjusts SPF rating based on sun intensity (hats, shirts…).
  • A child’s shirt that can tell a parent when they have strayed too far, or near water?
  • Social engineering applications – proximity shocks when people invade your space! I can also feel ‘driverless shoes’ coming on, to force people to walk responsibly on a footpath.

The interactive lab coat

Many professionals wear some sort of specialist gear for work: firemen, lifeguards, lab scientists. As we talked about interactive materials, it seemed obvious that they’d be useful for those with specific demands of their clothing.

Let’s take a lab coat. It functions as a protective layer worn by those working with chemicals or hazardous materials to stop them getting that material directly on their own clothes, or contaminating the samples. It’s worn in specific circumstances but does not have special properties like a fireman’s uniform (fire retardancy or hard-wearing fibres) and requires less maintenance than a personal item of clothing like a shirt as it’s worn over clothes and for limited time periods. Its design has been the same for many decades.

An interactive lab coat could do any or all of the following things:

  • tell you that you’ve spilled something on it
  • warn you if you’re too close to a hazard
  • monitor your heart rate and temperature for signs that you are being adversely affected by your environment (for example if you’re too warm or breathing shallowly)
  • monitor your input into experiments (e.g. how long you shook that test tube for, at what angle you held a light, how long since you last checked a sample)
  • let you know when you’ve been working too long and suggest you take a break
  • show you notifications from colleagues whilst you’re in the lab

As a specialist garment, the frequency and consistency of wear during a specific set of activities creates habits. Rather than having to wear the same shirt every day, the coat is worn during specific activities. It is also used in specific circumstances, meaning you are less likely to mistakenly pat your normal trousers in the hope that they’ll tell you your temperature.


Another application is clothes that could collect data about your physical training, similar to what Garmin gadgets do at the moment. There’s already a lot of wearable technology out there for sport, as Gerry wrote about an interactive material could eliminate the need for post-activity review.

Different heart rate training zones have different benefits for training. If fabric could record heart rate, for example, the fabric could change colour based on the zone that you are currently training in. This would give an indication if you needed to do work harder or back off a little.

A swimmer could wear a full body suit, similar to a wetsuit, that could change colour or give haptic feedback to help correct their stroke or give guidance on the placement of their hands in the water would be useful.

For the sport of drinking, your pocket could flash when it is your round.

What’s happening to my data?

One of the most consistent concerns around wearable technology is the ownership, security and privacy of the data generated.

We are all now familiar with the fear that things you post on the internet can never really be deleted, that they cease to be yours to control or even own, and the use of data about you is beyond your control. Facebook owns photos you post to Instagram, Google knows about that rash you had, and Apple knows where you are at any moment of the day.

Wearable technology adds details like your heart rate and how hard you really work at the gym to this detail. Many people feel uncomfortable with this level of information about them being commercially shared, even if the company that collects the data promises not to sell it. The extension of this is increasing requirement by employers, coaches and insurers for you to provide very personal information to them in order to fine-tune their product provision to you. Imagine a world where you find yourself uninsurable because the insurance companies can see that you rarely exercise, often end up out of breath and sleep too little. All because your smartwatch told them.

The border-irrelevancy of the internet has provided many challenges to legislative protection or limitation, with opposing camps both making very important arguments about why the web should be open-source or jurisdiction-neutral. Providing huge levels of data that can be centrally accessed or collated to form a near-complete picture of the life of an individual is a prospect that has been feared for many centuries.

On the other hand, the technology is useless if your outputs are not plugged into a larger database that can produce comparisons, measure success or map results. Part of the joy of wearable devices is the ability to discover information that you would otherwise need many different pieces of equipment, specialist training or knowledge and lots more time to analyse.


Another concern that is experiencing increasing popularity is a kind of counter-movement away from the always-on culture of smart devices.

Since the inception of portable communication and entertainment devices, there’s been a rejection of the effect on social engagement, politeness and attention spans.

Many people respond negatively to the idea of being forewarned of events that the humble human being has no business controlling, like “when the next wave is arriving” out surfing.

“If my phone rings when holding a pint and a cigarette, it just rings. I can cope with missing a call once in a while.”

People also bemoan the loss of a more innocent time, when friendships were more solid and connections more meaningful:

“I used to spend a lot more time reading to find information rather than ‘online searching’; this meant a much greater breadth of knowledge through serendipitous discovery (and not contrived through commerce or popularity!) This is just a drop in the ocean of course. Too much ‘convenience’ can encourage laziness in thinking and action – I believe.”

There’s a subsection of the wearable advocates who suggest that these developments and devices will actually help reduce this type of behaviour. Companies are popping up selling devices that aim to help you spend less time ‘plugged into’ your phone or tablet. Kovert sells designer jewellery that “alert[s] you for predefined text, email, call or WhatsApp notifications from certain people or with specific keywords so that you can cut out the noise and focus on the stuff that really matters.”

Their website says:

“We strive to make technology less obtrusive and more invisible, challenging you to reset the balance between digital and physical and remember how to live in the moment.”

Adopting a problem instead of designing a solution

“[Good device design] can inspire action and creative thought, but it also soaks up a lot of that beautiful ‘chill time’ that I see as nourishing to our sense of ourselves and also our creative ability.”

Wearables brought the commercial market so far; Google Glass, Fitbit, pebble watch etc, all suffer from a similar issue: people aren’t quite sure if their price tag will be justified by the benefit they bring. The immediacy of their necessity is not clear. Being required to spend several hundred pounds, face up to your inadequacies and alter your behaviour [link to an eventual post of behaviour change] is not attractive. Where the iPhone gave us the chance to use the web in a way that made more sense than other methods available at the time, most current iterations of wearable technologies require us to make some sort of compromise in order to accommodate them. Early adopters could be said to have adopted the problem, in order to facilitate them showing off the solution.

The concept of value is subjective, some people will adopt new ‘toys’ because they see value in the novelty of it or a value in having seen the first iteration of a product in order to be seen to have contributed to its development. Their understanding of value is not the solution to a problem, but the creativity itself.

“I’ve come to a disconcerting conclusion: design research is great when it comes to improving existing product categories but essentially useless when it comes to new, innovative breakthroughs. I reached this conclusion through examination of a range of product innovations, most especially looking at those major conceptual breakthroughs that have had huge impact upon society as well as the more common, mundane small, continual improvements. Call one conceptual breakthrough, the other incremental.”

Donald Nye

In the developed world, we have the luxury of time and resources to solve problems that we don’t have. Barclays invest in ‘innovation’ projects broadly and with the knowledge that most of them will not end up in the market. It’s worthwhile for Barclays because the wearables sector is in its infancy, so it’s worth investing in multiple options that may result in a sizeable market share.

Unattributed quotations in this article are sourced from this blog post

[Hero Image by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash]



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