Wearables: Function Over Fashion

Thanks to buzz from places like CES 2014 and SXSWi, companies have a new quandary: what’s our wearables strategy? The proliferation of wearable gadgets has unleashed a virtually infinite number of ideas, but the challenge is finding combinations that deliver a winning mix of Usability, Functionality and Benefits. 

A lot of excitement about wearables has focused on applications for lifestyle and fitness. Gadgets such as Fitbit and Nike’s Fuelband SE and the Basis Health Tracker have excited tech-lovers but for most people they’re just “nice-to- haves”. We believe that advances in wearable technology will be driven by real healthcare needs.

Wearable technologies

Today’s emerging category of wearables features three crucial new elements. The first is minute, low-cost sensors that can automatically track data such as motion, heart rate, blood oxygenation and blood sugar levels. The second is mobile connectivity, automatically transferring data. This creates scope for continuous monitoring, and reduces user error. The third is analytics to turn the data into meaningful, useable information.

Some devices aren’t watches or bands or even actually wearable. For example, AliveCor’s Heart Monitor clips onto the back of a mobile device and acts as an electrocardiogram. The finger-tip sensor of the iSpO2, which optically detects blood oxygenation, pulse rate and perfusion index continuously, comes closer to being a wearable, as does Vital Connect’s HealthPatch, which collects biometrics including ECG, heart rate variability, skin temperature and body position, then transmits them wirelessly. 

Even more sci-fi is a system developed by Proteus Digital Health with an ingestible sensor attached to a patient’s medication, coupled with a smart skin patch. The fluids of the digestive system power the sensor and the patch picks up the signal with vital signs and transmits them to a mobile device. 

Pulling devices and data together

Many more devices will be created but whatever technologies they use, it’s likely that mobile devices will continue to be the crucial nodes in the wearable healthcare ecosystem. 

Firstly, they are the one item that people carry virtually all the time. This makes them dependable data relays and also perfect for delivering tips, hints and nudges. 

Mobile devices also augment and extend body awareness. They can pick up subtle physical signs and present their data as games, comparisons and graphics. When shown in real time as biofeedback, they can help users to learn new health behaviors. 

Usually, this data is scattered across different platforms but to be useful it needs to be integrated securely. Start-up Validic is leading the way on this front, collecting data from apps and devices and putting it together in HIPAA/PHI-compliant, standardized formats for healthcare companies. 

Making wearables fit

Here are some handy principles.

1) Let the solution lead the technology – define what you want to achieve, then look at how. 

  • Define your problem in terms of what can be assisted with real-time health data.
  • Get clear about your target’s behavior and what you want to change.
  • Review current devices and apps - it makes sense to start with early winners. 

2) Use off-the-shelf technology. 

  • You may well be able to take existing pieces and combine them
  • There are third parties who do this like Validic, so don’t waste your resources hacking APIs. 

3) Define the purpose of the data you aim to collect. 

  • What problem do you want to solve, and how will the data help you? 
  • What will your target do with the data or the service you provide on top of it?

4) Think in terms of a complete experience in which devices play a part. 

  • What benefits will motivate them to take action? 
  • What will they have to do to use the solution? How much effort will it take for them to integrate the components of your solution? 

Above all, your thinking about devices should be guided by three key considerations: 

- Functionality: what function(s) does the wearable device serve and how well?
- Usability: how easily and reliably will the target be able to use the device?
- Benefits: what’s in it for your target/customer and your brand?

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3 comments about "Wearables: Function Over Fashion".
  1. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , March 24, 2014 at 10:50 a.m.
    How do you turn off the tracking from every marketing service/advertiser collecting your personal data and selling it ?
  2. Jennifer Naylor from Self-employed , March 24, 2014 at 11:24 a.m.
    Larry - Amazing article. One question on #3 "Define the purpose of the data you aim to collect" Pharma's purpose is for patients to start and stay on branded therapies. How do you see drug adherence playing into wearables?
  3. Larry Mickelberg from Havas Health , March 24, 2014 at 11:58 a.m.
    Thanks Jen. I think that adherence will be the killer app of these devices and combos. Whether it's the inception of an automated refill subroutine or even something as far-out as a triggered medication dose based on readings, it's coming. Also toying with the idea of what happens if you agree to get locked out of your phone for un-adherent behavior? You would have to confirm or have corroborating bio data to unlock? That might be a whole new kind of motivation...