Wearables, Haptics, and No UI

By Johnny Chauvet

When I bought the first version of the Pebble Watch, I was immediately hooked on wearing a smartwatch. As consumers saw more smartwatches hit the market, my first instinct as a designer was to ask “what is it like to design for a screen that small?” In fact the screen is only one of many ways that users interact with wearables.

I’ve always described my smartwatch experience as a “secretary for my phone”. The watch tells me all the important things happening in my pocket. If anything needs my immediate attention only then do I pull my phone out and act on it. Notifications are king, and surprisingly that’s more or less the extent by which I make use of the watch (oh yeah and it tells time too).

Only after owning my LG G R watch for a few months did I realize that when thinking about design in the context of wearables, you need to consider it as an extension of your phone, something that’s part of a larger ecosystem of connectivity, instead of a standalone device. As such, a designer trying to figure out how to bring value to a user needs to consider all the devices involved in that ecosystem and how they communicate with the user and each other — a notion that hasn’t quite caught on yet.

The fact that smartwatches are constantly snuggled up against our skin offers very unique opportunities for feedback in the form of haptics — leveraging the tiny vibration motors in the watch to relay different kinds of information. For the most part, vibration patterns between different types of notifications are largely the same. A short vibration means you have a notification, and a very long vibration means you have an incoming call. Certain applications such as Facebook Messenger will do something different such as using 2 short vibrations for incoming messages, which is a step in the right direction. Other than that, haptic feedback is largely binary, either you have a notification or you don’t. As a result, haptics are far underutilized when considering UX design for wearables.

Haptic patterns offer the opportunity to create an entirely new language of communication between us and the technology we use. The fact that haptics are physical sensations rather than something we see or hear, we can create patterns not only based on the length of each vibration, but also the intensity. For example, 3 light vibrations could mean a calendar event is coming up, but 3 strong vibrations could mean that you are running late for an event. The intensity of haptic feedback could also potentially link to the urgency of the messages or emails that you receive if coupled with a little natural language processing.

There are a few apps out there, particularly for Android, that allow a user to have complete control over how notifications are handled through sound and vibration patterns (Light Flow for example). If wearables made it easy for us to have that same level of customization on our wrists, we would be able to create a more personalized user experience and add a lot of utility and value to our devices. It’s just a matter of time before an entirely new design language around patterns of vibration becomes standardized and globally understood.

Haptic feedback is just one of many examples of how UX designers can enrich experiences in this new wave of computing. As this new age of connected devices continues to evolve, UX designers will increasingly have to apply design thinking to “No UI” interfaces.

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