Design Principles for Wearable Computing

Over the last year, I’ve been griping about the weak design seen in the current wave of wearable computing (and many other human interfaces). Fortunately, designers are beginning to wrap their heads around at least some of the issues for the most common case, the wrist screen (e.g,, Apple Watch, numerous fitness bands, and many other products).

As Liz Stinson comments at, “New rules apply.” And products have been rushed to marker in a “throw-shit-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks phase of designing wearables.” (Her words, not mine!)

Setting aside the question of why you would go to so much trouble to put out such poorly designed devices (we may have over done the “failure is good” mantra in this arena), I’m glad to see designers rushing to catch up, even if they are designing for stuff that is already obsolete

Stinson comments on some of the efforts to understand design principles for interfaces on these watch-like devices. Publishing these ideas is a great thing, both for creators and to help all of us indirectly grope toward an understanding of what, if anything, these technologies are good for.

Stinson describes “5 Smart Rules for Designing Wearables That Make Sense”, describing design principles from Fjord studios.  These are:

Fjord’s Rules

  1. Keep It Glanceable
  2. Don’t Look Now
  3. Avoid the Data Avalanche
  4. Balancing Public and Personal
  5. Design for Offline


There is a lot of common sense in here. As usual, a lot of designs would be greatly improved if the designers think about such  common sense things, like what does the user actually need to see now? and don’t display personal stuff without checking that the interpersonal context is acceptable. Naturally, it is easier said than done.



Stinson comments that it is interesting to compare other sets of design principles, e.g., from Google and Apple.


Android Wear


  1. Focus on not stopping the user and all else will follow
  2. Design for big gestures
  3. Think about stream cards first
  4. Do one thing, really fast
  5. Design for the corner of the eye
  6. Don’t be a constant shoulder tapper


Apple Watch


  1. Lightweight interactions
  2. Holistic design
  3. Personal communication



These two lists  are somewhat tied to the specific platforms. (I have no clue what “Think about stream cards first” means. Something Androidy, I assume.) But both are driving at the “keep it simple, stupid” (KISS) principle that is at the heart of most great design. And with a tiny peripheral, this must mean “keep it really, really, really, simple, stupid. Really.”  (KIRRRSS.R)


The Android  folks give us the memorable phrase, “design for the corner of the eye”. The Apple goons give us the notion that we want to do “personal communication”. The latter is unconsciously ironic, since the Apple Watch is a peripheral to your iPhone, which used to be your means of “personal communication” before Apple decided you needed one more level of separation.


I think Stinson is right that discovering the common themes across these different sets of rules we may “begin to see a rough outline of what the smartwatch might actually become.” And, as she says, these principles are “boring in their simplicity.” I would say that these devices are so limited and trivial that you would expect the interfaces to be boring. (In other words, the designers are surely getting into the right ball park.)


I think I differ with Stinson a bit as to the overall significance of these insights. In my view, gaining an understanding how to build interfaces for the current generation of devices doesn’t really address the question of what they are actually good for, if anything.

For example, “design for the corner of the eye” is an interesting rule, partly because it implies that we want something like this in the first place. It’s not obvious to me that I want such interactions, and I can easily imagine situations (e.g., driving) where it seems like a bad idea.


I also despair a little to witness all the effort that is going into these clunky first generation wristwear. I’m confident that this is not going to be a long lived technology. It will be surpassed by printable interfaces (that stick on anything), and by projected interfaces (any surface), combined with whole body sensing.

Small screens, hell! I’m going to give you full body interfaces! No screen at all!

Sure, I can put a “glancable” interface on your wrist if you want. But I can also put the interaction anywhere on your body or clothing, or floating in space near your body. “Gesture” means real gesture, not silly touch-swipes. Dancing will be the new typing. You will walk into the interface. You will wear the interface all through your clothing. You might well swallow part of the interface.


Lets think past the age of the screen. It’s going to be an even wilder west!




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