Wearables: The Decline of Distraction in a Connected World

August 7, 2015 in Connected World
Kent Vasko II
Software Engineer

Wearable devices are making their way into our… well, everything. The first versions of commercially available wearables showed us that the public did not desire technology that was visibly or physically obtrusive. People want something that is essentially invisible; subtly packaged within well-designed products. Fortunately, technology is definitely heading in that direction.

So does that mean we will reach some kind of wearable nirvana once the technology becomes invisible?

The potential is there, but we must be prudent in our efforts to ensure that the interactions between humans and information are meaningful, and not distracting.

Disconnect With the Physical Environment

Connected devices provide us with many conveniences. For example, I can use a GPS application (installed in my car, on my phone, on my watch, on an actual GPS, etc…) to tell me where to turn to reach my destination. It notifies me that my next turn is coming up in half a mile, enabling me to keep my attention on the road and other vehicles, rather than being distracted by a map. Sounds like a lifesaver.

However, there are times when these conveniences, or the interactions with them, distract from the world in front of us. Keeping with the previous example, when using a GPS application as my navigator, I tend to forget how I got to my destination. When I do not have to think about the route I am taking, I seem to lose some spatial and situational awareness. One could argue that this is not an issue because my GPS will help me find my way back. But what if the signal is lost or the battery dies? Technology can (and will) fail us, and when it does, we need to be able to quickly regain control over our state of being.

A more relatable example may be receiving text messages, social media alerts or calls while being around friends and family. When connected to the digital environment by a device, we seem to feel an obligation, or even an addiction, to immediately respond to notifications from those devices. Giving into such distractions was once considered rude. Now it is becoming socially acceptable. As a 2011 study conducted at Robert Morris University concluded, “[i]nterruptions are no longer frowned upon; they are simply expected as part of the normal social activity.”

China Daily/Reuters

Distracting Interactions

Despite distractions becoming socially acceptable, are we really okay with being distracted from the world in front of us? Personally, I do not want to be and, from casual observations and conversations, I believe others do not want to be distracted either.

Current wearables and mobile devices present interactions that keep us connected to that which is not immediately present, but distracts us from that which is. These interactions fall on a spectrum that describes how much we are engaging with the digital environment versus the physical environment.

Pictures of Hipsters Taking Pictures of Food. Tumblr.com 23 Feb. 2014

Interacting with commonly used mobile devices (phones and tablets) falls somewhere in the middle. Even though we are out in the world, using the devices prevents us from fully taking in, thinking about and navigating through the physical environment.

The distractions these devices present are a result of the information we choose to distract ourselves with, and the user demand on product developers to cram in as much functionality as possible. Perhaps we need to explore how to give people the information they crave with less distracting experiences, making technology an extension of our being so as not to miss what is present.

Be the Guinea Pig

We at MAYA constantly experiment with new technology, including wearables. Most recently, several of us acquired Apple Watches which like other “smart” watches (Fitbit, Samsung Gear, etc…), provide a lot of functionality in a form that previously only served one purpose. Several of us wore the watches for a few weeks to test how the extra functionality may or may not change how people interact with the digital environment.

Apple Watch: What We Know Sixcolors.com 19 Feb. 2015

The personal observations reported back present the idea that the less one needs to focus on the screen of their device, the more joy they find in using it.

Cons

  • Most wanted to be able to customize some part of the watch, like the face.
  • Having access to a lot of new data — like heart rate and daily physical activity metrics — was seen as both useful for achieving health goals and distracting due to having access to so much information.

Pros

  • The greatest delight came from interactions that required less attention, or fewer distractions. For instance, the ability to receive notifications of calls or messages while being detached from one’s phone.
  • Receiving haptic taps from the watch while driving was a pleasant reminder of upcoming turns.

Interactions with the Apple Watch appear to be similar to those with other mobile devices, but require a little less distraction from the physical environment.

Designing wearables that are invisible to users and observers is a positive move toward establishing interactions with the digital environment that are less distracting from the physical environment. This also yields interactions with the digital environment that are more purposeful and meaningful.

To me, this is exciting! I want to find out if this deduction holds up as wearables continue to evolve. We have already started exploring ideas to design interactions by using new technology in wearables that have contextual awareness. Our ideas range from redesigning notifications systems utilizing familiar sensory cues, to putting contextually aware technology in your face using unfamiliar sensory input. Sounds like a lot of research and iterative testing is in order.

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