Gadgets

How to make wearables stick: Use them to change human behavior

Above: Central Standard Timing's watch uses an E Ink display and is only 0.8 millimeters thick.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi/VentureBeat

In a crowded field of wrist-worn devices, a compelling offer is much more than a well-designed device. The best products also include the smarts to deliver changed behavior.

Last week, responding to complaints about skin irritation from some users, Fitbit announced that it will stop sales of the Force, its health-tracking wristband. Since only 1.7 percent of Force users experienced any irritation, industry watchers are speculating that the recall has more to do with the design and functionality of the product (and the impending launch of Fitbit’s next generation wearable) than aversion to negative impact on public opinion.

Fitbit’s woes emphasize the many challenges facing companies designing wearables and their complementary services. The 2014 CES show firmly established wearables as one of this year’s hottest digital trends. At least ten new wearable devices were introduced from makers such as Sony, Pebble, Meta, LG, Garmin, Razer, and more.

While the functionality of devices may drive initial sales, to create long-term value they have to be used long-term and drive healthy behavior change in users.

Sustained engagement is emerging as the key challenge for companies developing wearable devices and complementary services. What these companies may not be aware of is the importance of habit formation, social motivation, and goal reinforcement. These three factors, drawn from behavioral science, contain the secrets to successful wearable products and related services that get used and deliver real value.

[Editor's note: VentureBeat's Mobile Summit next month will feature a thought-leadership workshop around the question of how marketers can expect to achieve growth via the wearables industry.]

Endeavour Partners’ research recently found that while one in ten U.S. consumers over the age of 18 now owns a modern activity tracker, one third of U.S. consumers who have owned a wearable product stopped using it within six months. Worse still, more than half of U.S. consumers who owned an activity tracker no longer use it. The survey was conducted by Endeavour Partners and the results were published in a white paper, “Inside Wearables: How the Science of Human Behavior Change Offers the Secret to Long-Term Engagement.” The goal of the paper is to help the manufacturers of wearables and related services learn how to create successful offerings by inspiring long-term engagement and behavior change.

A failure to engage

A surprising percentage of devices in the market fail to achieve even short-term engagement for many users because they suffer from one or more fatal user experience flaws.

Product design teams typically work toward nine baseline criteria that must be met to drive initial adoption and use: selectability, design, out-of-box experience, fit/comfort, quality, user experience, integration ability, lifestyle compatibility, and overall utility.

Many current devices fail on one or more of these criteria by breaking, failing after a shower, pulling the hairs off your arm, running down quickly, or being a pain to sync with your smartphone. Sadly, the growing number value-added services designed to exploit the data these wearables provide and their open APIs also suffer from similar problems with user experience.

Beyond traditional design criteria

However, even if these criteria are satisfied, they are not sufficient to drive long-term use. Traditional product design criteria are only part of the key to developing successful wearable products and services.

Devices and services that help wearers change their habits also promote sustained behavior change and lead to long-term health. Behavioral science offers three other critical factors that can lead to the development of successful wearable products and related services.

Key factor #1: habit formation

Sustained engagement with a wearable device or complementary service depends on its ability to help the user form and stick with new habits. Psychologists define habits as automatic behaviors or routines that are triggered by situational cues, which are then followed by some form of reward. Habits have three key components: cues, routines, and rewards. The best wearable devices have the potential to make the process of habit formation more effective and efficient than ever before.

Key factor #2: social motivation

Sustained engagement beyond initial habit formation with a wearable device or complementary service depends on its ability to motivate users effectively. Social connections are a particularly powerful source of motivation that can be leveraged in many creative ways. In addition to using social connections to influence behavior, social media and networking sites can be exploited to alter habits for positive outcomes. This includes the communication of social norms through “postings” or “sharing” of thoughts, pictures, and comments with one another.

Key factor #3: goal reinforcement

To achieve sustained engagement, a user needs to build on these habits and social motivation to experience a feeling of progress toward defined goals. Research shows that achieving several smaller goals provides the positive momentum necessary for achieving bigger goals. Wearable products and services that help people experience continuous progress can do so, for example, through real-time updates that are powered by big data and insights. Facilitating personal progress in this way leads to improved health, user satisfaction, and long-term, sustained engagement.

Behavior change = long-term engagement

Wearable devices and services have the opportunity to engineer personal progress for users in a way that has never been experienced.

These devices and services can now be used as tools that facilitate goal setting and reinforcement and provide feedback that allow individuals to make healthier decisions about diet, lifestyle, and exercise.

A deeper understanding of habit formation, social motivation and goal reinforcement will allow companies involved with wearables to create even more effective and successful devices and services to promote health and wellness. When wearables companies embrace the insights provided by the complex science of behavior change, we will all be a little healthier.

Michael A. M. Davies is Chairman of Endeavour Partners and Senior Lecturer at MIT. He helps executives anticipate, navigate and innovate in digital and mobile. Find Michael on Twitter @michaelamdavies and Endeavour Partners at http://www.endeavourpartners.net.

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