Wearable devices were originally designed as singular purpose complex devices that appealed to the athletically inclined and members of the technology community who took pride in quantifying biometrics. These devices were then made popular to the mainstream with the release of easy to use fitness trackers, step counters, and calorie calculators. However while this technology has evolved from the ‘quantified self’ movement, wearable technology is not limited to quantification and its application has great potential to do social good in the future.
As the integration of social networks have woven deeper into our daily lives, wearable technology has progressed into an array of gadgets and gizmos that add unnecessary digital noise to our lives through notifications and alerts that distract us from our days. But as opinions about the overuse of technology begin to surface there is acknowledgement that our technology can be used for more benefit than simply aimless distraction. This intentional shift is already taking place with companies like Kovert and Wearable Experiments who think “future back”, designing technology to be invisibly integrated into our lives so is it more ‘helpful’. This is a notion that doesn’t only exist for consumer products but also for impact products. Impact products and technologies of the future will be designed with pure intention to serve and better the user, looking holistically at what the needs of the user are and what the global scale and impact of these products will be.
Making ‘Good’ Products That Do ‘Good’
In creating any product is it important to acknowledge the fundamental principles of design; that a product be functional, solve a problem, benefit the user, and be aesthetically pleasing. Good design should meet these design principles regardless if a product is designed for mass consumer markets or strategic social needs. However in creating social products for ‘good’ it is even further important to be aware of your design intention and the social relativity of the product and the user who will be interacting with the product. When creating a social impact product your innovation must be socially relevant, it sounds simple and straightforward however do not assume that the habits, social norms and expectations of the users will be the same as you intended them.
Be aware of who you are designing for, the multiple uses of a product and what your clear intention is.
As an example; working with communities that hold cultural beliefs about what should be on their body will change if a bracelet or watch is suddenly inappropriate and ineffective for the user regardless of the fact that the technology is brilliant. You can spend millions of dollars creating health campaigns and preventative tools but if you don’t take the time to really understand a community it just won’t be used. A great example is mosquito nets used to prevent malaria. Large scale national campaigns with NGOs were made famous for distributing thousands of malaria nets in large scale aid however while these nets were supposed to be set up above beds to prevent evening mosquitoes from spreading malaria to families they ended up in river beds as nets to help with fishing. This is an example of what happens if you release a product without understanding the hierarchy of basic human needs. When it comes down to survival, people are more likely to feed their family than use a tool to prevent a possible risk. Be aware of who you are designing for, the multiple uses of a product and what your clear intention is.
Anticipation Of The Future and Compassionate Design
Many people are initially skeptical of the idea of bringing wearables to resource constrained communities. With every new industry there will always be hesitation and anticipation for what is coming next. Many people are afraid of the new, however true innovation comes from the connection of two far fetched ideas that come together to create something entirely new. We also must examine any issues, such as patents and intellectual property up front, so that we can implement these solutions in order see the positive effect they have on a global scale. New partnerships between major fashion and sports brands and technology companies are seeking to solve these questions, due to existing uncertainties and differences in international IP protection for three dimensional designs of clothing and footwear. The lack of clarity around the protection of unregistered designs and virtual designs may also affect innovation in this sector but existing forms of IP protection (such as trademarks or patents) may well fill the gap. We cannot wait to realize that technology that has existed for many years that could be applied to solve major health and development problems for resource-constrained communities. This juncture is the epitome of wearables for good – Technological innovation meeting social need.
Our greatest hope is that our connectivity will improve on a global scale, and that with an increase in connectivity will create more accountability in what we design and why we design wearables. A more mindful and purpose driven approach to technology will change the emphasis of what ‘good’ design is, and puts the function and usability in the forefront of the technological needs across borders. Designing for social impact is intrinsically human centric design. Therefore the designers and innovators of the future will not be successful without a passion for social change and compassion for the people they design for. Wearable technology and sensors give us an ability to empathize beyond what we thought we were humanly capable of. Empathy is a gift that technology and knowledge should allow us.