da•ta rash \ˈdātə ˈrash\, n. an irritating or unsightly eruption of information on the wrist or other site of wearable technology.
We find the idea of data rash to be extremely compelling, so we’re featuring a series of posts in which IoT usability expert (and our emerging platforms advisor) Josh Clark dives into the idea. This is part 2 of 6.
Designers of smartphone interfaces did their jobs a little too well. They created experiences that are so engaging that they soak up all of our attention. They did it by combining very personal data, social interaction, and a hefty dose of FOMO into a visual interface that requires focus and concentration to make sense of it. Our screens become the foreground to everything else, and in the moments when we allow them to fade to the background, alerts prompt us to pick them up again.
This model is not a promising future for wearables. Smart-watch designers, however, seem to be smitten with the idea of strapping a smartphone equivalent on your wrist. These watches strive to replace or supplement smartphones with screens that update you constantly with the latest info. This “convenience” imposes more information onto your body than it can or should bear.
As the internet of things turns everything—every object, every place, every person—into a potential interface, those interfaces have to be more discerning. They should demand our attention only at truly demanding moments, not at the receipt of every new email. The real luxury of wearing information is not in exposing ourselves to every passing data point but in filtering that data in ways that alert us gently, even subconsciously, to changes in our environment.
The real luxury of wearing information is not in exposing ourselves to every passing data point but in filtering that data in ways that alert us gently, even subconsciously, to changes in our environment.
Cognitive science has a name for this. Pre-attentive processing is the way our brains gather information from the environment when we don’t even realize it. In the flash of an eye and without even a moment of concentration, we detect changes in temperature, in color, in motion, in facial expression. We process these environmental cues subconsciously, without effort, so they don’t compete with or intrude upon the subject of our conscious focus. Contrast that with the concentration it takes to read even a short text message, an activity that requires you to tune out everything else for a few seconds.
Designing for pre-attention makes the information display so subtle that it becomes practically instinctual—a spidey-sense awareness of your personal data. The original wearable technology—the watch—is a model of this kind of ambient, low-impact display. Unlike phones, watches don’t push or interrupt but quietly make their information available whenever you choose to seek it out. That information also happens to be highly glanceable, consistently formatted, and requires virtually zero cognitive overhead. We glance absentmindedly at clocks or watches without losing the attention we’ve invested elsewhere. As an information interface, the watch is neither greedy nor preening.
Turning a watch into a smartphone undoes all of that elegance
Turning a watch into a smartphone undoes all of that elegance. Ideally, the smart things we wear on our bodies shouldn’t ever buzz, beep, or tantrum. They should quietly respect our attention, standing ready to deliver information with as little distraction as possible.
The Withings Activité is one of the few smart watches to embrace the original, inspired interface that served analog watches so well. It’s a pedometer that does the usual fitness-tracker stuff, syncing via bluetooth with your devices to track your steps and sleep patterns. But its display is decidedly low-res; a simple dial shows your progress toward your daily goal, from zero to 100 percent. It’s elegant, nonintrusive, and by the way, the battery lasts a whole year, not just a few hours.
All pre-attentive interfaces are similarly simple, though not necessarily so analog. If you must design a watch that alerts you to the state of your inbox, for example, there are better, less intrusive alerts than numbers, beeps, or buzzes. Just ask Bilbo Baggins. In The Hobbit, Bilbo’s sword Sting glows when orcs are nearby, its glow growing stronger as danger increase.
Sting is a pre-attentive approach to personal safety. A pre-attentive approach to smart watches could do the same, changing the color or intensity of a glow as messages from certain people start to pile up (family or coworkers in this case, not orcs). This shift in color or intensity is, for all practical purposes, a single-pixel display. It’s a low-resolution signal that cuts out unnecessary detail to give just enough info to make a decision or dedicate attention. When this glow reaches a threshold of importance, you can turn your focus to a different, more attentive display, like your computer or phone.
A single-pixel display doesn’t have to be single-function. This glow-meter approach could deploy multiple colors to track multiple types of data. If your watch glows red when your inbox needs attention, it might glow blue when rain is on the way, or green when a deadline approaches. The result would be a kind of mood ring to show the state of your personal data cloud. (In fact, why not add mood as a data dimension, too? Your wrist watch could glow when your partner is in distress or is simply thinking about you.)
Happily, this glowing “Hobbit effect” could also be beautiful, which brings us to the next remedy to unsightly data rash: design for fashion.
Next, we’ll dive deeply into how our wearables should also fit into aesthetics and fashion. You can read the article in it’s entirety here.
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