Wearables How To: Take a Holistic Approach to Hardware Design

Wearables How To: Take a Holistic Approach to Hardware Design

There are so many ugly devices out there. In this guest post, Olio Devices lead designer Josh Chadwick explains exactly which three things will help designers create hardware products that are not only functional, but beautiful as well.

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When wristwatches first became popular in Europe, Americans viewed this “bracelet watch” as something of a joke — a  fad — but the trend quickly gained steam on both sides of the Atlantic and the world has never looked back.

Even today, when checking the time is as simple as glancing at a phone, watches remain a status symbol. However, they are evolving to serve as more than timepieces and accessories. The advent of the smartwatch has ushered in an era where these devices help wearers manage their lives, enabling them to seamlessly monitor calls, schedule meetings, check the weather, and provide meaningful snippets of glanceable information in little more than a few seconds.

In the early days of smartwatches, these capabilities came at the expense of how products looked. Companies struggled to marry more robust functionality with beautiful design. Most of the products on the market were ugly, and consumers are generally not interested in walking around with a clunky piece of technology on their wrist.

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Seiko Data-2000 image from wareable.com.

The number one challenge in wearable design is learning how to balance each aspect of the product’s life cycle – engineering, manufacturing, ergonomics, cost, and user experience all need to be integrated without sacrificing aesthetics. As a designer for brands like Movado, Tommy Hilfiger, and Lacoste, I’ve worked on the product design for several popular watches. In those roles, I learned that designing a watch holistically is the best way to create accessories that are both aesthetically pleasing and technologically advanced. The same principle holds true when designing any piece of hardware.

Here is how hardware designers can use a holistic approach to create products that are wearable, sophisticated, useful and, of course, beautiful.

  1. Get Involved

It can be easy for hardware designers to obsess over crafting the perfect device. Maybe you spend weeks perfecting the curvature of a “smart” kitchen appliance or agonizing over the width of a button on a health tracker. This laser focus and commitment to detail can be a tremendous asset, but it can also be a liability. Tunnel vision can quickly lead to mistakes, misses, and lapses in judgement, as well as inconsistencies.

When a consumer purchases a product, their experience is much broader than direct interaction with the product itself. Before even using the product, they do research, view marketing content, and take the product out of its packaging. In addition, once the are actually holding the device, their ability to get it up-and-running efficiently is key. A frustrating setup or confusing UI taints the user experience, even if the product ends up working perfectly.

Therefore, it is essential that hardware designers at every level involve themselves in every aspect of the design, not just the product. Software, hardware, UX, companion apps, packaging, and marketing should all have a cohesive brand identity.     

  1. Integrate the design and engineering teams

Hardware and software companies alike often make the mistake of separating the design and engineering teams. The designers do their thing and pass the work onto the engineers to execute. Again, this siloed approach can lead to mistakes, misses, and lapses in judgement. Designers may come up with a schema that is technically unrealistic or engineers may make a critical UX oversight.

Integrating the teams ensures that each fully understands what the other is doing. Designers and engineers should certainly be masters of their own domain, but having a shared understanding of each other’s tasks and objectives nurtures collaboration, so teams can effectively work together towards common goals. Moreover, collaboration between people of diverse skillsets can help spur creativity, innovation, and productivity (which is why Steve Jobs put a central atrium in the Pixar offices).  

  1. Have a clear vision in mind

Approaching hardware design holistically requires having a clear vision in mind. The vision can’t just relate to the product itself, but has to encompass every aspect of that product, from the first glimpse a customer has on the website to usage of the product itself. This vision must be coherent, consistent, and grounded in a strong, data-backed sense of what customers want.

A beautifully designed product won’t get anywhere if users are not interested in what it can do. Nor will it succeed if the design does not align with your target customers’ preferences. Hardware designers need to approach their product guided by the problem it’s solving and its value proposition; every aspect of the design should connect back to these central ideas. Holistic design means treating every aspect as interconnected and part of the whole.

Furthermore, developing a clear vision is important because it requires looking into the future. One of the challenges in the hardware market is that consumers will quickly reach a saturation point, where they don’t want anymore devices on their person or around their homes. When they decide to spend money on a device, they want to feel confident that it will last and remain useful down the road. Hardware designers have to look ahead and consider both the current and the future context of their products, as well as anticipate where the market is going.      

Hardware has experienced something of a Renaissance over the past five years. The boom in wearables, the connected home, and robotics have created a vibrant and highly competitive market. For companies without the brand name recognition of the tech giants, design is critically important. Bad design can foretell obscurity, while good design can enable a small company to punch far above its weight class.

Third Wave Fashion has been your fashion tech think tank since 2011. We publish the first ever printed fashion tech magazine, Third Wave. Follow us on Twitter or subscribe to our newsletter to stay on top of the latest in fashion tech + wearables. Feature image from wizardsoftechnology.com.