The Next Big Thing in Website Design: Wearable Technology
5 years ago, if you would’ve told me that people would be using mobile phones with tiny screens to access website content, I would’ve said that you were crazy. Obviously, I would have been quite wrong.
Today, I have clients who see more than 50% of their traffic come from mobile devices. The rise of those devices has changed the web design industry more so than any other thing I have seen in my 15+ years of designing and developing websites. Today, I see some of the signs I saw at the start of that rise in the growing popularity of wearable devices.
In this article, we will talk about what these wearable devices are, how they are used, and how their adoption may affect your business and your website.
What are wearable devices?
As the name suggests, “wearable devices” are ones that consumers actually wear on their body, as opposed to ones that they simply carry with them like a smartphone. Popular wearable device examples would be smartglasses, like Google Glass, and smartwatches, like the Moto 360 from Motorola or the forthcoming Apple Watch.
Each of these devices allow users to connect to the Web and access online content, and all of these devices feature screen sizes that are much smaller than what you will find on current smartphones. If you thought that it was a challenge to get your website content to be effective for a mobile phone, think about that same task now applied to an even smaller form factor!
It is that smaller form factor that is often given as a way to dismiss wearable devices ever being used to visit websites. Many people question whether a person would even want to access web content on those small screens. This is the same argument that was made early on in the rise of mobile devices like smartphones. The problem with this thinking is that it assumes that the wearable device is being used on its own, when in reality, the strength of these devices is how they connect as part of a larger ecosystem.
A connected ecosystem
Recently, we have been testing and experimenting with some wearable devices in our offices, including the aforementioned Moto 360 smartwatch and Google Glass. While these devices are amazing and powerful in their own right, they really begin to shine when they are paired with other devices, like a smartphone.
Yes, the tiny screen of a smartwatch makes reading long blocks of content or doing data entry on a webform uncomfortable, but those tasks can easily be bumped over to a connected smartphone. The watch can be used to filter this information. Instead of digging into my pocket to get my phone to check my emails or view online updates, I can more easily scan that information on the watch. Then, once I have identified something that requires my attention, I can switch to the phone, a tablet, or even a laptop of desktop computer to complete that task. In this way, I am using each device for what it does best – and both of them are accessing web-based content.
By connecting devices, you can also create actions or “triggers” based on certain parameters. For instance, in our testing we were able to take a picture with Google Glass and automatically publish that image to our Twitter account. Pretty cool, but we wanted to really take it a step further and see how far we could push this concept of connected devices and automatic actions. To do this, we purchased a MindWave headset from Amazon.com. This device measures brainwave activity. By using Bluetooth to connect that scanner to Google Glass and a smartphone, and with a little additional programming, we were able to create triggers that activated when certain thresholds were met. The first of those triggers caused Google Glass to snap a photo. The next trigger posted that photo to Twitter. These “triggers” were activated when the brainwave scanner sensed a change in a person’s brainwave patterns. We were able to demonstrate the process of automatically taking a photo and uploading it to social media – all with no input required other than changing the way we think.
Admittedly, this demonstration was a bit over-the-top by design. I do not expect consumers to start running around with brainwave scanners anytime soon, but the lesson here is that these devices, when connected as part of a larger ecosystem, can become so much more than the sum of their parts. As website owners, we really need to stop thinking about devices on an individual basis and start considering them as part of a larger whole.
Embracing the concept of "one Web"
When smartphones began to really gain popularity, companies realized that they could no longer ignore mobile by simply allowing their “normal” site (which was created to be used on a desktop computer, not a smaller handheld mobile device) to be sent to those phone screens. The solution that many companies embraced during this time was to create a separate “mobile-only” site for visitors using a smartphone. This solution became strained as tablet devices entered the market next.
Technically considered a mobile device, but with a screen size closer to a laptop than a phone, tablets really forced companies to question this “separate sites” approach. Yes, you could create one site for large, desktop monitors and another for mobile phones, but would you now create one for tablets –
leaving you with 3 sites to manage and maintain? With the rise of wearable devices, will you need to create a new site for each distinct wearable category? That is a long and expensive road to travel.
The desire to have only one website to manage and maintain has led to the adoption of responsive web design as an industry best practice. Responsive web design allows you to have one website that will automatically change its layout based on the user’s screen size. This was helpful when we had to consider mobile phones and tablets. With the rise of new wearable devices, this concept of “one web” is even more important.
If you intend to develop separate sites for each possible screen size, you will always be playing catch-up. As new devices enter the market, you will need to create a new site for each device type, which means you need to endure the time and expense of constantly rolling out new sites. This can quickly becoming overwhelming.
The reality is that there is no “mobile web”, there is just one Web and as the emergence of wearable devices has shown, our customers are using a variety of devices to access that Web and the content we put out there.
To do now
As wearable devices go from a novelty being used by the few to a way of life for the many, we want to make sure our sites will be ready. Don’t think wearable devices will ever be popular with consumers or used to regularly access web content? Again, that is exactly the argument that was given when smartphones first began gaining popularity, and we can see how that turned out. No, the question of wearable devices is not “if” they will impact our websites and audience, it is “when” they will do so.
If you have not already embraced the “one web” approach on your website, now is the time to really start exploring that option. You can begin by testing your website out on a variety of devices. If you have the ability to purchase these devices at your business, that is great, but even if you do not have the budget for devices purchases, you can still test your site on them. Visit your local Best Buy or other electronics retailer and see what new wearable and mobile devices are available today. Access your website on those devices to get a feel for what your customers may be seeing if they are visiting your site with similar devices.
You can also speak to your web or marketing agency about the rise of wearable devices and how to best prepare your site for them. By being proactive about wearable device support on your website, you can be a leader in the rise of these new devices, instead of a company trying to play catch-up after the fact.