How Wearable Computing Impacts App Development
The manner in which users interact with software has had several significant transformations in the past thirty years: from the mainframe to the PC, the PC to the web, and the web to mobile. We are on the cusp of another such transformation: from mobile computing to wearable computing.
To many people, mobile is the same as wearable. However, to a developer the difference may be greater than any of the previous transformations. I am not just talking about form factor, but the very nature in how apps are expected to behave will be different. Developers must embrace these differences to be successful in the coming wearable marketplace. With the flooded mobile-app markets, wearable computing is the biggest opportunity available to independent developers.
Wearable computing requires that an app be designed to complement a user’s activities without creating a barrier between the user and the outside world. Finding the sweet spot between these two constraints is the challenge developers face.
Currently, mobile apps require a user to stop what he is doing and pick up the device. All focus and actions are centered on the mobile device. Wearable apps are just the opposite. The app should add to the activity through additional information (GPS directions), directions for improving the experience (real-time emergency assistance), or the ability to share and store data about the activity (shared video distributed through Twitter).
The following Google Glass video shows possible ways apps might perform these functions. Notice how the user rarely stops what he is doing when using the app.
Since users will be using the app while interacting with other people, there is a real possibility that the user’s behavior will be considered rude. You can even see this dynamic in the previous video when the person is watching sports scores rather than listening to the table conversation.
Tristan Louis wrote an excellent feature on this particular issue for Forbes. His point is that social norms will have to change in order to accommodate people wearing computers. But I believe apps that distance the user from the rest of society will be a turnoff and any success will be short-lived.
Creating apps that replace existing distracting actions will have much more long-term success. For example, an app like Google Now could free a manager from his desk and allow him to visit employees while still staying connected for important e-mails or notifications.
As we know from the mobile computing market, it is the apps that will drive this future of wearable computing. In order to be successful, developers must understand how radical this change will be and design accordingly. Understanding the benefits of wearable computing as well as the drawbacks will be the key to moving beyond the mobile paradigm.
It is safe to say that user-consuming apps like Angry Birds will not be what drives the wearable industry. But for developers who understand the difference, the opportunity is there to set the market standard.