At the Festival of Curiosity – Design Futures (And me on why wearables don’t work)

The Festival of Curiosity (And why wearables don’t work)

Great talks today, all moderated by the ever-excellent and wonderful Claire O’Connell.  Amy Congdon gave an eye-popping talk on the possible clothes and fabrics of tomorrow; Shaun O’Boyle a superb talk on evolved forms of camouflage and biomimicry in mostly aquatic  animals (and don’t lick toads!); I spoke about why wearables as currently conceived are failing or going to fail as devices to enhance us (i.e. fitter, happier, healthier or whatever).

From my notes on wearables:

The evidence points to people wearing them for a while, stop, and mostly not restarting -for all sort of reasons – including battery failure, intrusiveness, annoyance at the device, etc.

But there are design errors too, all rooted in a lack of understanding of our psychobiology:

1st – the fundamental attribution error – overweight the individual, and underweight the social situation as the locus of behavioural change;

2nd – the naive mere information provision hypothesis – assuming that providing information will change behaviour! But it doesn’t (or there would be no obese, alcoholic, smokers!). Actually acquiring new habits is very hard (health behaviours–eating fruit/exercise – the range of days required to establish a new habit is enormous even for a tracked, motivated group);

3rd – hugely underweight the social: social life for humans is like water for fish – we don’t notice it until something goes wrong! Social interaction & discussion are intrinsically rewarding – we like to gather as groups (and wearables need to embrace this);

4th – assumption that a self-focus is good for us – but actually it may just make us anxious narcissists;

5th – that somehow, cognitively, we have the bandwidth for this – but we often/usually don’t;

6th – assumption that the data obtained are diagnostically sensitive, specific and has known base rates. We don’t have these data.

7th – ignores the issue of what works for humans – walking in nature and the biophilic effects of urban versus natural environments has interesting effects on the regulation of mood.

None of these problems are insuperable, or course – but they require designers of these devices to learn some of the fundamentals of human psychobiology.

Author: Shane O'Mara

Neuroscientist

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