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Smart Watches Need a Makeover, and a Shrink Ray

If smart watches are going to really take off, they’ll have to get a lot better-looking first.
October 17, 2013

The market for smart watches is hopping, with companies large (Samsung, Sony) and small (Pebble) betting consumers want to strap these gadgets to their wrists. Even Apple and Google are expected to be readying their takes, and market researcher Juniper Research expects wearable-tech revenue to grow to $19 billion by 2018 from this year’s comparatively paltry $1.4 billion.

Here’s the thing: existing smart watches are pretty ugly. I’ve spent a lot of time researching and trying out some existing options (see “So Far, Smart Watches Are Pretty Dumb”), and beyond all the technology changes needed for smart watches to become truly useful and complementary to smartphones (rather than just duplicative), they’re also in need of a major fashion makeover.

That may sound trivial, especially if you really just want to get your hands on the next hot gadget. But think about it. You probably don’t buy or wear watches or bracelets today unless you like how they look, and even sports-focused watches and fitness trackers like the Jawbone Up and Nike FuelBand display a sense of style (the Up in particular comes with a pedigree, as it was designed by Yves Behar). Now consider having something on your wrist that, throughout the day, prompts you to look at it (and thereby show it to anyone around you) with alerts for incoming messages, phone calls, and more. Don’t you want it to look good and fit well?

All the smart watches I tried recently had bulky watch faces and long, thick, rubbery straps. None came close to fitting me properly, making it uncomfortable to wear them for hours at a time, and beyond their novelty they weren’t worth showing off, either. Frankly, they all felt like they had been designed for men—or at least people with meaty wrists—which seems like a big mistake, given how many women like myself regularly buy all kinds of consumer electronics.

Bad design is a big reason why so many attempts at wearable technology failed in the past, including, I suspect, Microsoft’s unattractive Spot watches, which first hit store shelves in 2004 but disappeared due to little consumer interest.

Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, believes that for a smart watch to work, it must truly fit with your style. That’s hard, because personal style means something different to everyone. As Antonelli puts it, it’s the Holy Grail to design something universally appealing.

Given this, the companies making them must care deeply about all the aesthetics—shape, weight, thickness, materials, embellishments, and much more—in order to create something that people will not just buy but also use consistently. While good design was important for smartphones and tablets, it’s crucial for smart watches since they’re a lot harder to hide in a pocket or bag.

This means more than offering an assortment of different-colored watch bands, though. It requires thinking about what it means to design different smart watches for different tastes and, yes, genders, as makers of traditional wrist watches have done for years.

I understand it’s not easy to shrink down the design for a smaller wrist. There are plenty of components already packed tightly into each smart watch, such as the display and battery, making it hard to build a compact smart watch in the first place. But if these gadgets are to gain a lot of ground, and do it quickly, the companies making them have to make more of an effort on the smart watch’s exterior while innovating on the interior.

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