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Enterprise Wearables: Human Design and Ergonomic Considerations

The latest high-profile wearable devices – including the Microsoft HoloLens and the DAQRI Smart Helmet; new smart glasses like the Vuzix M300, Epson Moverio BT-300, and the Meta 2; the arrival of VR in the form of back-to-back Oculus Rift and HTC Vive releases; and even mentions of digital tattoos and smart contact lenses – seem to signal a next phase in the advancement of wearable technology, especially the next generation of heads-up or head-mounted displays for enterprise use.

As new wearable tech hits the market, we wonder what makes a wearable device enterprise-worthy? What do we require from enterprise-grade wearables? We’ve come up with a list of criteria for designing and evaluating wearable hardware from an ergonomics and human-centered (or worker-centric) design perspective:

Wearable technology has dramatically redefined the relationship between user and computer, bringing us closer than ever to our technology. Seriously, these devices are no longer in our hands; they’re on our bodies and around our heads (!), and with that comes a host of issues from display to power and processing. Wearables also pose new ergonomic challenges. Take physical comfort, for instance: Undoubtedly, comfort is a consideration in smartphone and tablet design but its import is exaggerated (and extended beyond our hands) in the design of wearable devices. So let’s start off our list with just that:

Comfort and wearability:

A good user experience is key to the successful adoption of any new technology. When it comes to adopting wearables in workers’ daily lives, a good user experience arguably begins with comfort.

Comfort involves such things as size (including weight and shape) and feel (texture, temperature, etc.), as well as conditions like eye fatigue (in the case of smart glasses). Enterprise wearables should not be bulky or constricting, awkward or obtrusive, lest they interfere with the performance of tasks. To that end, they should support a worker’s normal movements and physical behavior. To some extent – and after some time – it might even be possible for users to forget they are wearing a piece of technology. For most individuals, however, some period of adjustment will be necessary.

With any new technology comes change, in both behavior and mindset. In the case of wearable tech, employees must learn to use a new device and get used to wearing it for, say, an entire work shift. Wearables typically require us to interact with technology in a new way—it could be the novel display (no longer in our hands but rather on our wrists or before our eyes) or a different user interface (ex. voice control instead of a keyboard or touchpad). It is likely that a minor change in physical behavior and awareness will be required. Take, for instance, those workers who don’t normally wear glasses and will have to adapt to using a pair of smart ones on the job. It might even feel strange to suddenly find one’s hands free after years of consulting a manual, visiting a computer terminal, or touching a screen to access information.

And yet, it should be easy to put on a wearable device, operate the technology, and keep it in position in a work setting. Workers cannot be expected to wear something that requires frequent adjustment, is physically awkward to control, or – even worse – overheats. While some awkwardness is expected at first, after a grace period workers should be able to get accustomed to the devices. If they are a continued source of discomfort, the technology will disrupt workflow and hamper productivity rather than improve and facilitate.

Summary: Does the technology have the potential to become second nature? Can it be expected to become comfortable to wear and use after a short adjustment period, to feel like a part of the uniform?

Usability: 

Certainly physical comfort is one factor in determining the usability of a wearable device in the workplace; the user interface is another. The keyword here is natural: It shouldn’t be difficult or awkward to interact with or control the technology on the job.

There are two elements to the user interface, the first being the actual display and the second being the method of interaction. Wearables tend to have small interfaces—small display screens with a lack of “touch real estate” (think smartwatch), or the positioning of the device itself makes interaction via such methods as touch or swipe difficult (smart eyewear).

Wearable displays, whether a screen on one’s wrist or the display one sees when viewing the world through a pair of smart glasses, should be legible in different enterprise environments. Thus, it may be necessary to account for such things as lighting conditions in different job settings, or to make the display flexible or adjustable so it can be viewed from different angles and moved out of the way when necessary.

Perhaps most critical, however, is the method of interacting with the device. While workers are somewhat used to screens (smartwatches and smart glasses have been portrayed as “putting a smartphone on your wrist / in front of your face”); the input or control options for wearables are less familiar, and include voice and gesture.

The qualities hardware makers should strive for are intelligent, intuitive and responsive: The device controls – whether touch/swipe, gesture, or voice commands – should be relatively simple to master, straightforward enough that the user can easily or even immediately understand how interaction occurs. Of course, some initial training will be necessary: Workers will need to learn the menu of voice commands (or hand gestures), and practice these in real-life scenarios on the job. And it might feel a little strange at first to speak to a pair of glasses on one’s face or to motion in the air, so again there’s some getting used to the technology in this respect.

Summary: We’re starting to develop a kind of litmus test for wearables in the enterprise. To be deemed enterprise-grade, the following must be determined:

  1. Is the device comfortable to wear? (This is the threshold)
  2. Is the display legible under varying conditions?
  3. Can the interface become familiar?
  4. Is the device responsive (i.e. when a command is given, does the technology perform accurately)?
  5. ?

Durability, reliability, and safety:

Part of a human-centered design approach to enterprise wearables is considering where and under what conditions workers will need to use the devices.

We know that the hands-free nature of wearables makes them ideal for deskless and lone workers. These workers tend to work in challenging, even hazardous, environments like construction sites, oil and gas rigs, coal mines, and shipyards. Thus, enterprise wearables will need to be deployed in settings where they will likely be exposed to bumps and drops, industrial noise, nearby heavy machinery, temperature highs and lows, the weather, etc. Under such conditions, the devices will need to remain functioning and safe for workers to operate. Needless to say, for wearable devices to be accepted for use in the field, they will need to be comfortable and durably constructed.

In addition to robustness, battery life is another factor in determining a technology’s durability in the workplace. Workers will be using wearables in remote locations and for long shifts, so the devices have to last or productivity will suffer. Unfortunately, current wearables have short battery lives; nevertheless, enterprises are finding ways around this temporary limitation with external battery packs and by such methods as disabling Wi-Fi and other features when not in use.

This brings us to the fifth item in our “litmus test:” Is the device field-proof?

  • Will the technology hold up under a range of working conditions?
  • Is it versatile enough for different job environments? (Some wearables may be better suited for office environments, and others designed specifically for use in one industry or another)
  • Is the wearable safe for use in the field?

Hardware requirements may differ by industry. For instance, electronics intended to be used in the vicinity of large oil and gas operations must meet certain durability and safety standards; a device that is safety-rated for use on a construction project may not “cut it” at a drilling site. Moreover, meeting the usual standards may not ensure the safety of wearables in the field—wearables comprise a new category of mobile technology, so in addition to those safety considerations and precautions applying to smartphones and tablets, close physical proximity to the user could create previously unthought-of safety hazards. Just how safe is it to wear a high-tech product like smart glasses on one’s head for hours at a time?

The use of wearables on the job must not bring any harm to employees, and that includes physiological and psychological harm. While manufacturers can account for issues like electric shock, eye fatigue, and overheating; there is little data right now on the physical and mental/emotional impact of wearing these devices for long periods of time. We don’t yet know the long-term health effects; nor do we fully understand the psychology of wearables, or how the technology will affect employee mentality and workplace culture.

Transferability:

Okay, so enterprise wearables have to be comfortable to wear, relatively easy to operate, durable, reliable, and harmless. What about shareable?

Is every factory worker going to have his or her own pair of smart glasses? Probably not, as that would be expensive and impractical. You can imagine that enterprise decision makers are not going to be enthusiastic about investing in large numbers of expensive pieces of technology. Several operatives will have to be able to use the same device.

Wearables will therefore have to suit a range of workplaces (or else be tailored to a single industry or environment), as well as a range of users. Transferability is a key requirement for the enterprise viability of wearable technology, but it’s not as simple as asking your employees to kindly share with one another. Transferability has to be factored into the design of the device.

Is the device “one-size-fits-all?” Is it hygienic for workers to share the same head-mounted device? Designing for a range of users means just that—the workforce is not uniform; different users have different physical limitations and characteristics. What about workers who are vision impaired, who already wear glasses? It might seem silly but what about different head shapes, even hair styles, employees with bangs or long hair? What individual health issues and physical traits might interfere with the wearability/usability of smart glasses?

Enterprise wearables must be practical for the majority of users. To that end, they should be adjustable. If the devices aren’t flexible, capable of fitting around different wrist and head sizes, etc., then portions of your workforce will miss out or experience discomfort. The devices must also be safe for all users—safe to use in the vicinity of heavy machinery, safe to use outdoors (as mentioned above), and safe to share. Hygiene is an important consideration in the user safety of technology products worn on or around the face and body, especially when those products are transferred between workers. (It can get sweaty on the job!) So it must be possible to clean or sanitize wearables in the workplace, as well.

Summary: Can more than one user safely, comfortably and hygienically use the same device?

 

There you have it. When it comes to a human-centered design/evaluation approach to enterprise wearables, aesthetics may not matter but factors like work shift length and job site conditions come into play. To succeed in the workplace, wearable devices must pass the tests of comfort and wearability; usability; durability, reliability and safety; and transferability.

 

About EWTS East:

The Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit East taking place June 16-17, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia is the second in BrainXchange’s line of exclusive enterprise wearable tech conferences. Entirely focused on the use of wearable technology in the business and industrial enterprise, EWTS East brings together the top companies and foremost experts in the space to examine the opportunities for and challenges of wearables in the workplace. Consisting of all new speakers, all new case studies, and the most up-to-date, best-practice user advice, the event is not one to be missed.

Join the Enterprise Wearable Technology Community (LinkedIn Group)

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