What does wearable technology mean for market research?

Filed Under: Best Practices, Market Research, Tools & Techniques


Bob Relihan

Thanks to a generous wife, I am now wearing a Pebble on one wrist and a Fitbit Force on the other. Even though she wasn’t generous enough to give me Google Glass, clearly it was a wearable holiday at our house. I felt a bit behind these items by giving her a new iPad – how last year… or even, how two years ago.

Wearable technology was everywhere at this year’s CES. So, I suppose I am now on the cutting edge. But, what are we to make of this explosion of wearable devices? Is this a case of technology in search of problem? Or, is technology aligning itself with some fundamental human need? It may be too early to tell. Wearables are in their infancy. I have a different device on each wrist, but they cannot talk with each other. And, they perform different functions. I should have just one wearable that does it all. But, what is that “all.” Right now my Pebble simply mirrors my smartphone. Yes, it is fun to control the phone’s music with a watch or get a text message by glancing down at my wrist. Yet, it is “just” fun; it definitely is not crucial. It is a good rule of thumb that a technology that simply replicates the content of an earlier technology has not yet found its voice.

While its many executions may be clunky now, wearable computing speaks to some elemental human desires.

  • Since the first computer, we have been subject to the power of “the other.” The computer structures our language and our thinking. It is not without reason that we spoke of being chained to our computers. As computers became smaller and their languages and interfaces more flexible, we gained a measure of control. Wearable computing put that technology totally at our service, at least ideally. Rather than bending our thoughts and perceptions to the structure imposed by a computer, wearable computing enhances and strengthens our view of the world.
  • Social networking does more than keep us in touch with our friends. Social networking is so successful because it appeals to our ego. It permits us to continually be in touch with our thoughts and actions and to be assured they fit harmoniously within those of our circle. Wearable computing makes that immediate and seamless. So many of these wearable devices let us track and monitor our actions; they provide us with feedback. In effect, we objectify ourselves and then integrate that objectification through the wearable device.

Robocop may be satire, but there is a sense in which we all desire to have our perceptions and understanding of the world around us augmented and heightened. We want to control our world with technology, not be controlled by technology outside us.

But what does this mean for research? We may be moving away from a research model in which respondents’ give responses to surveys, in which the response is independent of the respondents.

  • If consumers want to track and monitor themselves and they have the technology in the near future to do that seamlessly, insight professionals should be able to tap into that stream of self-reflection. But in this world, the consumer and the response are one; we will be less able to ask direct questions. Rather, we will need to align what consumers are “tracking” about themselves with the questions we might want to ask.
  • And, that tracking will yield smaller and smaller pieces of data. We are currently struggling to adapt our insight gathering to the limitations imposed by the size of a smartphone screen. Imagine how we will have to modify our perspectives if the Pebble is how we connect with consumers.

We are looking at a world in which our connections to consumers are even more immediate than we could ever imagine.

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