Wearable design, Misfit and the age of the glanceable UI

The designers at startup Misfit Wearables had a goal to make their wearable health gadget so beautiful that customers might keep it on even if it was completely broken. The company’s quarter-sized Shine gizmo — made from aerospace-grade aluminum, lined with a halo of LEDs, and fitted with a variety of accessories for the wrist, neck, and body — is supposed to reach its first 5,000 crowd-funded customers in early June, at which point we’ll see if the pint-sized device is as beloved by its customers as it is by its creators.

But the story of the year and half-old venture capital-backed Misfit isn’t just a tale about a startup building a coveted Apple-inspired gadget. Though it certainly is that — the company was founded on the day that Steve Jobs died, “Misfit” is a tribute to Jobs and Apple’s ads to think differently, and one of the company’s co-founders is Apple’s former CEO John Sculley (who was instrumental in pushing out Jobs in the 80’s).

Misfit has emerged at the intersection of a few key trends in 2013 that are shaping wearable computing, data, and design. These trends include the emergence of next-generation wearables that have more mainstream appeal, the development of the lean hardware movement that is using crowd funding to experiment, the collection of data that uses narrative and emotion to create an impact, and, most importantly, the introduction of a new type of user interface, which Misfit CEO Sonny Vu has coined as “the glanceable UI.”

Misfit Shine

Next-gen wearables

Accelerometers and sensors have been around for years. One of the pioneers of the space, Fitbit (see disclosure), is already a five-year-old company. Back in 2008, it was novel to just have a device that could track your movements, count your steps and calories, and sync with your laptop or smart phone.

But in 2013 the hardware for wearable devices has become a commodity, and the success of companies creating wearable computing will depend on the design of the device, the functionality of the software, and how the software and the gadget work together to provide value to the user’s life.

Misfit is part of this second wave of design-centric wearable computing. “We’re very focused on the packaging,” Vu told me with a smile during an interview last week at Misfit’s modest office in Daly City, California. Misfit was founded by Vu, Sculley, and Sridhar Iyengar, who was a co-founder with Vu at his former company AgaMatrix. AgaMatrix created the first FDA-approved glucose meter to work with the iPhone, giving Vu and Iyengar years of rare experience building wearable devices.

Misfit Shine

While crowd-funding helped fund Misfit’s first run of the Shine, Misfit is actually backed by some of the most well-known investors in the Valley, including Founders Fund and Khosla Ventures. Along with its team in Daly City, it has a group of software developers in Vietnam, and makes its gadget in Japan and South Korea.

Think differently

For Misfit, design innovation has been fundamental to creating its hardware. The company doesn’t use words like sensors, or accelerometers on its website, and is trying to look far beyond the niche, early-adopter “quantified self” community.

The first aspect of its design innovation is in the materials. While most wearables on the market are made of rubber or plastic, Misfit’s Shine is almost completely made out of metal — a first in the industry. The metal is part of what makes the device so beautiful and also gives the feeling of value to the user. The metal also makes it very durable; the Shine is fully water proof.

Misfit Shine

There are reasons why competitors haven’t used metal for pint-sized wearables. The Shine might look awesome, but it takes four different factories just to make the various pieces of the shell and the metal also has created some usability restrictions. The Shine has to be placed directly onto (actually touching) the face of the mobile phone to sync it; the wireless signals wouldn’t escape the metal casing without that.

“The next time I think of doing an entirely metal product, someone shoot me,” laughed Vu.

Steve Jobs also famously went to great lengths for hardware design, like the iPhone’s unscratchable glass screen, and the handle on top of the original iMac.

Another unusual design element that Misfit deemed necessary is that the Shine isn’t chargeable. It’s got a coin battery, which lasts 4 to 6 months before it needs to be replaced. Pretty much every other wearable on the market is chargeable and requires weekly, or even daily, charging. “We had an almost religious belief that wearables should not be charged. You don’t charge the buttons on your jacket, or the backpack on your back,” Vu said.

The decision to forgo charging also created usability restrictions, namely power management. The Shine needed bright LED lights on its display, the LEDs needed to shine through the metal casing, and the battery had to run the processor and keep time for up to 6 months. Pairing it with a wireless charging dock would have been far easier and would have enabled far more functionality.

A third counterintuitive design choice is that the Shine is a circle, but uses an inverted edge to connect with various accessories — there’s a sports and leather wristband accessory, a magnet clip for clothing, and a necklace that hangs it from your neck. Vu said that quintessential form choice will make the Shine more accessible for people’s various needs.

For example, many women won’t put anything on their wrist, which means wrist-only devices like the FuelBand or Jawbone’s UP are neglecting a good portion of potential users. From a business perspective, accessories can also add substantially to margins, which, for Misfit, could be tight given the Shine is a higher-end device made completely of metal that is trying to hit the price point of the Fitbit.

Screen Shot 2013-04-07 at 3.58.57 PM

These types of design decisions have created a device that is substantially different from Misfit’s larger and older competitors. Vu said before founding the company and designing the Shine, the team read every single negative review of the Fitbit, the Nike Fuelband, and the Jawbone products.

Glanceable UI

Beyond the hardware, Misfit is also innovating around the UI and how the user experiences feedback from the Shine. The design team made the decision to remove a digital screen interface entirely and replace it with a halo of tiny LED lights. They also removed an on/off button. Part of the reason they made these changes was because of the power management issue — there’s no way the device could power a brightly-lit screen and not be a chargeable device.

But the move was also a decision to head in the direction of what Vu called a “glanceable UI.” Designers have for years been focused on UIs for the laptop and cell phone screens, but are more recently just beginning to create interfaces for the very quick glance that is needed for a wearable device.

Nike Fuelband

The Shine takes what the Nike Fuelband started with its colored-LED display and basically pares it down. Shine users can check to see how complete the circle of lights is around the gizmo to determine if they’re meeting their daily fitness goal. By briefly touching the center of the Shine, the lights can quickly configure into a clock to tell the time, meaning the Shine is also a smart watch, too.

If you hear wearable designers and developers talk about user experience, they’ll commonly talk about truncating content. Google’s Glass advocate Timothy Jordan explained recently at SXSW that an app built for Glass, like the New York Times app, has to show enough of a snippet of information to be conveyed in just a look. The New York Times Glass app shows headlines and images, but not full articles.

Likewise, health and body information on a wearable device like the Shine should be able to be conveyed in a second or two. The cell phone app that syncs with the Shine houses the rest of the functionality.

Google Glass

A glanceable UI is about creating a second’s worth of meaning out of important and impactful data. Whether that’s a moment to convey how well you’re doing toward your daily fitness goal or a single blinking light to encourage more movement. As Om wrote recently, as data becomes the world’s currency, data without emotion, empathy or narrative is meaningless. Wearable gadgets can track as much data as they want, but if the user isn’t exposed to the data in a way that impacts their lives, and in a time frame that they can work with, then the device has failed.

Getting to market

Some of Misfit’s design decisions were controversial even within the company, which is why Misfit decided to test out to see if customers would be interested in a metal, non-rechargeable, no-screen, wearable gadget. Turns out, at least on Indiegogo, they are. The company raised over $800,000 from almost 8,000 funders who wanted to buy the Shine early.

Crowd-funding was a way for Misfit to experiment. It’s actually gotten millions from traditional Valley investors to launch its products more commercially. But crowd-funding is becoming a common way for the so-called lean hardware movement to operate. Hardware innovation was front and center at SXSW this year.

Misfit is shipping its first 5,000 Shines to customers in early June and another 7,000 or 8,000 in the second half of June. Shortly after that the Shine will go on sale at retail outlets for around the same price point as the Fitbit, which is around $99.

The Shine is only Misfit’s first product, which Vu calls Product Zero. They’re also working on a device called Mars, or Project One, which will be launched early next year. On the topic of Mars, Vu would only say that it would be a wearable but one that has a longer battery, makes more use of data, and has a different material and different shape.

While Misfit is just a young company, and has yet to deliver its gadgets to its first customers, it’s operating at that the intersection of some of the Valley’s most interesting trends, including the power of design, the next-generation of more mainstream wearables, the importance of impactful data, and a coming era that will feature the glanceable UI.

I look forward to hearing about the first Shine users’ experiences this Summer. In November we’ll be talking more about these issues of design, connectedness and experience at our third annual RoadMap event in San Francisco. Tickets will go on sale this summer, but you can sign up to be one of the first to access tickets.

Disclosure: Fitbit is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of GigaOM. Om Malik, founder of GigaOM, is also a venture partner at True.