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Wearable Devices: Research Boon or Bust?

By Victoria Stott

Concept of wearable in market research

As a parent of a child with type 1 diabetes I fully embrace any advancement in the wearable technologies market. Thanks to advances in recent years, I am able to track my daughter’s blood glucose levels remotely and receive alarms and warnings when her levels are dangerously low or high.

Wearable Diabetes Display

This means she can lead a much more ‘normal’ life, participating in the same activities as her peers and the burden and ‘fear of the unknown’ is eased for both her and the people looking after her. Whilst it is by no means perfect, I can only see it improving in years to come, hopefully resulting in her living an even more ‘normal’ life. Even with its faults you will NEVER get us to give up this invaluable piece of kit!

Wearables Devices in Consumer Markets

I am also in the midst of an explosion of wearable fitness trackers within my family and close friends, almost all of them now wear some kind of wearable fitness tracker to monitor the number of steps they take and calories burnt each day, and it’s becoming competitive! By syncing apps they are able to see who can be the most active.

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"Where there is a wearable. there is a market research opportunity"

I’ve heard stories of a friend running up and down the corridor 10 times in between back-to-back meetings and another walking circuits of the shops whilst waiting for the bank to open in the hope of boosting their ‘step’ total. My initial response to hearing such stories was, ‘won’t people wonder what you are doing?’, but in each instance I’ve received the simple response, “I don’t care; I boosted my steps by XX.”

And, why should they care? If wearing a fitness tracking devise boosts their general health via friendly competition – surely this is only a good thing? I asked a GP friend the other day if he saw wearable fitness devices having a positive impact on his patient’s health? Whilst everyone is different of course, he felt that the use of wearable devices is proving key motivator in encouraging some patients to improve their lifestyles – whether this proves to be a fad, only time will tell.

Wearable Devices in Business

So far so good, but can wearable technologies be utilised in the commercial world? Such technologies, especially those utilising GPRS systems are already well entrenched in many commercial entities. The question is how can they be applied to increase business output?

I recently watched an interview on Good Morning Britain (I know, I know!) about a recruitment agency boss who uses wearable devices to track the staff members that she places. She knows if they are running late and whether they are where they should be at any given time of the day. She claims that such intense monitoring has resulted in increased productivity, but at what cost?

Over the last few decades there has been a seismic shift away from ‘clocking in’ and ‘clocking out’ of work, with many businesses discovering that flexibility in the workplace (where possible) and increasing the level of trust given to employees, results in increased productivity. Surely the use of wearable devices to constantly monitor staff movements flies directly in the face of this and is in fact, a dehumanising backwards step?

A close friend of mine once worked for a company (not that long ago) that clocked her in and out to the ½ minute, deducting time from her lunch break if she ever dared to be late, and given she had to commute by train this was quite often! What the result of this extraordinary vigilance from her manager? Everybody took their full lunch break (to the nearest second) and left the moment the clock struck 5:30pm. Not exactly a commercial advertisement for the motivational use of this tech! And more likely to be counterproductive in the long term.

Wearable Devices in Market Research

Wearables devices in market research can be split into two categories, wearables designed with the express purpose of use in research studies, i.e. eye tracking wearables, and wearables designed for the consumer market, i.e. fitness trackers, smart watches.

As my colleague, Grayling Ferguson, stated in her recent blog, eye tracking wearables are an incredibly powerful addition to the market research toolkit, allowing us to unlock both the conscious and unconscious patterns of customer and potential customer interest. But it is the wearables designed for the consumer market that I would like to focus on here.

The by-product of such wearables is vast amounts of real-time passive data, something we could only dream of achieving 10 years ago. And whilst developed for personal use, there is nothing to stop these devices being employed by researchers for dedicated studies. Sounds like an all-round boon to me! But before I declare my opinion wholeheartedly, I want to examine the possible limitations… 

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"For accurate wearable insight sample bias and technical limitations must be understood and managed"

Sample Bias

Whilst the concept of passive data collection via consumer wearables is exciting, it is important to consider the population sample providing the data here. Passive data gleaned from Fitbit wearers for example, is likely to be skewed towards the health conscious. We must bear this in mind when selecting a sample for dedicated market research studies also. If wearable devise owners alone are recruited, can we truly say they are target market representative? For some clients and study objectives perhaps, but certainly not for all. Providing participants with the relevant wearable technology alleviates this problem, but in doing so we open the door to the same artificial influence risks present in any active research study; risks which must be acknowledged and managed.

Technical Limitations

As with every technology, there are limitations to the information wearables provide. For example, a friend was showing me her smart watch the other day and it said she had climbed 146 flights of stairs, that’s a lot of stairs! In actual fact she had been hiking that day but the gadget had no way to separate the activities. The limitations of the wearable in question must be understood in order to avoid misinterpretation of the data.

The ‘Why’ behind the ‘What'

Whilst wearable technology can tell you what your respondents are doing, it will never be able to tell you why… Why did I know my friend was demotivated when she was clocking in and out? Because she told me! In order to get the most out of wearable quant, I would suggest a complementary qual element in any research methodology.

Wearable Devices and The Future

Despite the limitations, wherever there is a wearable I believe there is an opportunity for properly managed market research and passive data collection. A report from IDTechEx estimated that the global wearable technology was worth over $30 billion in 2016 and is expected to accelerate over the next 10 years to $150+ billion by 2026. The answer to my blog title then is clear – it’s Boon Boon Boon for wearable devices in the insight industry… as long as we remember that we are human and not robots!

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FlexMR Staff- Victoria Stott

Victoria Stott- Senior Project Manager

Personal Bio: Working across key accounts, Victoria is responsible for the day-to-day management of research communities as well as embedding insight directly into organisations.
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