The most recent Toronto event held at MaRS on Feb 3 featured a panel discussion on “Wearables for Women” covering topics from design and functionality to the gender mix in the workplace. The discussion was led by freelance writer and multimedia journalist, Amanda Cosco, who writes for publications such as the Globe and Mail and BetaKit.com and included experts from many different spectrums of the technology and design space.
The panel discussion started with the role gender plays in designing and developing wearable technology. Jane McEntegart, a writer for MobileSyrup, kicked things off by expressing that manufacturers make assumptions that the needs for men and women are different. She cited the latest Misfit Shine product featuring a Swarovski crystal design as an example, stating that many of the people she discussed the product with disliked the design and wouldn't buy it even though the underlying technology in the device is fantastic. Fashion and jewellery designer, Shay Lowe, stressed that incorrect assumptions being made about what women want may lead wearable companies to miss the mark. She went on to explain that understanding your target audience and the lifestyle of that audience is key to a successful design of any product.
But should wearables be gendered at all? Ali Nawab discussed how his company, Kiwi Wearables, launched a product targeted at both men and women but that the popularity with women was higher than they expected. He pointed out that many people feel wearables are the next smartphone and in this device category both genders purchase the same phone and questioned if consumers would feel the same in the wearable space. All of the panelists agreed that fashion and design matters much more for something that you are wear on your person all day verses a device that you can put away into your pocket or bag.
A big part of fashion is an emotional response. Professor of Material Art + Design at OCAD, Marie Mahony, identified materials and haptics as a missed opportunity in wearable design. She felt that these could help make an emotional connection with wearables. She expressed her disappointment in the current use of materials of wearable products which leave them feeling "cold" and lacking emotional engagement.
But fashion isn't just about aesthetic and form. Lowe stressed that a fashion first approach is simply good business. She encouraged wearable companies to collaborate with designers and big department stores. But for tech companies this isn't without its challenges. Ravinder Saini, President of Ear-O-Smart, a company making the world's first smart earring, discussed the difficulties in keeping both fashion and technology in mind when creating a product, especially when the technology and design are also done by different teams or people. Dr. Isabel Pedersen who leads Decimal Labs at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology highlighted Google Glass as an example of a device that struggled with aesthetics and wasn't well received by the public overall. Both Pedersen and Mahony suggested that part of the reaction to Glass had a lot to do with the fact that it was foreign and new and compared this to the overall reaction to wrist-worn devices like smartwatches which are more approachable because they mimic something that is already out there.
The conversation shifted to the representation of women in the technology industry in general. Nawab recounted his experience in university where his engineering class only had three women and continued to say that he believes companies like his have a need for diversity. But for Mahony, the problem starts before secondary school and she suggested that we need to embrace programs like Girls Learning Code to engage girls in tech even earlier. Although women working in tech is important, McEntegart was quick to point out that design is not just a women in tech problem and that just because someone is female does not necessarily mean that they are the answer to all fashion and design problems.
The panel was summed up when Cosco asked what would it take for a wearable to win over women? The most concise answer of the night came from McEntegart who answered “what do you want it to do?”