Frustrated by new tech?

Is your new smartwatch relevant, and other pressing concerns

LAS VEGAS -- International CES boasts 3,500 vendors this year, many showing off new smartwatches and other wearable gadgets.

Many of these new devices are prototypes in later stages of experimentation. A lot of them won't go on sale or will be pulled off the market after a funky rollout.

"Just because you see a lot of smartwatches at CES this year doesn't mean they are all destined for success," remarked Shawn DuBravac, chief economist for the Consumer Electronics Association which runs the annual CES event.

Many factors matter in a product's ultimate success, including production costs and marketing, but there are also some missing essentials in the new products that have caught the eye of analysts and economists at the trade show.

These experts are increasingly concerned that as wearable devices proliferate, and as growth of smartphones and tablets declines, there's way too much attention on pushing out a creative new product that's different from a competitor's. Meanwhile, there's not nearly enough focus on the relevance of these products in the daily lives of users, either in workplaces or at home.

Finding the relevance of a new technology to users rests not only on manufacturers, but also on CIOs and IT managers, who are planning new wearables for workers, along with associated apps and other software.

It's an industrywide problem. As makers of smartphones and tablets see the growth in sales of such products decline, there's been a renewed focus on churning out fresh new products. As a prime example, Samsung alone has produced six smartwatches in about a year, offering various features and styles.

In a related vein, a survey of 24,000 users in 24 countries conducted by consulting firm Accenture found that an alarming 83% reported problems using new devices such as smartwatches or in-vehicle entertainment and information systems.

Respondents said that the new smart devices are too complicated to use, didn't work as advertised, or didn't set up properly. Some saw a link between those responses and the lack of relevance for users in the new technology.

For new devices hitting the market, high-tech companies "need to go back to the drawing board and rethink their product development approaches to focus on the entire customer experience," said Sami Luukkonen, a managing director at Accenture.

CIOs and high-tech manufacturers need to show users "the relevance of connected intelligent devices and the Internet of Things to their daily lives or companies will not get to even a first interaction with them," Accenture said in a report on its global survey. Products and services also need a "wow" factor, Accenture said.

Luukkonen said with new wearables, there's too much focus on product features and not enough on the "holistic, digital experience."

Dubravac, who recently penned a book titled Digital Destiny, said there's a difference between "what can be done with technology and what's technologically meaningful." While a smartwatch or fitness band might digitize the number of steps the users takes each day, the greater value is how that information is "potentially meaningful to other processes," such as how that matters to a weight-reduction goal.

Almost every smartwatch or fitness band on the market is tied to health-related app or software package, but the connection between the two isn't clear enough, yet.

"Information isn't enough," Dubravac said. "It has to have some level of influence back into our physical space."

Have vendors failed to demonstrate that sufficient level of influence? With smartwatches, Dubravac asked, "does it make sense to digitize the wrist? Smartwatches continue to see growth ... and some argue it does make sense, while others argue it doesn't."

The CEA foresees shipments of nearly 11 million smartwatches in the U.S. in 2015, which will produce $3.1 billion in revenue. And the overwhelming majority of product makers at CES believe their new products are highly useful and easy to use for consumers and workers.

Asked for their reaction to Accenture's finding that 83% of users reported problems when using new products like smartwatches, several CES attendees laughed or questioned the Accenture findings. "I definitely think we go out of our way to make our products easy and meaningful," one vendor of a trip-taking technology said, asking not to be identified.

Steve Koenig, the CEA's director of industry analysis, said there may be a great amount of user frustration with smartwatches and new devices, but there's also been a lot of innovation in products generally in the past decade to help less tech savvy users.

Makers of voice recognition software, touch and gesture interfaces and other technologies, are generally working to simplify how devices are used, he said. The new Samsung Gear S smartwatch, for example, relies on voice inputs, a touchscreen and just a single physical button.

There will always be advanced users, like many of the attendees at CES, and less advanced users, and various products are focused on those different market segments, Koenig said.

"In general, I'd said overall technology is getting easier to use," he continued. "There's always been a segment of the population that struggles with technology and another segment that thrives. Ease of use is a key feature of Apple's products and a number of other brands."

The key lesson in all of this may be to remember the untutored users who can too easily be dismissed as technophobes. Maybe there really are 83%, or some other high number of users who get frustrated with new devices, while the other 17% just attend CES every year.

This story, "Frustrated by new tech? " was originally published by Computerworld.

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