Enterprising Smartwatches – Is the time right?

Wearables have been taking off slowly in the consumer market and as IoT shifts up a gear, are the cogs starting to fall into place for the enterprise? Rob Bamforth, prinicipal analyst for Quocirca discusses some use cases where smartwatches are being tested to improve business functions.

Technology has spread throughout everyday life and whilst the internet, mobile phones, social media and tablets have turned us all into active consumers of all things ‘sleek and shiny’, there are expectations; technology still has to be simple, reliable and do something useful.

Wearable devices and the Internet of Things (IoT) are inspiring innovation, but finding something that delivers real value is more challenging. Ultimately, like any other technology, wearables face competition; from existing already adopted tech such as smartphones that may be ‘good enough’, or from user apathy (forgetting to be worn), as well as from each other.

Smartwatches seem to be an attractive wearable device type for manufacturers, but predictably, since this is new territory, they are experimenting with styles and there is no consensus or standard for how best to present output or gather input off the user’s wrist; smartwatch bezel shapes and interface designs are often based more on fashion than function.

Successful wearable products need to justify themselves, and this may prove easier with business deployments than with consumers. Most business processes rely on employee access to IT resources, but often as support for the real job at hand. Having IT and communications always available at their wrist could be a real benefit leaving workers unencumbered by other devices.

So how can wearables deliver for business?

The simplest wearable devices just provide a collection of sensors and a communications gateway to send data elsewhere — “Internet of Things for the wrist”. As an intelligence gathering exercise this is useful as it can capture data from a vital yet unpredictable component in most business processes — people — and could form part of a broader IoT strategy to better understand and improve business processes.

When other ‘things’ are monitored for their interaction with people, the opportunities multiply. Consider the routine process of maintaining toilet facilities in public spaces such as service stations or hotel foyers. The popular approach of ‘these facilities are maintained every hour’ is not only wasteful, but also leads to huge gaps in quality of service. A simple entry counter or sensor on water flow would indicate precise usage.

The feedback loop is closed when employees become aware of problems or peaks in usage as they occur. Alerts delivered to a cleaning operative’s smartwatch would mean that facilities could be cleaned immediately after or during traffic peaks — perhaps during a conference or arrival of a coach party — and left longer or only given a cursory glance if there was no one around.

In a similar facilities challenge, runway maintenance crews at airports need to be alerted and directed to problems, such as the build up of snow in winter, over a wide area. In this situation mobile devices are cumbersome and having to go to check a computer would delay work, so a solution from involving smartwatches has been developed by a UK-based TBS Mobility and trialled at Heathrow; staff are directed to the problem and provide immediate feedback with minimal IT interaction leaving maximum focus on the real problem.

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The necessity to keep things on the move has inspired other smartwatch trials in the aviation sector; Virgin Atlantic engineering support staff are testing several wearable form factors, including smartwatches for task management and job allocation to speed aircraft turnaround, and air transport and communications specialist SITA has been trialling smartwatches for on the spot delivery of information and updates to airport staff.

As well as alerts or exceptions, a similar process can be useful for daily business interaction. A typical in-store retail “interruption” occurs when a customer spots something they might like to buy and asks an assistant if it is in stock. In most retail environments this can be a drawn out process, requiring a diversion to view a computer screen or the assistant disappearing for some indeterminate time into a stock room.

Dixons has recognised that a different approach might not only save a significant amount of time, but also reduce the risk of losing a customer. The assistant accesses a simple app on a smartwatch in front of the customer to get the vital piece of information required at the right time (and place). Result? No delays, no IT hassles for the employee, and a happy customer.

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Unencumbered access to timely information on smartwatches offers a significant opportunity to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of routine and regular business processes, but applications need to be carefully chosen and developed i.e.

  • find processes where IT ‘gets in the way’ of the job at hand or customer interaction
  • work closely with those that will use the application to deliver ‘just enough’ information
  • design smartwatch responses to be simple, direct and to the point
  • use tactile alerts (vibrate) to replace or enhance bold screen output
    timeliness is vital – when required, to be ‘just in mind’ as well as ‘just in time’

No single wearable device will dominate, so enterprises need to engage solution providers with a track record in flexibility and dealing with mobile diversity. There are innovators delivering smart wearable applications to bring benefits for businesses, but their efforts risk being undermined by rapid changes in the sector.

Focus on consumer use cases by wearable manufacturers is leading to much experimentation and churn in devices, interfaces and design. This is expected in rapidly evolving markets, but most business use cases will only prove cost-effective if given time to deliver a return. This requires a little more stability and certainty of wearable device lifecycles over the operational lifetime of a project.

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Quocirca has previously used the term ‘return on my watch’ to indicate that IT managers and CIOs need to see value from their investments before they move into new roles, i.e. a shorter period than perhaps the organisation might expect. In the case of wearable technologies, this now has a physical connotation. Smartwatch manufacturers need to settle down and establish their platforms’ abilities to deliver worthwhile business solutions, by working with developers and end user businesses — that will get the industry ticking along nicely!

Written by Rob Bamforth, Quocirca. For more work from Rob, visit his analyst profile here.

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