To Sell Wearables to Women, First Make Them Feel Bad

At the International Consumer Electronics Show, some products suggested a different way to appeal to women than simply offering glammed-up fitness trackers

Women are the early adopters of all kinds of technology. We talk on our phones and send more text messages than men, spend more time using location-based services, and own the vast majority of Internet-connected devices, including e-readers and health gadgets. Not that you would learn any of this while walking around the International Consumer Electronics Show, the colossal gadget convention that wrapped up last week in Las Vegas. CES is a four-day festival of tech at its most hyper-masculine, complete with booth babes, the most ridiculous TVs ever, thousands of square feet devoted to such classic man-toys as high-fidelity audio equipment and car tech. 

What little was on display for women spoke volumes about how gadget makers see us, their female consumers. Industry assumption No. 1: To get more women to buy wearables, offer more glamorous options. A handful of companies displayed fitness bands and smartwatches specifically for women—who, the exhibitors claim, are turned off by black rubber and steel form factors. Chief among them this year was Misfit, which unveiled an activity tracker gleaming with Swarovski crystals designed to be worn wrapped around the wrist or as a pendant. Gorgeous, the gadget mag Wired applauded, holding up Zsa Zsa Gabor-esque Swarovski Shine as evidence that 2015 is the year "wearables will stop being so ugly."


Misfit unveiled the Swarovski Shine at this year's CES

Source: Misfit

That’s been speculated for the last several years: Women will fall in love with fitness trackers as soon as they get pretty. There's much to be ridiculed in that argument, starting with the fact that few self-respecting women would wear the Swarovski Shine to participate in any actual fitness. I’d also argue that women who care about their biometric data already have some attractive options. The elegance of Withings’s new unisex Activité Pop has the potential, if smartly marketed, to capture women without looking like a spendy bangle from Bergdorf’s. Jawbone claims that users of its Yves Béhar–designed Up are split roughly equally between men and women.


Tory Burch for Fitbit

Source: Fitbit

Yet the tech industry continues to insist that a device must be disguised as something precious and Luddite for women to adopt it en masse. Over the past year, many tech companies have made overtures to women by teaming up with fashion designers to produce stylish activity trackers—among them, Intel, which enlisted the fashion-forward Open Ceremony to create a device called Mica, and Fitbit, which commissioned Tory Burch to lend her name and a metallic skin to a fitness bracelet. In the end, it's not clear whether the makers of fitness bands and smartwatches want women to take advantage of the features or if they just want to sell them new bracelets. It's possible that they don't care. A sale is a sale. 

CES has speaker panels, too—small confabs about the Internet of Things-this, connected-home-that. Of dozens, only one addressed lady tech. Hoping to hear fresh ideas about how gadget makers might better woo female customers, I hiked over to “Women and Wearables." At the very least, I figured, someone might be able to make a cogent argument as to why they thought prettifying gadgets is the way to go.

None of the big players was there, and the organizers were evidently challenged to fill the panel with people qualified to talk about women and tech. Two speakers—the only men in the six-person group—had little to say about how to get women to love tech, although one held up an sports bra with a detachable heart-rate monitor. Fortunately, the other four panelists made sense. In talking about their products, they pointed to an alternative—if not wholly less-problematic—approach to wearables for women: The right gadget, they suggested, could alleviate a measure of anxiety particular to overextended, hyperconnected women.

Muse headband

Muse headband

Source: Interaxon

“One of the big issues that we have as women is wanting to do everything and be perfectionists,” said Ariel Garten, one of the panelists and chief executive officer and cofounder of the Toronto-based startup Interaxon. Garten invented Muse—a $300 EEG headband that senses brainwaves and delivers feedback—to help women silence their inner critic. "There’s this little voice inside our heads that says, ‘Oh, you should have done better.’ With Muse, what you learn to do is shut down that voice. You can take your brain somewhere else and have—sometimes for the first time—dominion over your own brain.” Garten maintains that by knowing when they’re calm and focused, Muse wearers can train themselves to replicate that brain pattern to control their stress level.  

Ugly fitness bands have nothing on Muse, which shouldn’t be worn in public outside a Star Trek convention. Still, if I, a working mother, were given a choice of a jewel-encrusted step-counter or a non-chemical means of managing daily stress, I’d opt for the latter. But emotional well-being isn’t easily quantifiable, so companies—a growing market for fitness devices—are more likely to buy their employees fitness trackers to encourage physical health and lower insurance premiums than to offer onsite yoga classes.

Paxie wristband for kids

Paxie wristband for kids

Source: SAFE Family Wearables

An additional device promises to alleviate a kind of female anxiety that especially afflicts those tethered to children as if to a house-arrest anklet. “When I became a mom, this mamma bear instinct came out to protect my child,” said panelist Jennifer Lazarus, chief marketing officer of SAFE Family Wearables. “You don’t want to leave your child, but circumstances require [it], so having a device where you can check in and see where your child is at all times is useful.” Her solution: a wristband called Paxie that monitors the GPS location, heart rate, and ambient temperature of kids aged 18 months to 12 years. The $175 band will ship in May and will come with three interchangeable skins to make them look cool. If a kid isn’t convinced of the wristband's fashion cred, that's tough—the bands require two hands to remove, and doing so will send an alert to the smartphone-wielding helicopter parent. (For new mothers who obsessively hover over their baby’s silent cribs looking for signs of breathing, there’s Sproutling, a $299 anklet that tracks heartbeat, body temperature, and noise level in the room to predict a baby’s sleep pattern; scheduled ship date: March.) 

Even when we're with our kids, we still struggle to stay present while we balance demands of parenthood, work, friends, and spouses. Clichéd? Sure, but unquestionably resonant. Rather than rifling through a handbag for a smartphone to capture moments of family togetherness, why not just wear a Wi-Fi-enabled clip-on camera that automatically snaps two pictures a minute? Corina Standiford, a “Women and Wearables" panelist, raised a little more than $550,000 on Kickstarter in 2012 to launch the gadget; originally named Memoto, it has since been rebranded as Narrative. “We see a lot of moms use this to really stay in the moment and capture those really silly, candid, real photos of their children,” said Standiford, Narrative’s director of communications. “When you take out your phone to take a photo, a lot of times the kids stop or they put on a cheesy smile.” As any Muse-wearing mother will tell you, cultivating calm and focus is easier if you're not yelling at children to stand still for just one second, please. Is that too much to ask?

Narrative, a clip-on, life-logging camera
Narrative, a clip-on, life-logging camera
Source: Narrative

The twist is that these products, created in response to a woman's anxiety at being stretched too thin, may only worsen the problem. Like many parents, I live in a state of perpetual compromise, incapable of devoting as much time as I'd like to either my 14-month-old son or my job. I could track the exact location of my child while I'm at the office, which might assuage some of my maternal fears. It would also add another distraction to an already packed workday.  

Here's what else an anti-anxiety headband won't do: counteract the Lean In pressure felt by working mothers. The problem for women who feel as if they have to do everything is that they feel as if they have to do everything, and that's impossible. More and better devices may offer us ways to do marginally more, but to what end? Even if our wearable camera takes photos automatically, we still have to go home, download all those photos, sort them, crop them, label them, back them up, send them to the grandparents, print out a photo book, and so on. The hardware is not the problem. 

Unfortunately, playing on women's anxiety — about our bodies, our hair, our skills as mothers, our professional ambition—is effective. Women's magazines are expert at this; so is the fashion industry. It's disheartening to see an additional industry piling on, but it's not a dumb strategy. What's more, emotional well-being is slippery. Whatever you do that makes you feel better is working. If that's a security wristband for your second-grader or a bedazzled smartwatch for you, so be it. I'll just be over here, monitoring my brainwaves.