Clutch spoke with MentorMate’s Creative Director Annika Seaberg, Solutions Architect Kyle Simmons, and Senior Project Manager Ian Good, as part of a series of interviews about wearable technology.
Could you describe your company and your role there?
MentorMate is an award-winning software development firm with experience in user-first strategy and platform creation. We have been designing and delivering solutions since 2001. We serve clients globally with permanent offices in Minneapolis, MN and Bulgaria.
We have delivered over 800 projects to our rapidly growing client list, which spans the industry, from entrepreneurial startups to Fortune 500 companies. We offer tailored solutions to meet software needs, including custom mobile and web software, user-first UX/UI [user experience/user interface] design, backend integration, data analytics, and consulting.
We have deep experience in the healthcare market and have provided HIPAA-compliant communication solutions and data aggregation software for leading providers.
Annika Seaberg serves as Creative Director. Kyle Simmons is a Solutions Architect, and Ian Good serves as a Senior Project Manager.
When did MentorMate begin working with wearables?
Annika Seaberg, Creative Director: MentorMate was founded in 2001, and in the past, we’ve had some light involvement designing the dashboard apps for wearables. It wasn’t until November of last year , when Apple released its developer kit for the Apple Watch, that we really started looking at wearables, experimenting, and doing more work in that area.
You have worked with multiple wearables platforms. Can you describe the differences between these platforms?
Annika: We actually have more experience in wearables outside of the Apple Watch and Android Wear arena. Reemo, for instance, is not a watch that supports multiple applications.
Kyle Simmons, Solutions Architect: It [Reemo] doesn’t have a graphical touch interface to interact with.
Annika: We’ve also done other more medical-based wearables that have very different purposes, like heart-rate monitors that have an interface and provide health screenings. We’ve been all over the board.
Could you describe the wearable device, Reemo?
Kyle: Typically, if there’s any sort of a device that uses Bluetooth, we build the software application for this interaction. We work with a lot of dashboards and focus on the consumption of data and how to display it in a nice way. But, we also have worked on applications for the Apple Watch, so we have experience in both areas.
Reemo is more of a traditional wearable. It targets the very valuable real estate of the user’s wrist, while some of the other projects we’ve worked on are general Bluetooth-type devices.
Ian Good, Senior Project Manager: The Reemo device speaks to several different things. Because it’s a wearable, it has limited battery life and capabilities. So, what Reemo needed was a hub to manage all the communications. The Reemo device connects to multiple Bluetooth technologies and then detects gestures from the user. Those gestures send a signal to the hub app that something should happen. Typical examples would be turning on the lights in a room or turning the thermostat up or down.
MentorMate built the hub app. The app communicates with the cloud, to send signals to internet-connected devices, Bluetooth hotspots, and the wearable wristband. The general idea is that you wear a wristband, there are pods associated with a connected device distributed throughout a space – maybe your home or living room – and when you point at a specific pod, it tells the Reemo device that you want to do something. For example, a pod may be located near your television, thermostat, or light switch. Your next gesture then indicates what you want to do. The app handles all of the messaging.
Could you describe the process of developing the hub app for Reemo?
Kyle: The development process was very bi-directional. MentorMate was working with Reemo, getting their feedback and input, and then making more suggestions. It was a collaborative process, and we had multiple meetings.
Reemo’s goal and value proposition is that through a simple gesture, you can control something. I point at my TV, and my TV turns on. I motion right with my wrist, and the volume goes up or my channel changes. All of their marketing materials and their videos talk about how simple [their product] is to use. This was one of the biggest challenges because the technical side is complex, but the application’s functionality has to be intuitive.
The challenge for us was coming up with a way that the application would be simple. Distilling down all the complexity to its most basic elements was really one of the things that Annika and I spent a lot of time going back and forth on. How do you make something that is user-friendly but actually has a lot of complicated technical elements going on in the background?
Annika: As far as our process goes, as Kyle said, it was very bi-directional. Reemo came to us, and they had aspects of their product working already. What they needed from us was a chunk of time in which we could fly through establishing a strategy, figure out what the application dashboard needed to look like to make it consumer-friendly, and make decisions about what platform to release the development alpha on.
This part took us probably four or five meetings, with each meeting being three or more hours long. That’s a typical MentorMate process. Considering the depth of this particular project, we may have requested a little bit more time than usual, but we like to have this deep dive before we really get into things.
After that, we separated out, and Kyle and I worked through what the user flows and the actual dashboard wireframes would be. This took another two to four weeks. Then we moved into a more long-term engagement, where we started to refine the design and begin developing the application. This timeline was more ongoing.
Ian: We approached this project as an alpha prototype to see whether we could do it and do it well. We leveraged one of our staff members with the most experience in the Internet of Things. I think we went from start to finish in about four weeks.
Kyle: We built an app and released it on the Android platform, and we have updates forthcoming. There are still improvements and feature additions that are in the pipeline.
What challenges did you face during the project’s rollout, and what steps did you take to overcome these challenges?
Annika: From the strategy and design side, the main challenge was taking what is technically complex to comprehend, if you’re not a developer, and translating it into a product that is user friendly. The whole idea of having this wearable that connects to these pods, that then connect to your Internet of Things, and finally connect to your phone, if not communicated correctly, will turn off your average consumer.
Our challenge was placing all these functions in front of people in a way that made the setup not only easy and friendly but also fun and interesting. We wanted people to understand the value behind the product, more so than the complexity of the backend.
Kyle: One of the other things that we were tasked with on this project was not only making the consumer-friendly version, or a platform that could evolve into the final consumer platform, but also making something that other developers could tie into and tinker with on their own. One of the things that Reemo is really good at, and they’re focusing quite a bit on, is trying to be very developer-friendly. They want people playing with their platform and creating new ways to use their wearable device. They wanted us to make sure that we took that into consideration when we were making this first version of the application.
There was a lot of discussion around the question, ‘How do you make this as developer-friendly as possible, so that people can actually tinker with it and start to expand the functionality in ways that they hadn’t thought of yet?’ This was a fun challenge, and I think the developer community is rallying around Reemo.
In what ways did your initial conceptualization of the product change throughout the development process?
Annika: We had a lot of shifting back and forth regarding whether it made more sense to focus on the pod or gesture aspect of the product. We had to decide which piece would be the most marketable. We really evolved our thought process on this point over time.
For instance, I started with the idea that the pod would be what people cared about, because that was the piece of technology that really allowed you to connect to more and more things. Throughout the process of thinking around the marketing strategy, figuring out how the device actually worked, and learning more about the technology, we landed on the idea that gestures, and the simplicity of it, would be a better selling point for people. Trying to figure out what we wanted to present to the consumers evolved quite a bit over time.
Kyle: It’s a lot of semantics. Are they pods? Are they devices? What are they? So a lot of it was trying to come up with proper terminology and deciding which aspects to expose to bring all these devices together. So, raising your hand turns on your TV, turns on your lights, locks your house, and turns up the temperature.
What lessons did you learn from this experience, and what area would you like to improve upon or do differently in the future?
Annika: This sort of project reaffirms for me, at every level, the importance of not separating your development and product side from your design side if you’re trying to create a user-friendly experience. Understanding the technology and the flow played an integral part in deciding how we were going to present this to users. I think, often times, you see designers who really couldn’t care less about how the technology works. They just want to make the interface for it. They want it to be pretty, and they want it to go through best practices, as they know how to do on a high level. But a deep dive into the backend really influences how your end experience turns out.
Kyle: One of the things that I really like about the way we work at MentorMate, is that we like to bring everyone into the same room. So, from the Reemo side of things, we brought people from hardware development, business development, and marketing teams in the room. We had their whole team. We try to get everyone in the same room so that considerations from all viewpoints and all perspective are taken into account.
We find that getting everyone in the same room can get people thinking about things in a different way. I really liked, on this project, how we had perspectives from every corner of the business. I think that worked really well with Reemo.
Annika: Reemo shifted too, in their overall intent for their product. They’ve moved much more toward healthcare with what this product actually will do.
I think that was an interesting learning process as well: exploring what the different applications of the product could be.
Future of Wearables
What role do you see wearable technology playing in the next 6-12 months?
Annika: In the next six to 12 months, I think we’ll see more of the general population begin adopting wearables, as far as the Apple Watch and even Android watches. There is so much publicity around that area. People who didn’t buy smart watches when they first came out will start to buy them now.
I think the technology role is going to be more about teaching what these at-a-glance moments mean. I think that we are going to see people start to get used to the idea of having this device that does a few very specific things but offers a lot of benefits in small moments, when it’s needed. I don’t know whether for the general public it will be more than a learning curve right now.
On the business side of things, I think the future of wearables is much more interesting. We have a particular focus on healthcare at MentorMate, and we see wearables coming much more into focus as a way to provide visibility into how people work and act and what their health is doing on a day-to-day basis.
Then you have the mobile aspect that provides meaning to the data collected through wearables. A lot of businesses are finding out how to take very specific points of data collection and turn them into something meaningful for their clients, through transparency, additional touch points, and better business quality. It’s an interesting place, and I expect to see more growth over the next year.
Kyle: The thing I think is exciting, and I think it goes beyond just wearables, is connected devices – the Internet of Things. People are starting to think outside the box. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Luna sleep mattress or sleep cover. Luna is something that you put over your mattress, and it monitors your sleep. You don’t have to wear anything.
I think we’re going to start to see more devices like this, and some will be laughable, out there, crazy, and unnecessary. But, some will also be very meaningful and provide a lot of valuable insight. You don’t have to do much, it runs in the background, and you can start to get some valuable insight into your life and how you live. That, to me, is the most exciting part.
The part that I think is missing, and I’m not sure anyone has quite nailed yet, is actually providing actionable advice that will compel people to change: showing a bar graph, a bio chart, or something like that is one thing, but actually getting someone to go to bed an hour earlier because it means that you are going to live longer, be healthier, or have clearer skin. Actually providing valuable insight that is going to get people to change is the secret sauce that I don’t think anyone has quite figured out yet.
Right now, consumption and regurgitation of data is getting more and more beautiful and user friendly. But, actually getting people to change their behavior, that’s the thing that I hope to see. I don’t know if it’s going to happen in six months, a year, or ten years, but actually using these devices to change people’s lives – that’s what I think is most exciting.
Annika: I think this has to do with the learning curve too. People need to understand how people will actually interact with wearables, and the people buying the wearables need to understand what benefit they’re actually getting from them.
I think I’m already starting to see a shift in the overall aesthetic of wearables. There’s a boundary; at least for me, I want my wearables both to provide value and to be something I would actually choose to wear from a personal fashion perspective.
I’ve started to see more opportunities for pre-orders for things like Ringly, which is a pretty cute ring that has a chip in it that provides feedback to a mobile app. It will vibrate once when you get a text message, or it will vibrate twice when you get a call. There are other jewelry-shaped wearables that don’t look like technology, but you can use them to send out a panic call or get your text messages.
There’s tension between providing value for people who are accepting of tech, and want it regardless of the overall aesthetic of the device, and trying to push further to reach people who don’t really care about it so much but could get value from it if they accepted it as part of their life – like the people who would never have worn a Fitbit because the Fitbit didn’t look the way they wanted.
Kyle: Oftentimes, these wearable devices are targeting those who have money and the means and who are curious about their data. Wearables aren’t actually expanding outside this market.
However, once you can start to impact people who don’t have the means, aren’t tech-savvy, or maybe don’t even have a smartphone, then you can start to extend and push the boundaries.
Annika: Most people don’t even download a new app every month. If you look at the average number of applications downloaded on a person’s smartphone each month, it’s most often zero. I’m curious to see how people break through that barrier when it comes to wearables.