XXIV.6 November + December 2017
Page: 56
Digital Citation

All the world’s a stage: What makes a wearable socially acceptable

Norene Kelly

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If William Shakespeare could time travel to the present, it's hard to say what he would make of the small computers and electronic devices we carry and attach to our bodies. Regardless, one of his observations captures very well the human-computer interactions that permeate 21st-century life: "All the world's a stage." While the world since Shakespeare's time has changed dramatically, people still are and always will be social animals. As ever, we put on performances for others and ourselves.


A key preparation for this performance happens every morning: getting dressed. You choose your clothes based on what you are doing that day, who you will be seeing—who will be seeing you. You have a certain choice of clothing in your closet based on the possibilities your life presents. Why certain clothes exist in your closet is dependent on many factors, like their color and price, which are in turn affected by other factors, like your personality and income. But preparation for a day's performance is not just about clothing. It is also about your hair, and perhaps jewelry and cosmetics. It may involve moderating or altering how you smell. You may have made a permanent change to how you present yourself to the world, such as a tattoo, which you may decide daily whether to show or conceal. In fact, this morning ritual taken in its entirety is known as getting ready—ready for one's role in the social world [1].

back to top  Insights


Clothing, hair styles, cosmetics, and various accessories date back millennia. Today we have a new category of objects that we may choose to put on our bodies, which are quite different from previous choices: wearable devices. We can wear a watch-like device that does far more than tell time. We can stick something in our ear so that we can carry on a conversation with someone on another continent while our glassy eyes barely register the real live people in our midst. We can record video snippets with spectacles while calming the mind with a brain-sensing headband.

So what makes it OK, or not OK, to put on a certain wearable? Google Glass was a distinct lesson in how people can harshly reject this new category of technology. Within a year of its release, backlash included the "Stop the Cyborgs" anti-Glass campaign, and the term glasshole arose to castigate people who wore a device that could surreptitiously record others. Given that the social norms and mores about these devices are just forming, how does a person decide whether a particular device should be part of one's performance on a particular day or in a particular setting? These are the kinds of questions and problems that drive my research on the social acceptability of wearables.

back to top  Watches and Earpieces and Headbands, Oh My!

A wristwatch is the closest cousin to the new world of wearables. Initially, wristwatches were worn only by women, at the end of the 19th century, as small clock faces attached to bracelets. Men stuck to their gold pocket watches until after World War I, during which time pilots and artillery officers donned trench watches. When they brought these home after the war, wristwatches became acceptable for men to wear. By the 1930s, wristwatches had taken over pocket watches. In the 1970s, digital displays became popular, and in the 1980s, the bright, inexpensive Swatch was a hit. As with sunglasses and handbags, designers branded wristwatches [2]. However, by the turn of the 21st century, the mobile phone was becoming the timepiece of choice. Younger people especially have been less likely to wear wristwatches. But once again, change is afoot. Apple Watch and fitness trackers have more people returning to wrist-worn devices.

Given that the social norms about these devices are just forming, how does a person decide whether a particular device should be part of one's performance on a particular day or in a particular setting?

A wearable that resembles a wristwatch will of course garner high social acceptability—regardless of what one thinks about its aesthetic appeal, it breaks no taboos. But what about a wearable that looks unlike existing technology, that perhaps even makes its wearer look less human? Or a wearable that, like Glass, can secretly record people? What about wearables that can be a hazard on the road or elicit rude behavior?

back to top  To Build a Measure

To measure a wearable's social acceptability, I developed a survey called the WEAR Scale, for WEarable Acceptability Range. I implemented an established multistep process for its development, including qualitative interviews, literature reviews, expert reviews, and exploratory factor analysis [3,4].

Step 1 was to determine exactly what I aimed to measure. By conducting a thorough literature review and interviewing nine participants about wearables and the topic of social acceptability, I was able to define the main terms and the parameters of the scale I sought to create. For example, in this initial step I defined a wearable as a computer or electronic device that is worn on the body (on skin or clothing). My definition excluded fabric or devices inside or under clothing because the scale addresses wearables that are visible. I further defined wearables as personal and personally owned, as opposed to provided by an employer as a work tool. While a general definition of wearables is much broader than this, such focus was necessary for the social-acceptability measurement to make sense.

Step 2 was to take the findings from Step 1 and write possible scale items. An initial item pool should contain about four or five times as many items as the anticipated final scale, because the consequent steps in scale development are essentially a process of elimination. This process thus resulted in 97 potential items. An example of this scale-writing process was to take the interview finding that a socially acceptable device is accessible, affordable, and not in limited release, which became the item: This device seems to be accessible, that is, affordable and not in limited release.

Step 3 was to determine the scale format. Based on the items I had generated, a Likert Scale in which respondents would rate their level of agreement or disagreement with each item made the most sense. The number of response choices should be sufficient to allow for variation, but not so numerous that differences between response choices become meaningless. Six or seven choices are most common for these reasons. I chose six, to avoid a middle "neutral" choice and to force respondents to at least lean toward agreement or disagreement.

Step 4 was to have experts review and provide feedback on the initial item pool. I recruited three experts: Two held a Ph.D. (one was an academic and one worked in industry) and the other was a CEO of a small fashion-forward wearable company. They rated the relevancy of each item to what I was attempting to measure (wearable social acceptability) and also gave feedback on clarity, conciseness, and anything I might have missed. This process resulted in some edits, as well as a whittling down to 50 items.

Step 5 was to choose related items or scales for the purpose of testing the construct validity of what would become the final WEAR Scale. Based on existing research, I hypothesized that a valid scale would be positively correlated with the Affinity for Technology Scale, self-reported optimism, and likeableness rating of a person wearing a device, but negatively correlated with age.

Step 6 was to have a sample of people respond to the 50 items, as well as to the related items mentioned in Step 5, so I could conduct exploratory factor analysis and validity testing. Of course, a wearable was needed so participants could respond to the items about a particular device. To gather the data I needed, I did one study using a Bluetooth headset as the stimulus, and another study in using an Apple Watch and Google Glass. This allowed me to look for commonalities among three quite different wearables in forming the final scale. I chose those the three devices for their diversity of functions and body placement, and anticipated variation in how they would rate in acceptability.

Step 7 was to evaluate the items using exploratory factor analysis, adjust the scale as needed, and test its validity and reliability. The common solution shared by all three datasets (the headset, Watch, and Glass) is shown in Figure 1. This solution showed good validity and reliability [3] and became the final scale.

ins03.gif Figure 1. The final scale for evaluating the three wearables.

back to top  Devices and Data

For the three wearables I tested, Google Glass landed at 3.12 on the 6-point scale, below the median of 3.50. The Bluetooth headset at 3.57 was a bit above the median, and the highest score was for Apple Watch at 4.06 [3]. Interestingly, both Glass and Watch had the same items with the most extreme scores. The scale item that was the lowest scoring was This device would be distracting when driving. Respondents felt that the potential harm that either Glass or Watch could cause as a driving distraction was the most prominent factor in making them socially unacceptable. On the other hand, the highest-scoring item was This device could help people—respondents thought that both Watch and Glass had the potential to be beneficial. This data provides insight for the wearables industry: If your device is a driving distraction, know that's going to be problematic for its social acceptance; and if your device helps people, then that will be a boon to its social acceptance.

An upcoming study will measure three more wearables, with some extra twists, such as altering the description and color between groups to test the effect on social acceptability. Also, we'll be comparing responses from Midwesterners versus people in Silicon Valley to assess regional differences.

Such ongoing research will work toward establishing industry standards. This will help to create baselines for both the two factors and the individual items, which will then aid researchers and designers in using the scale to inform design. For example, if the item This device would enhance the wearer's image scored low, then an important follow-up with survey respondents would be to find out why. It may be the appearance of the wearable itself, or it may be the placement on the body, or it could even be the name of the device. The WEAR Scale is essentially a homing tool that can guide the development of a wearable toward social acceptance.

back to top  Aspirations and Fears

So, back to the world being a stage and us performers. When we alter our bodies or put something on our bodies, what are the main concepts we are thinking about when we are weighing whether we are acceptable for the social world we inhabit? The exploratory factor analysis identified two such concepts—that is, the 14 questions clustered around two factors (Figure 2). Eight of the questions pointed to the notion that in our performance on life's stage, we have aspirations. Thus, an acceptable wearable aligns with those aspirations and is consistent with our self-image. Just as with any clothing, accessory, or body modification, a wearable is a form of communication by the wearer that is directed at other people. The wearer wants the device to be consistent with her or his self-image and to receive a positive reaction from one's "tribe." The other six questions were about fears. In other words, an acceptable device does not raise privacy issues, is not considered inappropriate, does not cause others to perceive the wearer as rude, and does not cause offense or harm.

ins04.gif Figure 2. Two key factors contribute to the WEAR score.

back to top  But What About Looks?

The factor analysis that produced the WEAR Scale suggests that the aesthetic dimension of acceptability is its own construct, separate from social acceptability and deserving of its own measure. So while items addressing aesthetics did not make the final WEAR Scale, some of the 14 items do indirectly address how the wearable looks. For example, This device would enhance the wearer's image does not explicitly ask whether the device is fashionable, but it does assess a similar concept: Is it an improvement to the wearer's image?

Yet aren't fashion, aesthetics, and style important in gauging the social acceptability of a wearable? Well, imagine shining silver headwear that looks like a museum piece; it is a thing of beauty, but does that mean you'll wear it to the grocery store, that it is useful and feels like "you"? Or imagine a black wristband; it may have zero aesthetic appeal, but it would not make anyone uneasy and may be considered just plain or boring rather than unfashionable. Because a wearable can be fashionable but socially awkward, or stylistically unpleasing but socially neutral, the aesthetic dimension is separate from the acceptability dimension.

Figure 3 shows the items pertaining to aesthetics that were part of the original item pool but did not load consistently across devices in the factor analyses and thus do not appear in the WEAR Scale. While these items have not been tested as serving as their own scale for the construct of aesthetics, they would be a sound starting point for the development of such a measure. Such a measure might also reveal sub-dimensions (or factors) in the same way that the WEAR Scale revealed a two-factor structure.

ins05.gif Figure 3. Aesthetic considerations [not included in the WEAR Scale).

back to top  A Changing Social World

Whether reciting Shakespeare on stage or putting on a wearable, you are engaging in a performance—"an intentional action executed by an individual with the awareness of spectators" [5]. As we rush through our daily lives, it is easy to forget how much and how frequently we are weighing the reactions of others as we present ourselves to the world. Technology has been increasingly permeating our lives for decades. Smartphones, while usually not attached to the body, have certainly impacted our desires and fears. Visible body-worn devices will become a greater part of our social world and who we are. How will they change your performance on life's stage?

back to top  References

1. Goffman, E. The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life. Penguin, 1990.

2. Worsley, H. 100 Ideas That Changed Fashion. Laurence King, 2011.

3. Kelly, N. The WEAR Scale: Development of a measure of the social acceptability of a wearable device. 2016.

4. DeVellis, R.F. Scale Development: Theory and Applications. Sage Publications, 2012.

5. Rico, J. and Brewster, S. Usable gestures for mobile interfaces: Evaluating social acceptability. Proc. of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, 2010, 887–896.

back to top  Author

Norene Kelly earned a Ph.D. in human-computer interaction from Iowa State University in 2016. Her dissertation developing the WEAR Scale won a Research Excellence Award. Currently she works from her home office in Des Moines, Iowa, as a UX scientist for UEGroup, a Silicon Valley firm specializing in designing breakthrough user experiences. norene@uegroup.com, WEARscale.com

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