• Designing the Stress Watch

    Last year, I worked with Kendra Markle, an expert on behavioral change, who worked with Kaiser Permanente and with BJ Fogg at Stanford’s Persuasive Technology Lab. Together we designed an executive watch to help business people become more productive and healthier by managing their stress. I’d love your feedback on our design!

    Stress makes you stupid

    Chronic stress raises blood pressure, causes insomnia, impairs concentration–it makes you stupid. When the flight or fight response system is activated it shuts down digestion and cell growth, suppresses the immune system, and overrides higher brain function. This system was optimized to prioritize outrunning a saber-tooth tiger, but living with chronic stress day after day may be just as lethal.


    There are many stress management techniques, but few of us have the presence of mind to apply them in the moment. Like daily medication adherence, stress management may be one of the biggest areas of opportunity in connected health. I say this because stress is easily sensed, productive interventions are known, many people suffer, and co-morbidities abound (meaning, stress is associated with many other chronic diseases).

    Managing stress is a tractable problem

    There are several ways to measure stress, for example Affectiva’s Q Sensor, also out of the MIT Media Lab, measures Electro Dermal Activity (EDA) or the conductivity of the skin. Another soon-to-launch product from MyBasis combines EDA with pulse-rate-variability, temperature, and accelerometry. The problem with these inputs, however, is that they only detect if we are excited or not — and typically lack the sensitivity to differentiate positive excitation (when we’re laughing or learning) from negative (when we are scared or stressed). By recognizing facial expressions we can add another layer of depth to the data, known as valence. Using sensor fusion to combine data from the wrist (excitation) with the data from the face (valence) via any camera found on smartphones & laptops, we could precisely and continuously assess when a person is stressed.

    Pixels-on-your-wrist are increasingly viable

    With Apple’s Nano, Fossil’s Bluetooth watch, Sony’s LiveView, and Motorola’s MOTOACTV improvements in low-power wireless, lower-power displays (think e-ink), improved battery and charging standards (think induction) are breathing new life into the category. As a designer, I’m excited about these developments because the wrist is an ideal place for a glance-ability and motivational behavioral feedback loops.

    The design challenge for the stress-watch is about information encoding and subtlety.

    Even when you have realtime, robust stress-sensing, long battery life, and a svelte thin form factor, the interaction still needs to be simple and useful. Can we really design a product that people will be proud to wear, and that can help people cope with and moderate their stress?

    The advantage of using the wrist is that it’s always one meter away from your eyes. This disadvantage of the wrist is that everyone else sees your watch too. So, an important design challenge is how to encode the information–to make your stress camouflaged through color, pattern, opacity, focus, etc. An ideal display would provide a continuous ambient view of the time and your stress level, obfuscated. We experimented with many encodings, one of my favorites simply changed the watch face design from complex-Cartier to zen-simple Movado to indicate more or less stress.

    The Interaction flow uses your wrist, your phone, and a learning system to select the right interventions for you.

    When you’re very stressed, the watch might subtly vibrate to prompt your attention. Then just tap on the face to see a mini stress-management technique like a breathing exercise, stretching suggestion, social distraction or humor–it only takes a few seconds to break down the flight or fight response system.

    With bluetooth, the watch can coordinate and share data with your phone, such as your facial expression and which intervention techniques are most successful for you. This creates a nice learning system to offer you the best interventions which actually lower your stress most quickly.

    Superimposing your schedule

    We spend so much time nurturing our online calendars, why wouldn’t you want another view of the same data on your wrist to help pace your day? The inspiration came from one of my older designs for a clock that wrapped your Google Calendar data around the edge of a traditional analog clock display. If you geo-code your events the travel time to that event is indicated with preceding dots. This design attempts to help people like me who are chronically optimistic about travel times.

    Adding stress history, and the mood of an other.

    The last refinement of the design makes two improvements. First, the morning meeting (in the past) retains some information about your stress level during that time (apparently it began and ended calmly with a lot of stress in the middle). And you can see some history of your stress level over the last 50 minutes via the colored stitching that follows the minute hand. Also the ‘orb’ on the inside of the face shows you the realtime stress of a single co-worker or loved one. Ultimately we decided to remote these features, and ended up with the watch designs you see at the top of the page.

    Given the availability of wrists and the pervasiveness of chronic stress in America, I hope to further develop the stress watch (better positioning would be the executive watch) and bring it to market with some willing customer or partner. Anyone?

One Responseso far.

  1. Hello David, nyour design is awesome.u00a0 We should meet one day…