Hands not wrists

Wearables, more particularly smart watches, seem so obsessed with technology that they don’t understand why people have used such devices before.

Then companies wonder why their device usage drops and their sales fall.

This post is about embodied cognition and privilege.

It’s about know why someone chooses to keep using your device.

Why wristwatches?

To tell the time.

A simple use case.

But that actually doesn’t explain wrist watches.

It explains the need for the visibility of clocks and is the opening question for why a person needs to know the time.

Wristwatches exist for many reasons.


The earliest wrist watches are fine engineering made for people like Queen Elizabeth I to show the cleverness of makers to rich people.

As such they’re objects of supplication in the hope of getting access to privilege and wealth.

The watch shows the position of power of the wearer. Their manufacturers hoped to gain access to wealth through reciprocation and visibility of their gift.

This is still very apparent in so many shots of big expensive watches in Amazon’s The Grand Tour.


There is a growth in the use of wrist watches in the 19th century for engineers as part of the Industrial Revolution, for example amongst Royal Navy mechanics.

Their needs are twofold:

  • The need to have hands free to use tools
  • The need to quickly view accurate timing information

The pocket watch, as generally employed before that period, is useless. It blocks the use of hands or creates an inefficient interaction.


Pocket watches did not die out in the 19th Century. They continued and the reason for that is partially to do with construction problems (exposed watches became clogged by dust and other pollutants) but mostly to do with privilege.

The privilege of free hands

Humans have been tool makers and tool users for centuries. This has created a highly embodied sense of meaning about having something in the hand or near to the hand.

  • Labour: the need to do a job, requires tools in the hand.
  • Privilege: the lack of need to do a job, does not require any tools in the hand.

So empty hands are a mark of wealth. Hands free to choose whether to have something in them or not. Free to choose if the tool is serious or playful.

Pocket watches allow a person to choose to look at the time when they want and because their hands are free of other tools.


One of the biggest breakpoints in wrist watch use and a time that shattered the pocket watch for wealthy, wrist watches for engineers dichotomy was World War One.

The creeping barrages that were part of the assaults on the Western Front required exact timing by the officers. The artillery was ranged and timed to sequentially attack a line that advanced in front of the troops. The officers needed to know when to move forward. The officers needed to climb ladders out of trenches and hold weapons. The wrist watch was the best solution.

Officers were upper class. Their pocket watches were now both objects of frivolous privilege and actually dangerous to the owner’s survival.

So the wrist watch became a more universal design. Appreciated by people of all classes.

Hands not wrists

What this comes back to is that the wrist watch is not really about the wrist. It’s about what’s in the hands or not.

Understand the user’s needs by why they need to have information close to the hand (this is all in that ancient embodied area of tool use and knowledge) and what they need to do with their hands.

  • Some people might want free hands. This goes back to the privilege of non-tool use.
  • Some people might want more information held in an easily glanced at way.

You are designing in the whole area of human reach. It’s a space of doing and knowing. The hands are the key.

Hands not wrists defined the past meaning of watches and they define the future too (for now).



Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. www.linkedin.com/in/alastair-somerville-b48b368 Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX

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Alastair Somerville

Alastair Somerville


Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. www.linkedin.com/in/alastair-somerville-b48b368 Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX