Taking the Apple Watch for a test drive.

We now know Apple will be releasing their Watch in April. While we wait, there continues to be a lot of speculation about why consumers will fall in love with this new product category, which of the features will prove to be the most valuable and how brands, applications, and services can take advantage of this exciting new wearable platform.

This week, I was able to attend a panel in Portland on the future of wearables. About half way through, it dawned on me that not one of the four panel members or moderator had given Android Wear a meaningful test drive. They had all seen it, held it, read about it, but not one had really tried it. And yet, the panel seemed perfectly comfortable speculating for over an hour on what features in the Apple Watch would be delivering a great user experience and how users would find the Watch valuable. This really surprised me because the panel of experts was speculating about features that are available to test run today…on Android Wear.

If you take the time to really try Android Wear for a week or so, as I’m advocating, you can gain meaningful insight into what makes a great user experience and what makes a horrible user experience on the wrist. You get to explore what Apple is trying to do on a platform that has more similarities than differences. (Both devices support stand-alone apps, notifications with actions, watch faces, and health monitoring.)

To get to mass adoption, a device needs to present real value to users.

We can never underestimate Apples ability to blow up the market and take a product category mainstream. To get to mass adoption, however, a product needs to present real value to users. If you don’t deliver real value though a great experience, consumers won’t refresh, recommend, or replace. Look no further than the iPad to see this principle in action.

A common theme among the panel members and and other tech junkiescan be summed up as “We don’t know! There will be applications we’ve never dream of today. No one could have predicted how the iPhone would revolutionize mobile. Who knows how Apple Watch will revolutionize the wrist!” Which is true…but it’s also an easy cop out. Why not put a stake in the ground and have an informed opinion? After using Android Wear for a week, I think it’s pretty easy to get a taste of what is going to work or not work in this new wearable product category. You should really give it a try. (Warning: in order to carry out this experiment, you’ll have to put down your precious iPhone 6 for a few days. You’ll live you poor thing. You will.)

There are fairly obvious things you’ll notice after a week with Wear. You can’t do a lot. You really can’t. On such a small screen, whether using gestural interaction of Wear (or by the scrolling a wheel on Apple Watch), hunting for applications is painful. I can’t imagine users proactively using more than a few applications. Users are going to expect information to come to the surface—don’t design for them to come to you.

The other thing you’ll notice is that there is as much social awkwardness looking at a watch as there is looking at a phone. One of the selling points of any smart watch is that you don’t have to pull out your phone out of your pocket to see incoming information. But looking at your watch has its own loaded social cue, namely that you’re bored. I imagine a lot of users will actually wear it on the inside of their wrist to make glancing at it less noticeable. Which is dorky, but saves you some awkward moments. (And if you don’t want to look dorky, perhaps you should pass on the whole smart watch trend all together.)

This often repeated promise of “not having to pull out your phone” leads me to my biggest problem with the form factor: what I’m calling the notification paradox.

The panel in Portland waxed on about notifications coming to your wrist will reduce the need to take out your phone. There’s this collective notion that somehow bundling a few actions inline with notifications will provide a quick, easy way to respond to incoming messages. And tools like voice or the heartbeat will present new ways of interacting without having to take out your phone.

It ends up being self defeating and actually makes the watch something that is very easy to put down.

Again, you can experience a lot of this on Wear today…and while technically true, it does not create a revolutionary experience. In fact, it ends up being self defeating and actually makes the watch something that is very easy to put down. That is why I call it the Notification Paradox.

You can categorize notifications into two buckets: Important, or those I care about in the moment, and unimportant, those i don’t care about in the moment and actually would rather not see.

If the watch shows you a notification that is unimportant, it’s annoying. It doesn’t fulfill the promise of only important information being surfaced.

Most of the notifications that are important require action.

If the watch shows you a notification that is important, you need to act on that notification. In fact, that need to act is what makes the message important in the first place! If my wife sends me a text to pick up milk and I don’t respond in some way, she’s going to send me the message again and again until I respond. (Obviously assuming some horrible thing has happened to me and that I must be dead or kidnapped.) Most of the notifications that are important require action.

And here in lies the paradox. In order to respond, you need to take out the phone. But when you take out the phone, the value promise is again broken!

You and a bunch of panels of experts will jump in here and explain that this won’t be the case with Apple Watch because Apple is promoting “new ways to connect” — canned responses, scribbles, heartbeats, or voice to respond. Wear supports both canned responses and voice responses. Neither works well. Don’t believe me? Try it out!

Both paths fail to fulfill the product promise—one annoys you with noise, the other has you pulling out the phone. After a while, you start to wonder what you need this watch for and maybe I don’t need to charge it tonight and oops, I left it on my desk…

I think, however, all is not lost: the Notification Paradox can help point us to what experience actually will provide value on a wearable. Let’s revisit our notification categories and provide more resolution. Let’s rethink importance and instead think about what’s meaningful to the user. Meaningful is a nice quality, because it includes important information, but also encompasses information that the user would like to see in the moment, but might not need to be acted upon.

In fact, I believe this is the true sweet spot for meaningful wearable experiences. Information that matters to you in the moment, but requires no intervention. Wear actually does this extremely well through Google Now. Traffic, Time to Home, Reminders, Friend’s Birthdays, and Travel Information all work beautifully. It’s all super meaningful, highly personal information that requires no interaction. Don’t believe me? Try it out!

This is the true sweet spot for meaningful wearable experiences

There are a lot of articles promoting what Apple Watch has that Wear does not and how the Watch will be better. After some real experience with Wear, I think what is more important is to consider what Apple Watch is missing: Google Services. Google Services are a big component of what can make wearing a tiny screen on your wrist meaningful and personal. I wouldn’t be surprised after the initial wave of apps through the app store if Google Now ends up being the killer app for Apple Watch.

My favorite Android Wear application is a simple IFTTT script that let’s me know when the International Space Station is overhead. I never find that little notification annoying; rather, I find it amazing. People are up there floating above us. No matter where I am, when I get that little piece of information, I look up in awe. As designers, we need to take a moment here and think if we really want to continue bombarding users with information at every glance. Instead, why don’t we take a moment to inspire them with a little awe?

I'm a designer in Portland Oregon. www.johncrossneumann.com

I'm a designer in Portland Oregon. www.johncrossneumann.com