What will make smart watches tick?

What new experiences can we expect as technology moves to the wrist?

Wearables in general and smart watches in particular has been on the horizon for quite some time now, and during the recent months they’ve started to mature as mainstream products. Thanks to Apple Watch and Android Wear, you no longer have to be a fitness or notification connoisseur to consider a smart watch.

Despite progress, there’s still something missing in the story of smart watches — the broad and value-adding experiences unique to the form factor. Early efforts often start with building on existing conventions, and current smart watches often means scaling down regular apps to the smaller screen.

As champions of the two dominating mobile platforms, it’s no surprise the respective Apple Watch and Android Wear products are tightly integrated with their eco systems. They even rely on a smart phone for connectivity, and are also strongly influenced and guided by the phone.

The potential of smart watches is something bigger. Our behavior with a watch is nothing like the behavior with technology we can choose to leave in a bag or at home. Smart watches should be designed for always being on the wrist — and as a companion to you, rather than a companion to your phone.

The companion watch

What is such a companion and more interestingly — what’s the difference compared to the smart watches of today? Inspired by work in our studio we created a few examples of our thinking related to communication in particular. Using Android Wear as a starting point, we also got a helping hand from our friends at People People who had been exploring the physical form factor for smart watches (shown below).

#1 Communication on your own terms

The smart phone, with its limited text input mechanisms, has been driving the way we communicate, for example through abbreviations, pictures and stickers. They are now natural ways for communication. Is voice input and biometric data the only equivalent for smart watches?

While they may be convenient or cool for many occasions, they’re socially awkward or impractical elsewhere. Responding to a message while in the line for a coffee or at a meeting? Sure, voice is possible but not probable. It’ll be essential to offer alternative ways for the smart watch to be used as a device on its own terms.

Canned Messages shown above is based on the idea that the kind of communication you would want to do from your wrist is very practical. If you want to chat about life with your best friend it can wait until you’re back home, while to the point messaging that you are late has to be done here and now.

#2 A sense of completion in every use

Getting a smart watch means committing to be more reachable. But constantly being notified without the ability to act appropriately is a disruption rather than a relief. New notifications or incoming calls are pinging you for attention in whatever situation you’re in — how to gracefully handle them?

Remind me explores more refined control over communication asking for your attention. Receiving a call you can’t take right now? Set a reminder for when it’s appropriate to respond to it. Such a context is not only determined by time — what about simply associating it with when you pick up your phone again (and be reminded on the other device). There’s a reward both in the effortless interaction and the ease of mind of having handled the notification.

#3 Multi-tasking for the real world

We’re used to our interactions with technology being a binary yes or no, which in turn influences our own behaviors while we’re using it. Either you answer a call, or you don’t. But life outside the screen has nuance and you gradually move between situations, you just need a moment of time to adjust. A watch on the wrist needs to take this into account to an even higher degree than other technology.

Hold on! is the middle ground between yes or no. It connects the call but let’s the caller know that you’re soon ready to talk, but it will take some time for you get out of the current situation (switch rooms, find a good spot to talk in, and so forth).

Opportunities on the wrist

These concepts starts to showcase the difference in user needs between a watch and a more typical mobile device. Even if apps and mobile phones are designed for mobility, the watch needs to strike a different kind of balance between being at hand and being out of the way. Through these tensions the opportunities in designing for the wrist starts to emerge:

Always present

A watch is always present, but can never be annoying. Since the user can’t turn it face down, a different kind of flexibility is needed so it blends with daily life.