Going the wrong direction

Source: Microsoft Outlook comes to Android Wear smartwatches | The Verge

This is typical of most smart watch apps out there. You have a successful product on the phone so voila! put the same interface on the watch but make it small.

This is wrong. Watches are not phones. There are three very simple reasons for this:

  1. The screens are tiny therefore the fundamental way of interacting with data should not be text.
  2. Input methods are tiny therefore the fundamental way of interacting with data should not be text.
  3. Watches sit on your wrist which means you get one-handed interactions only therefore the fundamental way of interacting with data should not be text.

See a trend there? This feels like 2007 when companies with lovely desktop apps were confronted by the smart phone revolution and simply ported their desktop app to the phone only to learn that hey, the form factor and customer scenarios are different. Companies learned.

Now we are seeing smart watches on the rise (albeit slowly). And we are all going to go through the same exercise of figuring out what watches are good for and what they aren’t. Here is a quick list of the good¹:

  1. Watches measure things. Pulse, distance, etc.
  2. Watches can notify you unobtrusively. This is nice, a short haptic (buzz buzz) on your wrist for an event is really much nicer than the same buzz, dig your phone out of your pocket, check the screen, and decide the interruption wasn’t important anyway.
  3. Using #1 and #2 above watches can remind you to do things e.g. Apple’s watch reminds me to stand up and move around every hour. Yeah! It actually works and is something better than the phone. We have a winning scenario!

The smart phone isn’t going away

Too often when a new device looms the idea is that the older generation will disappear. It won’t. But some of the uses today for the smart phone will decline simply because the new, in this case the smart watch, will do a better job of it. An example — many people run today with their iPhone. This isn’t natural. We’ve bought all sorts of armbands and clothing with oddly-sized pockets simply to carry our phones to record the workout. With a watch this is no longer useful. I anticipate as watches get strong enough to do Bluetooth music that the phone will disappear from workout-land. That’s a good thing.

So the phone will stay in your pocket (or purse or backpack) more often. But it won’t be gone since you cannot effectively create text via a watch. And yes, the person who will reply “but you can dictate a message”… go try that a few times, especially in a crowded area and tell me how that goes. If you’ve ever seen photo-bombing welcome to the new world of message-bombing. Although I will admit to doing a few phone calls from my watch just so I could use the words “Dick Tracy”.

So what should apps do

Smart watch apps should focus on the scenarios that real watches do and extend them. Reminders are great. Counting things works really well e.g. take a stop watch and extend that in new ways. Tracking biometrics is an obvious win; now what can you do with all that new sensor data? Payments, ID, airline check-ins, and other simple transactions are obvious — why do I need to lug out my phone or gasp my wallet to do something simple². Games might work but the current crop is completely violating the first law of smart watches i.e. “it’s not a miniature phone”. I can imagine games that use some of the motion of the arm somewhat like the Nintendo Wii used those goofy controllers we all used for a year or two while pretending we were really getting exercise.

There’s a million other scenarios out there but first-and-foremost start with the idea that this is a) very new and interesting, a computer on your wrist and b) something very old, it’s a watch, what can we learn from hundreds of years of watches.


¹ Obviously not a complete list. If I had the complete list I’d make a bajillion dollars writing apps that relied on the complete list.

² Using Apple’s payment system at the grocery store on my watch is wonderful. I love it. The other day the payment machine glitched and I had to swipe the watch twice. The checker apologized and I smiled and gushed “are you kidding me, I just paid for my food with my watch… this is MAGIC”. It truly is.


Originally published at Bricin.

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