Three opportunities and principles for building winning smartwatch apps

I’ve previously written about 2015 being the year of smartwatch wars. Irrespective of who wins and how it all plays out, I am confident that in the next few years, we will see a wide adoption of a new device in the consumer’s daily life. Mike Maples Jr. of Floodgate penned an awesome post 3 years back involving Technology Waves that’s still a great way to think about how to identify & ride those. As with any enabling tech/platform, new apps will flourish, and we are already getting excited about the possibilities.

So, where do the opportunities lie ?

Today, these devices have small screens (some with touch), haptic feedback, sensors, voice, are tethered to your phone and worn all day on the wrist. Early on, here are the kinds of experiences that feel natural and are the main reasons why people will use them (tweet this — can edit before Tweeting):

  1. Glanceability/Bite sized info consumption — from messaging, existing services. This is why you will stop pulling out your phone every time it buzzes.
  2. Quick actions : Device controls, Faster interfaces for services (Call an Uber, Post to Twitter, Pay using Starbucks/Apple Pay/Paypal, etc.)
  3. Continuous sensing driven apps, especially ones enhanced by continuous or periodic sampling or leveraging reduced friction in taking a sensor reading (due to presence on the body).

As the devices evolve, we will see them go untethered (in the far future, maybe even replacing your phone — to be fair, there are smartwatches that already do it, but it doesn’t feel like they are there yet), and when they can get to a point where they can replace your phone, there will be meaningful use for the addition of inevitable sensors like a camera.

Ok, and what kind of experiences do the apps need to offer in order to succceed on the wrist ?

Basically, smartwatches…

  1. Are always on, readily accessible (more so than phones). The reduction in effort to interact with smartwatch also leads to higher ease-of-use / responsiveness expectations for apps & services (compare Mobile app expectations to Desktop / Web apps). Ergo, apps that appear ‘magical’ due to faster/quicker access and reduced friction will win.
  2. Have small screens + are tied to the wrist. This has implications for how we consume information and interact with the apps. Small screens make them unsuitable for consuming large amounts of text. And being forced to interact with a device tied to your wrist with one finger means extensive touch based interactions are painful. Ergo, Context (timeliness, relevance, personalization) will likely play a big role in building winning experiences — both on when/how much information is presented to user, and on what input options to present via the screen.
  3. Beyond this, building super quick, easy to use apps means leveraging new ways to interact like Voice for input or Haptic feedback for nudges. And if voice is key, so will be parsing and understanding natural language to drive better experiences.

Pulling it all together, and some ideas..

I believe that the first set of opportunities lie with existing services in leveraging the smartwatch to get closer to their user and being more accessible. These are services that can exist without the smart watch, but with it, they get to drive up usage and reduce friction to compete against others.

And then there are services that only become possible because of the ubiquity of these devices and their capabilities. Here’s how you might rethink a group chat app :

Watch based Walkie-talkie service (Orion, Sprint/Nextel do this with dedicated devices). One click to broadcast voice to a closed group. Contextually suggest groups / individuals based on calendar, activity, etc.

On the receiving side, double nudge to indicate incoming voice broadcast, single tap to see it being transcribed live on the screen as the speaker speaks. Shake wrist to have it spoken out loud to you. Or put it in auto speak mode, when you are alone or doing an activity.

Once you are used to communicating with buddies using your watch, start recognizing the content of the conversation and offer up suggestions on the screen after you’ve finished speaking. Quick actions, launch other apps, tie into services, etc.

Build for Apple, Pebble & Android Wear, and monetize with a $5/user/mo subscription for groups over 10 or for premium services. This would make for a great extension to existing chat services and even possibly as a standalone service.

So, who wants to build this out ☺ ?