Designing for Inherent Universal Gains

And redefining what a smartwatch can do

FlickType — comfortable typing on Apple Watch


The Apple Watch has come a long way, creating all sorts of never before possible interactions. A great example of one of these interactions is the FDA approved health monitor. Since Apple has gone above and beyond with many aspects of the watch’s functionality, it can make one wonder why a basic and expected feature would leave users with much to be desired — an efficient text input method. Perhaps the reason for not including this basic functionality is due to people naturally adopting different habits when it comes to the tiny computer on their wrist? Or maybe people have changed their behavior because they have not been offered a practical input option? Which one is it though?

People Want More

The research results tweeted by Creative Strategies’ founder points to it more likely being the latter. Checking messages and emails is the #1 task performed on the Apple Watch just like on the iPhone, yet way down on the list is using one of the available tools to send a response directly from the watch. Using Siri to dictate a message is number 14 on the list of common watch actions, and even further down is the use of Scribble. When checking messages is so high on the list compared to responding to these same messages, this means people are either holding the interaction and future response in their head, or they are forced to immediately pull out their phone to respond and offload the mental burden.

More research supporting the theory that this change in behavior is likely due to the limitations of Apple Watch comes from the results of a PEW study. PEW research found that not only checking messages but also responding, is the most common interaction on a smartphone. You could say that the Apple Watch is a unique use case where people don’t have the desire to complete the number one interaction they’re accustomed to on the phone. Nor the natural instinct to start and complete the task of reading and responding to a message in one go, on the same device. What would happen if there was an easy, less cumbersome option to respond to messages directly from your wrist?

After interacting with a smartphone hundreds of times per day (for years!) in the efficient tap typing manner, going back to scribbling responses or speaking to a device as we used to when we actually made phone calls (eek), is odd. How do you feel when you have to pull out a pen and paper IRL? After just a few words it can feel annoying and inconvenient to have to move your wrist and hold your hand in this rigid manner. Though there is a time and place for handwriting, for the most part, it feels like going back in time to a more uncomfortable and less efficient way of communicating. Or what about having to speak to your device? It’s weird enough speaking to a person on the other end of a phone these days, and the odd factor goes up exponentially when you have to do it in front of other people. Not only is there often background noise but it feels like you’re on stage and sharing TMI. Then there are quick replies, which are the easiest and most convenient to use, but they’re canned, so they have limited utility and applicability. Not to mention, you may start sounding like a broken record.

The options given to respond to messages are workarounds based on the watch’s tiny form factor, but can also be seen as evidence that people desire to input text on the watch in certain cases. The tiny form factor is necessary for keeping the watch accessible while on the go, but also makes the watch inaccessible in some ways. As Apple has implicitly shown by the lack of the familiar QWERTY keyboard on the tiny device, doing exactly what has been done on the phone does not always work on the super tiny watch. This is why there’s only handwritten and verbal text input options provided — after-all verbal and handwritten interactions are means of communication that were the norm. That is, they were the norm before we became accustomed to the better and more comfortable way of communicating through a virtual keyboard. So far, nothing has compared to the ease of use and privacy one experiences when interacting with a device this way.

Sometimes you have to adjust the wheel…

So, if doing exactly what was done on iPhones and iPads doesn’t work for the watch, and the old way of communicating doesn’t work for the people using the watch, why not stick with the more modern means of communication and simply adjust the method in order to be compatible with the tiny touchscreen?

Modality Type — text input for Apple Watch

There have been many attempts by 3rd-party application developers to adjust the modern input method to work with the watch’s tiny form factor. Though these attempts have stuck with tap typing, they’ve adjusted the input method to work around the size limitations of the watch. These attempts, which required users to learn completely new, more cumbersome input methods, have failed to gain any traction. The method was reimagined for the watch’s screen size, but comfort and ease of use were not made a priority. In effect, these 3rd-party developers have adjusted the wheel too much, placing too much burden on users.

Morse — text input for Apple Watch

… but don’t adjust the wheel too much.

This is where a universal typing technology can save the day. Future-proof technologies that are so well designed can have inherent accessibility gains and offer innovative and more comfortable interactions for all users. If the new form factor of the touchscreen and accessibility were taken into account when the smartphone was developed, we’d already be typing away on our watches. But instead of adjusting the QWERTY keyboard for the touchscreen, a similar method used for hardware keyboards was applied. Perhaps it was right at the time but now we’re definitely beyond the idea that we have to stick to the hardware keyboard concepts, as users are familiar with the fluid interfaces of touchscreens.

Much like the watch today, accessibility challenges were introduced when typing on a keyboard became mobile and lacked the familiar tactile feedback. So far users have relied heavily on their vision and motor coordination to make up for the lack of universal design, but the watch’s tiny size has made the incompatibility of the hardware-keyboard typing method more evident. Developing new universal technologies with inclusion in mind may front-load the challenges today, but the benefits are well worth it. Inclusive technology can propel the world forward at a faster pace, and improve usability for everyone.

We, at FlickType, have learned from the hardware to touchscreen keyboard incompatibility mistake. People who are blind, have low-vision or face physical limitations enjoy the much-loved touchscreen keyboard on their iPhones today using FlickType. And just as comfortably and efficiently as those that don’t face these same challenges. Universal designs that work, not in spite of screen size and visual ability but are inspired by these factors may be the only way a QWERTY keyboard can work on the watch’s tiny screen.

FlickType — Apple Watch

Instead of placing the burden on the user to hit the right letters, FlickType responds to the user by inferring which letters were meant to be tapped based on the pattern of the taps. Typically, on larger touchscreen devices and hardware keyboards, letter based prediction systems are used. These systems require the user to tap the keys they want, and respects that input by showing the word that corresponds to those keys. If a user has trouble seeing and tapping the right letters, a keyboard reacting to a user’s input by respecting the actual characters that were tapped is unlikely to be an effective typing system. Whereas allowing a user to freely tap out the pattern of a word based on their spatial memory, not worrying about which letters are actually tapped, puts the work on the system to adjust to the user.

On a touchscreen there are no actual keys, so it really is a metaphor. While FlickType has not declared war on QWERTY itself, it has declared war on keys. By taking an extreme design initiative that lets go of the notion of the keys altogether, FlickType creates a typing solution that not only works well for the watch, but will also works well for augmented reality, virtual reality, the Apple TV remote, and quite possibly in other future concepts that have yet to be created. Universal technologies have the potential to redefine the capabilities of the smartwatch category, and beyond.

FlickType is now available in public Beta, and launching on the App Store Wednesday, November 7.