Photo: Motorola

The smartwatch conundrum: Simplicity at odds with complexity and size

Last Monday, I had a chance to wear the Apple Watch for the first time. It wasn’t my first smartwatch experience by a long shot: I bought a Microsoft SPOT Watch in 2004 and have since owned several others ranging from a MotoACTV to a Pebble to a Sony Smartwatch 3 running Android Wear.

The Apple Watch offers most — but not all — of the features I have with my Sony and arguably, has a more elegant interface. Apple’s big advantage here is complete control of both the hardware and software experience; particularly with how well the watch integrates with a connected iPhone. At its core, however, it does most of the same things your phone already can do; just like an Android Wear watch or a Pebble. The watch brings a convenience factor though. Presumably, you can spend less time on your phone because certain glanceable information is available on your wrist.

There’s one commonality with all of these devices however and has to do with the challenge of bringing simplicity and value to the wrist without adding complexity. If an activity takes too long to do on a watch, for example, or requires too much engagement, you’re likely better off just pulling out your phone for a better, faster interaction.

Bringing value to the wrist

Therein lies the challenge: How to design a software platform and apps so that the watch is a compelling experience.

This thought came up over the past weekend as I recorded the MobileTechRoundup podcast with my co-host, Matthew Miller. The full episode is available here, but the relevant part is when Matt asked me what I thought about using the Apple Watch. After a momentary pause, I suggested that it’s a bit complicated with a pair of buttons — you push the digital crown in to switch between your watch face and home screen filled with apps — and various screen swipes; some of which bring up information only when you do so from the watch face. Ironically, just a few hours after speaking on the podcast, ZDNet’s Jason Hiner wrote a lengthy piece echoing my thoughts.

This isn’t to say the Apple Watch (or similar devices) won’t sell well, nor do I consider the software to be bad. It simply illustrates the design constraints of a small, connected screen that every smartwatch user faces. It’s like trying to cram today’s connected mobile experience into a flip phone from 1999. There’s only so much room to work with so you need to either have many “off-screen” items and expect buyers to swipe, swipe, swipe, or you can to clutter up the display with menus.

Neither is ideal but having experienced the latter with Android Wear, I’m leaning towards the former as a slightly better current solution. When I first got my Sony watch for example, launching an app required scrolling through a vertical list. Add a bunch of apps and you can imagine the issue as illustrated here by ArsTechnica, showing how to launch apps.

Google eventually improved Android Wear to show your most often used apps at the top of the list but lists and smartwatches don’t make for good friends. You can also say “OK Google, start [app name],” which is helpful and shows promise. And there are already third-party app launchers for Android Wear; helpful from a user experience standpoint, but the fact these watches even needs one further illustrates my point.

Apple took a completely different approach with apps on the watch but it too isn’t ideal. In my brief time wearing the Apple Watch, I was overwhelmed with all of the little round icons on the small display; and there might have only been 20 or so. None had names underneath them — again, the small screen constraint comes into play — so you’ll have to focus on colors and icons to kick off an app. Considering that I already have similar looking app icons on my iPhone, that’s a bit concerning.

Apple Watch apps

I suspect that some new smartwatch owners, regardless of make, model or platform, are going to be a bit disappointed as a result. The idea is that the watch should give you some time back because you don’t have to pull out the phone, unlock it and then absorb or take action on new information. Pebble Time actually has a bit of an edge here since the feature set isn’t quite as robust as either Apple Watch or Android Wear devices; the idea of managing notifications, events and communications through a time-based system is fairly intuitive.

Pebble Time

This doesn’t all mean the smartwatch category is a bust. Far from it, as I wouldn’t be surprised to see smart wearable device sales rise from an estimated 4.6 million units in 2014 to 18 million this year, with Apple Watch quickly nabbing more sales than those watches running Android Wear. And the software will be tweaked over time, making for a better experience.

How might the next crop of smartwatches become easier and faster to use? A heavier dependence on voice control is one likely scenario but that’s just an extension on what exists today. You can start apps or get information from the Apple Watch by asking Siri for example, although surprising, Apple reps told me that Siri won’t speak back to you; you’ll have to read the watch screen.

Smart watches need to get smarter

Further combination of sensors, context, and personal information is another.

By understanding that I run every afternoon, for example, a smartwatch could automatically start tracking my pace, distance and route in a watch app when a sensor detects that I’ve started my workout. Parking near a coffee shop that I frequent — and knowing that from a GPS sensor — could surface the store’s payment options. These types of intelligent “app opening” scenarios could reduce user interface complexity on the small screen by turning the watch into a truly smart wearable assistant.

In the meantime, the challenge is set before the platform and app makers. How do you create simplicity and value in smartwatch interactions that will help keep the phone in a pocket? I’m excited to see what developers and device makers come up with as we really get started in the smartwatch era.