Building for the
Apple Watch

App creation behind the scenes (Part I)

By Mario Natarelli

Brand Intimacy Rankings Confuse and Amaze

“Double check it,” I said sharply to Steve, my colleague. “These results can’t be right.” My reaction occurred last winter, as we were reviewing the rankings of our annual study on the world’s most intimate brands. Apple ranked first and amazingly, it was 10 times more intimate than the following ranked brands in our Brand Intimacy Study, compiled from more than 20,000 consumer stories we analyzed.

Fast forward to January of this year, as pundits were starting to claim Apple’s best days were behind them, again. Against this backdrop, Tim Cook debuted Apple Watch to much fanfare. Some journalists immediately christened it as the company’s most intimate device (see Steven Levy’s article, “Apple Gets Intimate”).

As the Brand Intimacy Agency, we saw these claims as a call to action. Excited by the opportunity to experiment with a new, pervasive, integrated and intimate technology, our agency of strategists, engineers and designers wanted to get fully immersed. We started by embracing the idea of developing a new app specifically for the Apple Watch. Our first challenge (without knowing much of what the hardware could do) was to decide what kind of app would make sense for us to create.


One of the benefits of having a network of offices is that we can poll employees and integrate their diverse perspectives and input. After a weekend of preparation and research (filled with pizza, coffee and chips), we broke up into teams and held sessions to hash out our ideas.

A post on MBLM’s BrandOS announcing the network initiative.

Our concepts ranged from apps that bring photo milestones to your wrist based on context or date specific triggers to a simple moodring (remember those?) app that gathers your bio, pulse and communication data to assess and chart your aura.

Although these ideas had strong potential, we settled on the idea of an app that could bring you peace of mind regarding those closest to you. The team called it “iSafe” (a terrible name, more on that later!), as a way to use the Apple Watch to gracefully tether you to your loved ones by using geo, communication and bio data. With all votes cast, we toasted the winning team.

Left: team briefings and presentations. Middle: various concepts. Right: the winning team.

Hack Week for Developers

With the release of the software development kit (SDK) it was time to get serious about creating software for the Apple Watch. We knew there would be many limitations based on the hardware, screen and battery capabilities. What we didn’t expect was the vague details in the SDK (compared to the iPhone). We discovered we’d be flying blind in many ways. Our teams in NY and Toronto began the process of developing the programming stack, a term used to describe the software architecture of the app. What was fascinating was observing how quickly an app for something so small required a sister app on the phone and services in the cloud — not small, in fact.

Early doodles for message flows.

What Apple would “allow” on the watch became the elephant in the room. Would bio data be accessible and shareable as core features like location/maps? Questions here, questions there…all unanswerable.

For the sake of our sanity (and expediency), we decided we couldn’t second guess Apple. We made some major assumptions and moved forward. So forward we leapt, blindly.

Roadblocks: Swift and a
New Programming Language

iOS programming wasn’t a strength of our company though some of us had Objective-C programming experience. We decided to jump to Apple’s new programming language called Swift, which was showcased with the Apple Watch, since it was clear that Apple was betting their future on it.

More early doodles for message flows.

The learning curve was steep; the SDK had changed from the initial release in profound ways that caused many of our initial learnings and attempts to be scrapped and recreated. Painfully.

It felt like learning to speak a new language without the benefit of hearing it spoken. We couldn’t rely on forums or blogs or any existing examples for guidance, tips or tricks. The examples cited by Apple or featured in the demos and videos were difficult to reconcile with what was contained in the SDK.

We then proceeded by dividing the development team into three groups and tasked each with an area of focus. Team 1 developed core app and communications services to run on the iPhone. Team 2 worked on the APIs for the Apple server and authentication, and Team 3 had the communication between the phone and watch to address.

A high-level software architecture emerges.

The results of our first hackweek were promising. The team enjoyed using Swift. Although challenging at first, everyone saw the efficiencies of the new programming environment, its ease with collaborating and its more modern sensibilities. To the younger team, Swift resembled modern languages more than Objective-C (which feels closer to C++). However, without the hardware of the actual Apple Watch, our development stalled since we couldn’t get a sense of behaviors and performance between the watch, the iPhone and the cloud.

Creative Choices

Meanwhile, identity and UI designers were immersed in creating graphics for the new platform. Typography style, size and layouts were needed to accommodate the new alerts, glance and interacting states of the watch. Here, we found lots of inspiration on the web from designers who were sharing their work, from the novice to the skilled and everyone in-between. Our teams created wireframes to help break down flows between users and devices.

Preliminary wireframes depicting message and screen flow.

We were excited to play with the look and feel of the interface itself, which is driven by a cleaner aesthetic since Apple left skeuomorphic design behind in favor of a bold new flatness. After generations of increasing phone display sizes, it was a challenge to work within the constraints of the smallest screen we’d ever designed against. The potential tactile interactions we imagined in a new world order of force touch, crown, button and swipe to navigate were pleasantly dizzying. Without any interface “norms,” established designers felt both free and often lost at the same time.

Another team of writers and strategists engaged in a naming process that brought out a healthy range of debates and discussions. Each round in the process produced more interesting and powerful results. From over 50 candidates, we whittled the options down to the three strongest contenders, each with a short handle or hook.

Dearly (keeping love close)
Tribe (your circle connected)
Purr (the way we feel)

MBLM’s BrandOS screen showing final naming candidate posts for network voting and comments.

Dearly narrowly won the poll among our offices, family and friends, as it was felt to embody best the concept of creating peace of mind with your inner circle of loved ones. People liked that it harked back to the nostalgia of letter writing and the feelings of connecting with dear friends through an intimate, well-crafted letter.

Designers began the task of drawing and creating an appropriate identity to connote the concept. In parallel, interface design, layouts and secondary graphics were now beginning to take on a more refined look.

Dearly identity concept evolution.

Without the hardware, again, it was impossible to fully anticipate the design requirements and refinements. However, we continued to build a comprehensive brand and experience package for the app.

Everything was Progressing Well, and Then Suddenly it Wasn’t.

There was some bad luck for us on the name; the domain was taken. The strength of the name seemed to outweigh domain name availability especially since it was going to be marketed mainly through the iTunes store. Then came the Apple event on March 9, 2015, to detail the watch and build anticipation for orders, sales and developer adoption. During this unveiling, we noticed interface screens and functionality that pretty much obviated the communication layer of our concept. One of the three legs of our stool was knocked out. Absorbing these news fragments, we headed back to the concept planning stages to see if we still had a viable offer.

Screen designs depicting the flow between two users.

While we were trying to course correct on the concept, we learned that a selective group of third-party developers were being given limited yet hands-on access to the watch at Apple headquarters. Though we suspected there would be some favoritism within the developer community, this took the wind out of our sails. People talk about Apple as a walled garden, an idyllic place where hardware, software and services are carefully manicured and curated. Now, we saw firsthand the walls of that garden appearing high and uninviting.

Initial identity sketches.

Steve, the same guy who was recovering from Apple’s landslide ranking performance, came to me with a compelling new idea. To augment our annual Brand Intimacy Study, what if we conducted an in-depth ethnography study of real people using the Apple Watch for an extended period? Brilliant, I thought. Let’s do it! The results we will get from such a study will be more true to life than a week-long preview any journalist can provide.

To me, the results of the ethnography research and our work to develop Dearly were becoming inextricably linked but potentially helpful to audiences looking to develop, or factor the watch in their business. Also, conceding the communication layer of the app allowed us to refocus our efforts on the core idea: an app that allows you at a glance to keep close tabs on the people you love most.

We fine-tuned the concept and revised the user interface and the role the phone played in the setup and features used. A final identity now emerged with the simple hand gesture to the arm, forming the letter “D.” Sweet!

Final identity designs.

The Pre-Order

Unsure about Apple’s buying policies and unit limits, 10 of us woke up and connected by conference call at 2:50 AM EST, to be among the first to buy Apple Watches for our ethnography research participants. Who knew one of the more complicated exercises was going to be figuring out how to coordinate 10 watch buyers in real time with the matrix of watch sizes/types and wristbands factored in? By 3:15 AM on April 10, the watches were ordered; the core team was wide awake and unable to fall back asleep. Yet we all felt one step closer…

One of a dozen successful watch preorders.

Shortly after the watches arrive, we will start the intensive work of finishing the app for Dearly. Our watches will be given to respondents, ranging from 13 to 65 years of age, screened for our research. Some of the topics we hope to explore are: 1. Will users suffer the two-three day adoption curve for gaining comfort in using the Apple Watch, as some of the journalists have written? 2. Will the watch cannibalize an aspect of how respondents use their phones (like the iPad did for the desktop)? 3. Will they integrate the watch into their daily lives? 4. Will users find they can’t live without it? 5. Will it change their use of products, services and, by connection, their affinity for specific brands?

Looking Forward

To take advantage of the Apple Watch’s release, we decided to create a short video to hone the concept and build awareness for our app. By synthesizing Dearly’s essence in under a minute, we were forced to define and articulate its most important features and benefits. Check it out here.

This journey has been a fascinating one for our team. From the broadening impact of learning new terms (haptic, force touch and glances) and new programming languages (Swift) to limiting our design canvas to an inch and half, this experience has truly been paradigm shift.

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To find out more about Brand Intimacy — an essential relationship between a person and a brand that transcends purchase, usage and loyalty, click here.

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