Smartwatch User Interaction

Pavlo Bashmakov
Stanfy. Designing Mobile Experience
10 min readMay 20, 2015


How users interact with a smartwatch and what UI components do they use

Interest in smartwatches is on the rise thanks to the recent launch of Apple Watch. Apple Watch sales hit about 2.3 million units just a week before launch. Android Wear and Pebble added another 1.5 million smartwatch units during the year 2014 combined. With all these numbers, it becomes clear that developers should consider the smartwatch as the next computing platform for the new user services. The upcoming challenge is to design a new UI based on yet to be defined user behavior and interaction patterns with the smart timepiece on your wrist. In this article I will try to analyze the current user behavior on existing smartwatches UI and elicit the best points of contacts to interact with users.

During the last year I’ve been using a Pebble Smartwatch on a daily basis. It worked great as a timepiece, notification gadget, fitness tracker, calendar and much more. At Stanfy we even developed the My Calendar watchface and watchapp to fill our needs to see upcoming events from the Google calendar. Recently we’ve also developed two Apple Watch apps. Let’s look at what we’ve learned from all this experience with smartwatch app development and usage.

Time spent per software component

Below I’ve arranged the 6 points of contact of the user with the smartwatch interface. It is sorted by frequency of use from top to bottom.

User interacts with a smartwatch on these 6 levels in order of the time spent:

1. Watchfaces
2. Notifications
3. Glances/Google Now Cards/Timeline pins
4. Quick Launch apps
5. External Display and Remote apps
6. Other apps you can launch from the menu on a smartwatch

Funnel of time spent per smartwatch software component

Let’s dive into each of these UI components.

1. Watchfaces are like NASA’s Mission Control Center

Watchfaces can be customized for a variety of needs. Whether you are traveling, working, piloting a plane or hiking. Each case is unique and, besides time, they might present other relevant information on watchface, like weather conditions, the next waypoint in a route, upcoming calendar events etc.

With a fully custom watchface I could have a specific view of 2–3 things I care about in my life and it is just remarkable. For example, I could see the last message from my loved one, or the online sales number of our latest product, or the current location of my kid on the way home from school.

From left to right: Apple Watch Watchface, Surfline — Watch Face, Pebble My Calendar Watchface

While wearing my Pebble each day I wanted to see upcoming events from my calendar and we’ve developed a custom watchface My Calendar just for this. Then it becomes my watchface of choice, much more convenient than having your calendar on a phone.

Another good example of a custom watchface is a Surfline — Watch Face for Android Wear. It shows tide times, surf height, wind speed and direction straight to your timepiece. No distraction. Quick access to the up-to-date data with just one glance.

Try to identify the right user need and the possibility of it being on a watchface. Do you have something really meaningful that could be constantly on a user’s wrist and provide a real value? If so think about the custom watchface if you are targeting Pebble or Android Wear users.

This does not work for Apple Watch yet. Perhaps there will be a way to make a custom watchface complications, but it will be later. Now look more in the direction of using Notifications and Glances.

2. Notifications will rule your wrist

It is a remarkable channel of delivering small and timely updates to the user. We all use them to get customers back to our apps and increase engagement. Notifications become a new platform for interaction.

Notifications on a smartwatch

The current technological shift is happening towards the highly personalized, data-driven notifications to the user. They should be delivered in the right place, format and at the right time to get more user engagement and provide more value. It is easy to annoy a user with too many notifications but with a help of the machine learning algorithms and continuous measurement of user behavior we could vastly improve user experience by predicting the proper moment to fire a message.

Notifications are the second most frequent UI element that users see on their wrists. With great power comes great responsibility, so you should use that channel very carefully. The first thing that user does after wearing a smartwatch is reviewing her app permissions for notifications, denying all disturbing and annoying apps. Be careful with this!

3. Glances, Timeline pins and Google Now cards

In order to use Glances on Apple Watch or Timeline on Pebble Time user should take explicit actions. Usually, they are one click away from the watchface main screen. It is harder than just raising your wrist and looking at watchface or scanning a last notification.

Apple Heartbit Glance, Google Now Card, Pebble Timeline

For a user Glances are like windows to a more engaging experience with a watchapp. Having such a window your app should present the timely and relevant information within it’s frame in just one tap. Keep in mind that users are scrolling through all these open windows one by one and it means that user attention is limited and shared between other Glances and Pins. Hence, your precious Glance or a Timeline pin would be one of the many on a shared shelve.

Waterbalance Glance and a corresponding app screens

Pebble Timeline is a brand new interface like the UI from Pebble that will be released along with the launch of the new Pebble Time smartwatch. It can be used to display user-specific data, events, notifications and reminders in both the past and the future. It is easily accessible with Up/Down buttons which ensure high visibility for the data it displays.

It shouldn’t be said that your app will do better if you make a Glance for Apple Watch and integrate your information as a Timeline pin on Pebble Time where appropriate.

4. Quick Launch apps

Wasn’t it cool to have a separate hardware button for your app?

On the Pebble smartwatch, for example, the Quick Launch feature offers a way for a user to set up a long click for the up/down buttons to launch selected apps. It is a convenient way to have two apps on a shortcut. I personally set up my Pebble buttons for My Calendar and Misfit apps.

Try to communicate this possibility to the user and probably you will have your app bound to the smartwatch hardware button.

How Pebble Quick Launch feature works

What could be suitable for Pebble doesn’t work with Apple Watch. The following is what Apple says about Apple Watch side button:

People press the side button to access the Friends screen. From this screen, they can call friends, send messages, or interact by sending sketches, taps, and even their heartbeat. Apps do not have access to the side button.

As we can see, Apple preserves this nice, quick access control to yourself. Neither developers nor users are allowed to use the side button in any other way than to get to the Friends screen. Good for Apple ☺

5. External Display and Remote Apps

This category includes the companion watchapps of a smartphone app. Such smartwatch apps usually act as a remote control. Some examples are Music Control, Camera Control, GoPro Remote, Runkeeper, SNOCRU and other activity trackers.

It works like this. Once you have started a running exercise with Runkeeper and started an activity in the app it automatically pushes the Runkeeper display on top of everything on your smartwatch. Because smartphone app knows that you have a connected smartwatch, it could be used as an external display for your activity while on the run.

It is a quite useful feature for the user and yet another channel for extending smartphone user experience to the smartwatch. Do you have something similar within your new app? Use it.

6. Other apps you should launch from the menu on a smartwatch

No, it is not a mistake. All other apps that are not on Glances, not on Quick Launch buttons and not in Notification are really hard to find, access and use. Sure technically it is possible to find an app and launch it, but you usually don’t do this. It is easier to use a smartphone for every task that needs more than 3–4 clicks or taps from the user.

Not quite an easy way to access other apps on Apple Watch, the same story with Android Wear and Pebble

In any case, you will build a smartwatch app for the user because it is a unified packaging to deliver a new smartwatch experience to the user. But don’t forget that in order to be used by the user you should spend more time integrating your core value into watchface, notifications and glances/timelines, riding quick launch buttons or launching as an external display for the main smartphone app.

Other considerations of design and development for smartwatches.

Voice controls and other input/output alternatives

There is just not enough space for solid gesture commands on smartwatches. Sure, single taps and swipes work well, but it is not as simple as on smartphone due to the size of the screen. Thus, developers should look to an alternative input, like voice.

Voice commands and voice text input could be the primary input method for a smartwatch in the near future. It is quite limited now due to a lack of platform support. Only Android Wear provides some level of voice commands integration through Google Now to the third party applications on a smartwatch. Neither Apple nor Pebble have a similar feature in place, but it is known that they are working on corresponding SDKs for developers to use a built-in microphone. It means we could expect access to the programmatic control of voice commands and microphone later this year.

So you have to think and design for the voice input and voice commands as soon as a platform will allow it to other developers. Google already opened such a possibility a couple of weeks ago and you already can take actions just saying “OK, Google, Shazam this song”. You got the idea.

2-Way Audio/Video Communicator — Dick Tracy from 20's

Another possible frontier for the alternative output mehtod is the Apple Taptic Engine. Which enables an app to produce a different sense of haptic feedback on your wrist. Now it could give a unique flavor and feeling of you personalized smartwatch app communication. It is still not yet available for developers, will have to wait at least till the end of the year ☹

Personalized and timely notifications

Previously I mentioned data-driven approach to notifications to avoid overwhelming and annoying users. I just want to emphasize this point one more time. As developers, we should utilize any possible ways of learning about users’ behavior and teach our machines to send data-driven push notifications just in time when users need them and their attention is sharp. I mean — let machines learn by itself on top of the data that your app can get from the user interactions.


Smartwatch is a scaled down, wearable and “always on” personal computing device. It interacts using the small screen, vibrations, and sounds. It’s constantly on a user’s wrist and could influence her behavior immediately.

Watchface is a widely used interface component. Next to that we get user’ attention and provide him information with timely Notifications. One click away we give them a Glances and Timeline pins— a summary and a window as well as an easy way to launch the corresponding app. These are the main interface components we should design for in order to provide value for the user.

In such a small screen and overcrowded notification space, we have to evaluate any possibility of using machine learning algorithms to find the right timing and content for each user. They are not equal.

With the growing computing power of smartwatch and continuous miniaturization of electronic component base voice commands and voice inputs will be a predominant user interface. So start design for voice input and output today.

I’m so excited to see how we will use and interact with a smartwatch in 2–3 years!

I’m @bashmakov, Product Director, Founder and Former CEO of @StanfyMobile — agile software development studio of native apps. We help others evaluate technology, develop and deploy software systems that tuned to work in a mobile and wearable world. Drop us a line if you need a technical or design help with your new and awesome technology product or startup.

Cover doodle by @anatinge

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Pavlo Bashmakov
Stanfy. Designing Mobile Experience

Founder at Stanfy, software development studio. Researching autonomy, self-driving cars and robotics.