Effective Design for Apple Watch

How most apps are doing it wrong, and where the real opportunity lies


LIKE EVERY OTHER Apple-loving, early-adopting tech nerd, I’d set my alarm for 3:00am EST, April 10. It was pre-order time, and just a few more weeks until I could finally try out my new Apple watch.

I was skeptical; it was their first major new product category in 5 years, and the first without Steve Jobs’ fingerprints all over it. I was concerned by reports that Apple had first decided wearables would be important, and then tried figure out what they could be useful for. But as a designer, I wanted to understand from firsthand experience where it fit in my life, and how to design for it. So there I was in the middle of the night, feverishly refreshing the Apple store app, tapping in my credit card information. By 3:03am the model I’d selected was sold out.

In the first few weeks after launch day, there was an early flood of apps, with everything from Instagram (check your feed, but only a few photos! check your activity, but you can’t do anything about it!), to Chipotle (burrito button!), to Wunderlist (all your to-do lists, but now too small and laggy to be useful!), to Starbucks (browse and pay for — wait, nevermind, back to your phone!) to a Bible app (read the whole Bible tiny screen while your arm gets tired!). I downloaded a ton, and then deleted most of them.

However, after wearing the Apple Watch for a month or so, I think I understand something of the real potential.

I’ll get to that. But first, let me share a few observations.

  1. The “Taptic Engine” is a new interaction language.
    It feels fundamentally different from the familiar buzz of a phone — there are distinct taps, rolls, throbs, buzzes, flutters — and intuitively, it just doesn’t carry the same meaning as the typical phone buzz when you’re wearing it. Apple seems to know they’re onto something, but hasn’t figured out what to do with it yet; there’s no consistent meaning I can discern from the haptic feedback across Apple Watch OS. And so once the full SDK is opened up, there’s a significant void here for designers to fill with new layers of meaning.
  2. “Force touch” is an awkward interaction, at least until it becomes much more common.
    First of all, there’s no visual indication that the option exists, which levels in the navigation it works for, or what you might be able to do if you activate it. Very often, nothing happens (beyond a subtle UI bounce) when you force touch. So is it a universal menu link? A “go deeper” link? A “create something” link? It seems to be all of those things, at different times, which is confusing.
  3. Even on the 42mm, the tap targets are tiny.
    On the home screen, the icon magnifying effect is a bit too subtle, and even when positioned in the center, they’re never quite big enough to feel like comfortable tap targets. Since your finger is typically pointing directly down to be as precise as possible, sometimes the contact doesn’t register, and you have to tap several times.
  4. The 3–5-second rule is for real.
    Your arm gets tired surprisingly fast. And if you’re using it longer than a few seconds, you quickly realize how frustrating it is to try to use a tiny interface while your other hand hangs limp. Thing is, until recently, watches weren’t very interactive devices, so they never had to deal with this problem. They told the time, and the primary “interaction” was glancing at it. Apple’s “glances” aren’t accessible with just a glance; you still have to swipe around with the other hand. Google had a great insight that watches are either two hands or no-hands — interacting with them actually requires not using one hand (unlike a phone), and has designed some interesting navigational interactions with that in mind.
  5. The Favorites / Apple Pay button has questionable value (at least for now).
    If your favorite contacts on your iPhone don’t have an Apple Watch, the two things you can do from that screen are make a phone call and send a text. You’re better off just using Siri to say something like, “Text Joe…” (which, surprisingly, seems much more accurate on the watch than the phone) rather than going through several steps of Favorites > select contact > tap tiny contact button > choose message type. And since Apple Pay depends on, you know, merchants actually using it, it will be a while before double tapping that button to activate it becomes truly useful.
  6. We need new social norms, or maybe just the old ones.
    Whether you’re glancing at a text message, getting a notification from one of your apps, or checking the position of the planets (you can do that), looking at your watch is still the universal signal of: “We’re done here; you’re boring.” So until we update our etiquette, you’ll have to keep that in mind. Or, we could actually give our full attention to the people we’re talking to, and let those notifications wait a few minutes. That’s a novel idea.
  7. Battery life is mostly a non-issue.
    Apple got lots of bad press about the supposedly short battery life, but I’ve found that even with heavy use, I can’t get the battery below 50% by the end of the day. And as my coworker pointed out, the complaint about having to charge it every night is just silly; you’re probably taking it off and putting it on your dresser anyway, so just put it on your charger instead. You don’t even have to plug anything in.

A new role for mobile devices

A FEW WEEKS AGO, I was in New York City for a conference. It was my second day with the Apple Watch, so I thought I’d try it out for directions. Before, I would have pulled out my phone, typed in the address, set it to walking directions, and spend the rest of the walk glancing between my phone and the street, trying to avoid (crazy) New York drivers.

This time, I just said “Get me to the W Hotel in Times Square”, hit start, and started walking. I didn’t bother with my phone or the Apple Watch until I felt the taps indicating a turn, changed direction, and kept walking (I found out later that it will even do different tap patterns for left and right).

It fundamentally changed my interaction with the city. Rather than watching the screen, I was taking in the sights and sounds, trusting the watch to tell me where to go next. I didn’t bother with my mobile devices until the exact time and place when I really needed to, and it was liberating.

I didn’t bother with my mobile devices until the exact time and place when I really needed to, and it was liberating.

It was then that I understood something of the real opportunity. All this time, I’d never really wanted to interact with my phone; I just felt like I needed to. And if mobile technology could be contextual enough, I could forget about it until those moments in which it really enriched my life.

An example

A great example of how not to do this is Yummly. On iPhone, it’s a useful app; with a few taps, you can find, collect, and share recipes, examine nutritional information, create shopping lists, etc. What can you do with the companion Watch app? Pretty much all of that. And there’s the problem. They haven’t really changed anything except make everything you’d normally do in the iPhone app much more tedious.

But imagine a smarter Yummly app on your wrist — one that sees itself not as a duplicate reference tool, but as a cooking companion. Maybe it would keep track of your shopping list, remind you of the ingredients to buy when you get close to your favorite food store. Maybe it would coach you through creating the meal — telling you which ingredient goes next and in what quantity (maybe even using the accelerometer or other sensors to, say, track when you’ve stirred the flour enough), setting timers for you, and maybe prompting you to rate the recipe later in the evening and remembering your preference. When you want to discover new options or plan your meals for the week, you’d switch to the iPhone app, and the Watch app would now have a distinct reason to exist. The few times apps have done something close to that, it was, as Steve Jobs would say, magical.

The few times apps have done something close to that, it was, as Steve Jobs would say, magical.

Developers haven’t had access to the full range of sensors and controls (that’s coming soon), and most of them didn’t actually have the hardware when they built the first wave of software, so we can’t judge them too harshly. But most of the apps available now do little more than move your notifications from your pocket to your wrist, or give you tiny, annoying iPhone apps. I don’t think that problem is worth a $350–17,000 new product category to solve.

Apple has hinted at the potential in their Human Interface Guidelines, but it’s not clear they really get it either (they probably understand much more than they let on, given the product’s early state).

Designing a truly meaningful app requires, of course, that the Apple Watch and its sensors be really smart. Designers need to be smarter too — understanding what their users are experiencing right now, and the precise moments to intervene.

The real opportunity

If what most apps are doing is essentially strapping phones to our wrists and removing most of the functionality (or worse, keeping it), we’re missing the boat. We need to re-think what smart watches are for, and here’s what I think it comes down to: iPhone is alternate reality; Apple Watch is augmented reality.

iPhone is alternate reality; Apple Watch is augmented reality.

In other words, your iPhone is a destination, a mobile hub for virtually any information you could want, and it constantly beckons you to explore it, learn something with it, make something with it. It’s a window into a vast world of content, and like it or not, it often competes with the physical world.

It’s hard to see a notification there and not do more on the phone — and while you’re at it, why not check Twitter or email? As a platform, it’s generally passive. Designers try to anticipate what you want to do and design the UI for that, but otherwise, it’s up to you to take the first step and tell the app what you’re trying to do.

By contrast, Apple Watch doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) invite you in for further exploration. When it’s meaningful, it’s active. It senses what you’re doing, shows you a targeted bit of meaningful information, and gets out of the way. It’s about highly contextual cues to inform and enrich what you’re doing in real life — right here, right now. And that, I believe, is a fundamentally healthier place for mobile technology.

Designing for Apple Watch is about highly contextual cues to inform and enrich what you’re doing in real life — right here, right now.

A few tips for designers

  1. When you’re designing for Apple Watch, make sure you understand the context for your use case — not just how people will interact with the app itself, but what they’re doing “in real life” around those moments, and when you should intervene. If you can describe the features you’re designing but not the moments you’re designing for, you have more work to do.
  2. Think augmented reality, not alternate reality. The goal isn’t to get people to spend more time looking at their screen — it’s to free people from looking at their screens so they can engage in their surroundings more attentively and intelligently.
  3. Don’t try to make mini iPhone apps. There are a few things Apple Watch can do well, and lots of things it can’t. Play to its strengths and have a highly focused vision for why your app needs to exist in addition to an iPhone or iPad app.

Properly positioned, Apple Watch isn’t about moving your notifications a foot or two to the left. Apple Watch is about evolving the role of mobile devices, moving them out of the way of human interactions and into a truly supportive background role. Rather than creating a competing world to live in, it’s about helping you live better and more attentively in the one you already have.

That vision — at least in its mature form — is something I can get behind.

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