Today I was on a panel at SXSW focusing on the challenges designers face when creating apps for Apple Watch and Android Wear devices. I've spent the better part of the last year and a half building different apps on the Apple Watch, ranging from fitness trackers to news readers and collaboration tools. I really enjoyed speaking on a design focused panel and wanted to continue the conversation by sharing some of my thoughts here on what works and what doesn't when it comes to smartwatch UX.
The Apple Watch is both a blessing and a curse for designers. It has a very small screen that provides natural constraints for what you place inside of it. The watch invites simplicity, and welcomes a minimal approach to app design. But it is also very easy to overthink your design and create a complex and confusing user experience.
One of the reasons people complain that the Apple Watch is too slow and that apps on the watch aren't great is that many of them are trying to do too much. We're used to iPhone apps that can do 10 things really well. An Apple Watch app can’t really be great if it’s trying to do more than one of them.
Pick One Feature, and Maybe Not Your Most Obvious One
When it's time to gather around a whiteboard and start designing your Apple Watch app, draw all of your features and start discussing some of your least obvious ones. It’s very likely that one of them represents a better use case for the watch. If you start with the secondary features you might realize that focusing there can actually improve the utility of your overall product.
I think there are two great questions to ask yourself when considering a feature for the watch. Will having this feature on the watch make my combined wrist+phone experience better? Or is this feature simply a better fit for the watch than the phone?
I think that we are moving towards a place where watch apps become standalone. The Apple Watch is already a great standalone fitness tracker and information dashboard. It's great for quick updates and simple bursts of interaction. But it’s also still safe to assume that the user has their phone with them, so an augmented experience that improves with both devices is also important to consider.
What each app does best on the watch will be very different. And honestly it doesn't even need to be an app. Notifications are a core feature of the watch for many users, and providing excellent contextual notifications that a user can take action on is huge win for many apps. Richly detailed notifications are a big differentiator on the watch, and I think that’s an important area for any iOS designer to consider.
It’s very hard to do more than one thing well in a watch app. Screen space is one issue, but there’s also limited context around what the user might be doing while using your app. It’s very hard to build an app that will be easy to use in multiple different situations. Scrolling through a grocery list on your watch while sitting on the bus is a very different experience than trying to scroll through it with two hands while pushing a grocery cart. That's why it's better to solve for one use case, and make that one interaction simple, fast, and intuitive in as many contexts as possible.
Protect The User
One of the reasons it’s so important to focus on a single use case and keep your design simple is so that you can protect the user from getting lost or feeling like they can’t get to where they want to go. The watch just isn’t big enough for bread crumbs or detailed error states or handling issues like that. Think about protecting the user to keep your interactions quick and to the point.
On our panel we discussed the concept of an undo action. How would you undo something on the Apple Watch? Would you scroll down to reveal more buttons, or force press to find a reset button? Or would you just shake your wrist, like the system undo gesture on the iPhone? In reality, none of those interactions work or are standard for this action, and that’s probably for the best because we ought to design our apps such that they aren’t necessary.
One example of very focused simplicity on the Apple Watch are the Activity rings. A discerning user might think that if they stood for 6 full hours on a walk and at the park that it should count as a full 12 hours credit on the stand ring, because 6 full hours is a greater amount of time than 12 partial ones. But the beauty of the activity rings is how simple the UX is. There is only one way that system ever behaves. If that ever changed, it would confuse people.
The same principle applies to our apps too. If you have to invent logic that changes the behavior of a feature based on information the user doesn't have or that isn't obvious to them, then you can't expect for them to understand what is happening.
One of the hardest things to do well in an Apple Watch app is to keep its scope and feature set limited. Usually when you start building the app you’ll be surprised at how easy it is, and that success will lead you to want to do more. Remember that is a slippery slope and take care to avoid overcomplicating your app by trying to make it do more than it should. Avoid the Hamburger Force Touch navigation pattern.
It’s also important to prototype and test your designs with users before shipping the final product. The fastest way to prototype a watch design is on paper. Draw out your screens and see how it makes sense to you and your team. You can actually get really far into your design just using paper or a whiteboard, because of how simple a watch app should be.
One of the lessons we learned while user testing our apps is that even experienced Apple Watch users are trained to tap and scroll and don’t intuitively reach for the Digital Crown as an interaction mechanism. Adding a coach mark or guide post to the screen to indicate interactivity actually improved the usability of our app quite a bit. We actually validated this by prototyping the feature in code, which was a really great way to try our assumption and get it in front of users quickly to see how they reacted to it in a real situation with working software.
Apple Watch Users Are Passionate
It's easy to look at Apple Watch users as just a subset of iPhone users, but I think that’s too shallow of a view of the smartwatch landscape. People that own an Apple Watch and use it every day LOVE that watch. If they're passionate about your app too then you have a great problem on your hands, which is that they want to use the app on their wrist too.
There have been a number of key moments for me that showcased just how much users of the Apple Watch care about the device and its software. I remember scrolling through the App Store reviews after shipping a new watch app several months ago, reading the comments left by people excited about the update. People that were excited about the watch app took the time to leave a positive review. Many included ideas for improvement or feature requests.
Users of another Apple Watch app I worked on are incredibly engaged on Zendesk. Proportionate to the number of users, there are a lot more comments left about the Apple Watch app, and many of them include very useful feedback from people who WANT to use the app. That was really the key moment for me with this lesson. Apple Watch users are clearly using the app enough to WANT it to be better so that they get more out of it.
Remember that these users are motivated to go the extra mile to make the experience on their watch better. I think it’s important to consider that and add watch-specific settings to your iOS app to allow people extra control over the type of notifications they receive on the watch or prioritize content they see on the watch. That’s a great way to keep people using your app who might have otherwise lost touch with it.
A lot of people think that third party apps on the Apple Watch are dead. I disagree. I think that third party apps on the Apple Watch are a big opportunity to delight your most passionate iOS users who also use an Apple Watch.
Apple will eventually ship a better, faster, newer model of Apple Watch and a new version of watchOS. But the principles of design that we apply to watch apps now will continue to serve us well even as people expect more from apps on the watch. Keeping things simple and focusing on doing one thing really well is the best way to make your passionate users love what you made for them, and serving those users is a very worthy goal while you think forward to future versions of the platform.