Meaningful design for the Apple Watch

4 min read
Peter Lewis
  •  Sep 1, 2015
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A few weeks ago, I was in New York City for a conference. It was my second day with my Apple Watch, so I thought I’d use it to find my way back from the venue. Before, I would have pulled out my phone, typed in the address, set it to walking directions, and spent the walk glancing between my phone and the street, trying to avoid cabs, cyclists, and the costumed characters of Times Square.

This time, I just said “Get me to the W Hotel in Times Square,” hit start, and walked—never bothering with the Watch until I felt taps indicating it was time to turn.

It fundamentally changed my interaction with the city. Instead of being glued to the screen, I took in the sights and sounds and just trusted the Watch to tell me where to go next. I didn’t check my mobile devices until the exact time and place I needed to, and it was liberating.

I realized 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 when it enriched my life.

An example

There’s a popular recipe app that I think illustrates how not to do this. On the iPhone, it’s really useful: with a few taps you can find, collect, and share recipes, examine nutritional information, create shopping lists, and more.

What can you do with the companion Apple Watch app? Pretty much all of that.

And that’s the problem. They haven’t really changed anything except make everything you’d normally do in the iPhone app more tedious.

“Have a focused vision for why your smartwatch app exists in addition to an iPhone app.”

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But imagine a smarter app on your wrist—one that sees itself not as a duplicate reference tool, but as a cooking companion.

Maybe it’d keep track of your shopping list and remind you of what to buy when you get close to your favorite food store. Maybe it’d 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 track when you’ve stirred enough), set timers for you, and prompt you to rate the recipe later in the evening (and then take that rating into consideration when recommending you new recipes).

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 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.

Photo by Kārlis Dambrāns. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

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

“Designers: understand what users are experiencing and the precise moments to intervene.”

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

The real opportunity

If what most Watch apps are doing is essentially strapping phones to our wrists and removing most of the functionality—or worse, keeping it—then we’re missing the boat. We need to rethink what smartwatches are for.Twitter Logo

Here’s what it comes down to: iPhone is alternate reality, and Apple Watch is augmented reality.Twitter Logo

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.

A photo posted by Kate The Great (@justyogakate) on

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? 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’s a fundamentally healthier place for mobile technology.

Photo by Shinya Suzuki. Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0.

A few tips to keep in mind when designing for Apple WatchTwitter Logo

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 with information. If you can describe the features you’re designing but not the moments you’re designing for, you have more work to do.

“If you can describe the features you’re designing but not the moments you’re designing for, you have more work to do.”

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.

Don’t try to make mini iPhone apps.Twitter Logo 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 2 to the left. Apple Watch is about evolving the role of mobile devicesTwitter Logo, 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.

Header image by LWYang. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

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