The smartwatch, although still somewhat in the novelty stage but without the geek image of wearables like Google Glass, is one of the next frontiers for app designers and developers.
Fun and exciting for consumers, designing for this new form and situational factor is most certainly a big challenge for designers and developers.
How do we create useful user experiences for such a small screen? How do we ensure that what we want to develop meets users’ needs? What are the most desirable scenarios on the smartwatch for the user? How do we avoid announcing critical or embarrassing information on someone’s wrist that they would rather keep private from the person sitting across from them?
After designing and developing quite a few smartwatch applications in the enterprise space, my team developed a short list of things to keep in mind that we would like to share with you.
1. Get a watch!
As obvious as it sounds: Experiencing a smartwatch in your hands and on your wrist changes the way you think about your solution. In which situations are you getting information from the watch and when would you prefer not to? You’ll experience how personal alerts feel compared to a phone. This will radically affect what you build and how you build it. A simulator simply doesn’t cut it.
2. Exploit the unique qualities of the watch
- Always around, always on – A watch is most likely not forgotten at the desk or in the car (keep this in mind if the watch needs the phone for full functionality!)
- Minimal latency – Within a blink of an eye you can see what’s happening. The watch is by far the fastest way to stay up-to-date.
- A public display – Notifications that appear on the smartwatch will attract others’ attention as well. Make sure that sensitive data is not shown on the first notification level.
- Anonymous consumption – Checking your watch is typically less disrupting to the flow of a conversation than checking any other device.
- Contextual notifications – Watches were made for notifications that push content at the right time to the user based on their context and or location.
- Limited battery life – Watches are small devices… with small battery capacity. You’ll need to optimize how demanding your app is to the watch. For example, depending on the display technology screen designs with white or bright background colors might consume way more power than screens with a black background.
- Unique ergonomics – Watches require free movement of the user’s arms and hands to interact with the application. A travel alert app on a smartwatch, for example, requires the user to put down her suitcase, lift the watch with one hand into her field of vision and with the other hand touch the interface of the watch. In contrast, the dexterous among us are able to hold a smartphone in our palm and manipulate the interface with the thumb of the same hand.
- Interaction options: Beside swiping and touching the screen, many watches provide additional navigation options such as a bezel or a watch crown
- Seamless consumption – Anything that interests the user on the watch can be easily launched to a bigger device if needed.
- Additional sensors – Heart rate, UV, accelerometer, galvanic skin response, ambient light and other sensors can give you more information about the user’s state or environment.
3. Be ruthless in choosing your use cases
When we first brainstormed use cases for smartwatches, we came up with more than 100 ideas. Very few could hold up to the question of why the app on a smartwatch will help the user achieve their goal better or exclusively compared to a mobile phone
In the end, most use cases we selected were based on content that is closely related to time, for example: real time booking of sessions at an event, getting instant feedback on KPIs just before a customer meeting, one click sending of predefined messages or notifications to someone (e.g. if a KPI has been exceeded or missed), medical data that the user needs to be aware of straight away, or flight delay alerts.
4. Notify, notify, notify… But not too much!
Notifications are the main use case for smartwatches. So first design a notification for the user, before tackling anything else with your app. Surface the most relevant details on the notification so the user is aware of any actions needed to be taken immediately. Launching an app directly on the watch is a first sign that maybe your use case is more appropriate to put on a phone. The watch best serves the “instantaneous action” use case and is best leveraged through notifications when information is timely and contextual. But be sparing with your notifications! A sure fire way to get your app uninstalled is to overload the user with notifications. Your app will be in competition for users’ time and attention with many other apps. If they find your notifications annoying rather than helpful, then it’s game over.
5. Design a lightweight experience
Users are best able to evaluate information on the watch with legible and visual content. Providing just the relevant information allows the user to quickly take action. For instance, a screen with a simple data visualization should quickly convey what’s important and provide the user with a limited set of relevant actions.
Keep in mind that interactions on a smartwatch such as acting on notifications and viewing detail screens should be minimal, easy to perform and quick to execute to ensure a lightweight experience. Exposing only one action to the end user at a time will often work way better than giving too many options that force the user to scroll or swipe.
6. Consider the user interface of your device
Each watch has a different UI style, set of recommendations, operating system and (why make life easy on us?) a different form factor. Take the time to explore other applications on your target platform and read the guidelines and online resources that are available.
We’ve curated a set of resources we found invaluable when developing our apps. Maybe they will help you as well:
- WatchAware – A great resource to demo smartwatch applications.
- Natasha the Robot – Great resource for Apple Watch development.
- AndroidCentral: Wear – Brings together a whole heap of Android Wear resources.
- Smashing Magazine – Great design-focused blog with some interesting smartwatch articles.
- WearUI.CO – Great mockups on what could be possible with wearable designs.
I hope the tips that my team collected will help you develop great smartwatch applications and please use the comments section below to let us know how it goes!