5 Design Challenges That Could Derail Apple’s iWatch

Visionaries at Frog and Disney tell us what Apple’s rumored iWatch needs to be to change the world.

5 Design Challenges That Could Derail Apple’s iWatch
The Nike+ Sportwatch, powered by a TomTom GPS. The relative simplicity of that integration belies the difficulty of creating an iWatch.

By now, the product seems almost like a sure thing. Apple’s iWatch–or whatever it will be called–is thought to have a team of 100 people working on it. And while no one knows how it will look or work, one thing is sure: Products that are pulling the smartphone experience from our pockets will make computing a ubiquitous part of our lives. And ubiquity will bring some of the biggest design challenges we’ve ever seen.


We talked to Frog’s Chief Creative Officer Mark Rolston and Disney Research visionary Ivan Poupyrev for their thoughts on Apple’s blitz for your wrist–namely, that a company most recently focused on “thinner, faster, and lighter” will need to remember a more important point: practicality.

1. The Importance of Phatic Cues … and Sociology

“I think the ultimate vision of computing at its best is when it’s part of life without interrupting life,” Rolston says. “I think we’re still feeling a lot of imposition by these phones demanding attention.”

If the iWatch has any great potential, it’s to change our behavior, to stop that habit we have of constantly pulling phones from our pockets. But a screen that’s always within eyeshot brings challenges of its own. With Facebook, Twitter, email, and countless apps, how do we attenuate this data to reconcile with our practical attention spans? The first wave of defense is that software has to be very picky about what news it shares with us. The bigger challenge, however, is that hardware needs to package this news in a way that won’t demand too much of our limited cognition. It needs to use phatic cues.


“Phatic cues are the nod and wink that we give each other,” Rolston explains. “‘You’re cool? I’m cool. OK.’ It’s the low-level communication we share, the things that are not words. It’s having a computer talk to me without talking to me.”

Scott Wilson’s Tiktok wristband for the Nano set the stage for the iWatch in the common imagination. But it is in many ways a limited device.

Rolston calls phatic cues “the ultimate goal” in notifications, and he points out that we have been getting better at creating them. He gives a lot of kudos to the iPhone’s audio notifications for appointments. You have a meeting at a specific time, with a specific person at a specific place. But the iPhone reminds you of this through a simple marimba that eventually becomes part of your daily soundscape.

That said, “It’s a huge design hurdle,” Rolston stresses. “It’s a design hurdle that requires sociology. It’s not something that designers can knock out because we found the perfect mix of color, shape, placement, and timing.”

Ultimately, the reason we’re always checking our iPhones isn’t our iPhones, it’s that we desire the information they contain. As humans, we’re paradoxically hungry for distraction and offended when our social spheres are distracted.

“Even today, if I’m sitting down with my wife and there’s a TV behind her with the game on, at the moment I’m fucked,” he admits. “She’s going to be mad at me. It happens.”


2. Naturalistic Interface Needs To Crush The App Barrier

No doubt, this hypothetical iWatch will have a screen. (In fact, it’s easy to picture the device as one gorgeously curved, touchable LCD that wraps around your wrist.) But if that’s all it is, a way to tap open your apps like checking the time, it won’t live up to its potential. “The app model is one of the major questions about how it might work,” Rolston says. “Launching that app is a giant barrier when you think about what it can be doing. But you could have those things cued by much lower fidelity UX, like tapping your wrist–or what really excites me: Rather than having UX events cuing functionality, [the UX] is the actual natural event itself.”

If we’re not busy launching apps, what the iWatch could do is theoretically amazing. On your arm, it can enable very naturalistic gestures to interact with the world around you. A skeptic sees such an interaction as relatively lame–waving your wrist at a checkout counter to make an RFID payment. Try to imagine something far more understated (naturalistic). You walk into a store and pick up an item off the shelf. If you choose to buy it, you simply leave the store with it in your hand.

The secondary problem behind these naturalistic interfaces, however, is that they often require something grander than the scope of any one device. They require infrastructure. “RFID payments are really useful,” Poupyrev says. “Still, with RFID payments, the problem isn’t that it’s on someone’s phone or their watch, the problem is that no one accepts RFID payments yet.” Of course, if anyone in the mobile market can convince business to fix the infrastructure problem, it’s probably Apple.


3. Breaking Out Of The Phone Paradigm May Be A Technical Problem

“The way I see it, the iWatch is sort of competing with a phone. I’m not saying it’s not going to work. I’ll be happy if it works out,” Poupyrev says, “but it should be more than simply remote control for the phone. It should be more than just a phone. It has to have something which makes it a device in its own right. A phone has so much that’s already there.”

Naturalistic gestures, of course, could do a lot to define the iWatch as its own platform. But there are still practical concerns with such a device. Is it just a remote that piggybacks off a phone’s processor and data connection? That unto itself isn’t necessarily a problem–most wearables like the Nike+ Fuelband work precisely in this way–until you expect a peripheral to be “always on.” It’s burning its own batteries and your phone’s batteries. And you never know what’s going to run out. “You buy a bag of 12 buns and a bag of eight hot dogs. That’s a pain in the ass. It’s the same thing with charging,” Rolston explains. “That’s a physical barrier no matter how fast we move in terms of making faster processors or smarter logic software, we’re chained to the ground by battery technology.”

He’s right. Batteries haven’t improved much in the last 10 years, and they might not in the next 10, either. iPhones (and more recently, Android phones) last as long as they do only because they’re actually asleep a majority of the time. But to enable those naturalistic moments–the effortless gestures and the vocal commands that can bury computing in the background of our attention–our hardware needs to stay awake and attentive. If the iWatch is keeping our iPhone up all day, it won’t last into the night.


4. The iWatch’s Personality

It’s easy to forget, Poupyrev points out to me, that Microsoft was pretty hot on a watch of their own. It was part of a platform called the SPOT. And looking at the UI, it’s really not so different from many artist’s renderings of an iPod nano on a watch band. Now, there are a myriad of reasons that Microsoft walked away from the project, but the largest may have nothing to do with technology or UX.

“Culturally, a watch is very tricky,” Poupyrev says. “A watch is not a functional device, no one carries a watch for functionality. You carry a watch as a status symbol, because you’re a snowboarder or a diver or you want to impress someone.”

My kneejerk response to Poupyrev is that iPhones were once a status symbol, too–but in reality, I’m only feeding fuel to Poupyrev’s grander point. Any technology eventually becomes pretty boring. We keep it around because the magic gives way to functionality. Assuming enough people buy iWatches, they’ll hit a point of ubiquity–blending in with our greater world. But at that point, will we still want them? The iWatch will need to do something that no watch has done in a very long time–it will need to become something we need, not just something we want. Which brings us to the final, big issue:


5. The True Challenge Of Ubiquity

As we approach ubiquitous computing–electronic platforms that are merely part of our everyday lives–the industry faces a paradigm shift. “When the smartphone first came out, the questions we were asking were ‘Why is this so cool?'” Rolston says. “I liken this to the same stupid questions that people made when we first had plastics, because the answers are really dull when you realize how ubiquitous something’s going to be. They become everything. In a non-sexy way, plastics changed the way everything was going to be.”

“It’s marriage-sexy vs. dating-sexy,” I suggest.

“Yes,” he laughs, “I like that. You could put it that way.”


We’re entering a wearable era when our devices simply won’t be dating sexy anymore. We’re going to be waking up wearing the same thing on our wrist, arm, or head every day. And not only will these products lose novelty through sheer exposure, to be successful in blending in with our lives, these devices actually can’t constantly woo us with their fancy UX. They need to bug us through phatic cues, read us through naturalistic gestures, listen to our nagging all the time.

Because anything less, and we’ll be asking for a divorce.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach