The Apple Watch is almost here, and I’m seriously excited thinking about its capabilities and the new kinds of behaviors that it might enable. I’m sure the GoPro application will let you start and stop your camera via tapping on your watch, and I bet I’ll be able to control the roll, pitch, and yaw of my mini-drone by tilting and twisting my wrist accordingly. Apple and other smartwatches will likely spawn a lot of fun new applications, but what about workaday life with this device?
I was a design mentor at the first Watchkit Hackathon in November, and my biggest piece of advice was this: Watch applications don’t need to be simpler than phone applications because the screen is smaller, they need to be simple because of the nature of the device. Functionally, of course the smartwatch could be the auxiliary screen for your smartphone, but if the watch ends up serving primarily as a conduit for phone notifications, it’s a huge design failure.
Here’s how I imagine the perfect smartwatch.
A Constant—but Quiet—Companion
Honestly, I’d like my smartwatch to look like a watch. My ideal smartwatch would have an analog display, look like my Seiko 5 and function like a Quirky Nimbus, which is hopefully what the Tag Heuer/Intel/Google collaboration may look like. The closest major watch right now is the Withings Activité. It’s honest, refreshing, and looks like a watch, which is why the Activité Pop was the darling of CES this year and is currently on my wrist. It only extends the capabilities of a normal wristwatch to include fitness tracking, but it’s also not going to be bugging you with notifications.
And that’s one key: the power of the smartwatch is not in its timely notifications, but in its ability to offer a persistent peripheral reminder of items that progress and add up throughout the day. Just as the calculator has allowed us to perform complex mathematical equations without memorizing formulas and Google has let us offload the mental task of remembering nonessential information that can be easily searched for, these wearable devices can expand our abilities throughout our day-to-day lives by making us passively aware of progressions over time.
A glance at my ideal watch could tell me a) that I’ve been sitting at my desk too long, and b) I can definitely go to happy hour after work because I’m $40 ahead of my goal in relation to my weekly discretionary budget. If presented passively, this accumulated information can help me make decisions using information that I don’t even have to consciously acknowledge. I can be aware of decisions without being distracted by them.
A Discreet Decision-maker
The other key is the smartwatch’s ability to provide context for decisions. Traditionally, wearable devices have given us insight into contextual information about our behavior that we didn’t have access to previously—not only surfacing the information, but also positioning that information in a way that makes it most useful to us. From a data gathering perspective, most Fitbits do little more than pedometers that have been around for decades. The difference between regular pedometers and the now ubiquitous fitness tracker is that Fitbits give us that information in a way that allows us to learn, make decisions in real time and alter our behavior. It’s not the information gathering that makes these things “smart” or useful, it’s the insight that the contextual display of this information provides us. Similarly, smartwatches can enhance our lives by making the invisible visible.
So on my dream watch, what would this look like as a display?
The Apple watch will ship with the ability to display “complications,” which is a traditional horology term for watch functionality beyond the basic hour and minute display. In the marketing images, the complications appear as small sub-dials displaying moon phases and the temperature, but they can do far more than that. These are the primary displays for this passively progressing information, and it’s this aspect of smartwatch design watch that I find most intriguing.
If we took this idea a step further, we could imagine a more flexible solution, with a completely customizable information dashboard. It would be an analog smartwatch that I could set one sub-dial to display my physical activity, a second to display my monetary activity, and a third set to count down to my next meeting. Then forget about it.
What’s the killer app that’s going to launch smartwatches in to the mainstream? It may just be the watch’s ability to leave us alone.