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How the Apple Watch Is Inspiring Better iPhone Apps

After designing for Apple’s smartwatch, some app makers bring what they’ve learned to larger screens.

How the Apple Watch Is Inspiring Better iPhone Apps
[Photo: Flickr user Yasunobu Ikeda]

An unusual thing happened when Choremonster started to build an app for the Apple Watch. The Cincinnati-based startup, which helps parents reward their kids for getting chores done, realized its iPhone app could be simpler.

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“We’re taking away clutter, essentially,” says Paul Armstrong, Choremonster’s cofounder and chief creative officer. “We’re taking away extra steps, taking away extra screens, anything that might seem not as necessary.”

The general consensus about Apple Watch apps–and smartwatch apps in general–is that most of them aren’t any good. Too many developers have tried to do too much, squishing smartphone features onto a smaller screen where they don’t belong. But as more app makers figure out the nuances of smartwatch design, they may start to work in the opposite direction, turning that know-how into better smartphone apps.

Choremonster’s Apple Watch app

One of Choremonster’s revelations came from working with the Apple Watch’s pressure-sensitive Force Touch display. “We wanted to figure out how we would utilize that, because it’s a really cool secondary user interface approach that no other device has,” Armstrong says.

Choremonster decided on using Force Touch to send out push notifications, so parents can remind their kids about unfinished chores by pressing down hard on the screen. (The assumption is that only parents will have Apple Watches for now, while kids tend to get reminders through the Choremonster app on hand-me-down iPads and iPhones.)

The iPhone can’t sense different levels of pressure–not yet, anyway–but Choremonster liked the push notification idea enough that a smartphone adaptation is in the works, probably through a more typical on-screen button. Perhaps that seems obvious, but Choremonster hadn’t really considered it until the watch came along. “It’s using the same idea of the feature, not so much the function,” Armstrong says.

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For Choremonster, even condensing information onto the watch’s small screen led to new ideas for the iPhone app. On the watch, opening the Choremonster app gives parents an overview of all their children, each with their own chore progress bar. “We did it on the watch because we had to utilize as much space as possible, and get as much shown as quickly as possible,” Armstrong says.

On the iPhone, viewing chore status is a more drawn-out process, with a separate screen for each child’s activity. The company is now planning to add an overview screen, similar to the one on the Apple Watch.

“There’s no reason to be precious about space on the phone; it’s all about seeing an overview of the content as quickly as possible,” Armstrong says. Besides, he added, not everyone’s going to have a smartwatch, and being able to glance at what’s happening is important for all users.

Rebuilding From Inside Out

Even for app makers that aren’t directly porting features to their iPhone apps, designing for the Apple Watch can still lead to some “a-ha” moments.

Dictionary.com, for instance, realized that its various iPhone apps could be better at communicating with each other, says Kenny Chen, the company’s director of mobile. In the future, a user might be able to look up a word in the main Dictionary app, and then either add the word to the Flashcards app or jump into Thesaurux Rex for a deeper exploration.

The best way to do this is with “containers,” which allow an app to pass data along in a clean and efficient way. Dictionary.com’s main app already uses containers to send data from the iPhone to the Apple Watch; extending this approach to the company’s other apps will allow them to communicate more easily.

Dictionary.com’s Apple Watch app

“Because the watch is so reliant on that communication with the app, being able to pass data back and forth . . . was a major hurdle,” Chen says. “But it’s also opened up our eyes a little bit, and reinforced the direction we’re heading with our app development.”

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Down the road, Chen imagines that the Apple Watch will also lead to more types of voice input across all devices. While Dictionary.com has taken a text-heavy approach in the past, the smartwatch’s emphasis on voice interaction could lead to new features, such as help with pronunciation.

“Things that we work on for wearables, where voice either feels more natural sometimes or it’s the only way to interact with the device, that’s something we can carry over to the other devices where it’s more powerful and robust,” Chen says.

It may be too soon to call this a trend. Many developers are still learning what makes a good Apple Watch app, and the entire smartwatch category will be easy to dismiss until they figure it out. But when they finally do, don’t be surprised if your smartphone experience gets a little bit better as a result.

About the author

Jared Newman covers apps and technology for Fast Company from his remote outpost in Cincinnati. He also writes for PCWorld and TechHive, and previously wrote for Time.com.

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