Apple Watch, maybe you’ve heard of it? No official sales numbers have been released yet, but according to Forbes, pre-orders were estimated to have hit 2.3 million units a week before launch, which is close to half of all sales of the iPhone in its first year. So while it seems certain that the Apple Watch will be sticking around, what’s still unknown is how we’ll be using it. That trajectory depends, in large part, on the folks developing apps for the sleek wearable. To find out what kinds of constraints and opportunities the Apple Watch brings to the design table, we talked to Matt Morey, the Director of Mobile Engineering for MJD and one of the authors of WatchKit by Tutorials: Making Apple Watch Apps with Swift.
How did you get involved in app development for the Apple Watch?
I did a bunch of stuff with the Pebble smartwatch—I had a couple of apps for the Pebble and was part of that Kickstarter project. I was leaning toward smartwatch development, so when Apple announced the watch it was a perfect fit. I was already doing mostly iOS app development and already had smartwatch experience.
How did your work with Pebble translate as you began working on Apple Watch apps?
A small screen, limited functionality, and low performance are characteristics of these types of devices. Working on the Pebble prepared me for the Apple Watch.
What is it about the technology that draws you in, as a developer and as a user?
The disappearance of what we consider a computer. We hear the word “computer” and we typically think of a bright screen in front of your face with a 100-key keyboard. As technology advances, that’s going to go away. A computer is not going to be what we call a computer today. It will be a seamless type of technology that doesn’t have a screen. It will be an omnipresent always-a-part-of-you kind of thing. The smart watch is just one step in that continuum.
So much of experience design is focused on the technology and the hardware, but we seem to be on the cusp of a change where the technology will be in the background.
With the Apple Watch, we’re not sure how big this step will be, but it’s a step in that direction. There are definitely limitations in the current version of the product. For example, there will never be more Apple Watches than there are iPhones, because the watch needs an iPhone to function. We can only see a very small piece of what the watch is going to become right now.
As you were digging in and developing apps for the Apple Watch, what sort of things surprised you?
There are new ways of interacting with users, for instance the Taptic Engine, which taps my wrist when I have a notification or when my wife sends me her heartbeat. This sounds kind of gimmicky, but it represents a level of interaction I’d never experienced with my wife. These little things are where the excitement is. It’s an area of UX we’ve never ventured into or developed or designed for and so we’re given a blank slate. We have to figure out, as an industry, what to do with that.
Are there common misconceptions designers and developers should be aware of when working with the medium?
Yeah: the flawed notion that the easiest way to design for the Apple Watch is going to be to take your existing mobile app or site and just shrink it down. That’s going to lead to unhappy users and a failed experience. Some people will take that route just to get to market quickly. You have to do certain things differently. You can’t show 10 buttons on the screen at once. Hamburger menus or side drawers, which are common on a smartphone, are definitely a no-no on the smartwatch. The design patterns don’t exist because we’re creating them now.
It seems like a lot of designers do their best work when they’re faced with tight constraints, so the limitations you mention might spur some pretty interesting innovation.
With our team here, once we went over the technology and taught them what they could and couldn’t do, it was kind of a mixed response. Some found it refreshing, while others pushed back and were a little shocked. There’s still a little bit of discourse going on about whether or not the technical capabilities exist to do what we want to do with it.
Are you working on anything right now that you’re excited to see on everyone’s wrists?
Yeah, we’re working on an app called Viper. They were big in the car alarm space and now they’re known for remote-start activities. If it’s really cold and you want to turn your car on, you can start it remotely with a key fob. With the Viper app you can do that with your smartphone, but what we’re working on now will allow you to do that with your Apple Watch.
You can perform other accessory features like lock and unlock and the panic button, but the killer feature is being able to wake up in the morning, get dressed, put on your watch, and tap the start button on your watch so that by the time you get outside, your car is warm and ready to go.
You can already do that with a key fob, but that’s just another device you have to remember—another remote. If you can make your smartwatch that intimate device that’s always on you, that reduces friction. Our guess is that by making this app, users will use more of the features Viper offers.
One of the criticism of the Apple Watch is that you need to have an iPhone to use it, but getting back to what you said about the disappearance of computers, smartwatches seem like another step in fulfilling the promise of the Internet of Things, where we can communicate through technology without holding it or staring at it.
Yeah, I think you nailed it there. The fact that it’s such a small screen, I find myself forgetting that I’m interacting with a screen at all. And with the taptic feedback it’s not like I’m interacting with just the screen.
Am I right in thinking that the Apple Watch will have an impact on the way apps are developed for the iPhone now as well?
One hundred percent—to maintain a competitive edge, you’re going to have to consider the Apple Watch at the ideation and wireframing phase. You’re going to have to consider what your smartwatch play will be. If you look the top apps, they’re already doing something with the Apple Watch, it might not be their final or best product, but they’re definitely working on them.