March 24, 2019
- Hannah Largen, Designer
When Apple announced its first-generation smartwatch in 2014, it was met with mixed reviews. Fashion competed with function. Users were skeptical of how it would benefit their lives. Critics knocked the battery life and hardware. Flash forward four years, and Apple Watch has sold over 18 million units in 2017, its best year to date. While Apple’s iPhone still makes up 60% of the company’s revenue, smartwatches are beginning to close this gap in the market.
Designing for such a small platform can bring its own sizable challenges. The relationship users have with Apple Watch now brings them even closer to their device. Content and notifications are ever-present, and simple tasks on iOS may become tiresome on a smaller screen. As a result, it’s imperative that product designers properly utilize this new technology to provide a lightweight, functional experience for the user.
Back to the Basics
The first question to ask yourself before beginning the design process is the most crucial: is a watchOS app even necessary? We may be quick to suggest this new platform to a client, but it’s important to initially consider the problem your watchOS app will solve for the user. A successful watchOS app should complement its iOS counterpart, not mimic it. Designers are accustomed to designing an app for responsive screen size, such as from iPhone to iPad. With an Apple Watch app, however, entire features and app hierarchy must be reconsidered. Examine the core functionality of the iOS app and how this function might adapt when presented on a smaller screen. Does a user need to interact with this function every day? Can they complete the action without picking up their iPhone? If the answer is no, then it may be time to go back to the drawing board.
Starbucks is a great example of a watchOS app that supports, not replaces, its core iOS app. Starbucks on iOS includes a rewards program, order-ahead option, and even simple gamification. In contrast, its watchOS app reduces down to one core feature: Payment. Starbucks gets users straight to what they care about most by minimizing app complexity. Similarly, Uber’s watchOS ride-sharing app allows users to request a ride with the tap of one button. Both apps do not remove the need for an iPhone, as the user must navigate back to the iOS app for more difficult tasks. Instead, they bring users delight by making a simple interaction in their day-to-day lives easier.
Work Smarter, Not Harder
Glanceable. Actionable. Responsive. These are the three themes in Apple’s watchOS Human Interface Guidelines that product designers should live by when creating a smartwatch interface. WatchOS’s guidelines are more of a strict template than a mere suggestion. Instead of working against these platform imitations, we should leverage them as a design toolbox. This allows us to focus more energy into what matters most: providing a delightful user experience. Here are six tips on how to utilize the watchOS native components for a more painless design process:
1. New hardware brings new user interactions. Most of the basic iOS gestures carry over to Apple Watch, such as tapping, horizontal swipes, and vertical scrolling. The physical design of the watch now allows for a new interaction with content unlike ever before: the Digital Crown. This notch on the right side of the watch gives users an advanced method of scrolling through detailed content without hindering their view. Keep in mind that this will help make some precise components, such as pickers, possible within the small interface.
2. Legibility is key. Type, color, and interactive elements compete for attention on the 312×390 pixel screen. Apple helps solve for this with SF Compact, a dynamic font family designed to maximize “glanceability.” This allows for important information to reach the user within seconds. If choosing to use a custom typeface (Apple only allows for one), use it sparingly within headers. Always prioritize type size and readability over the visual appeal of the app.
3. Design with a shallow hierarchy. WatchOS allows for only two types of navigation: page-based (user swipes left and right between pages) and hierarchical (a vertical list of options.) Because of these restrictions, it’s important to strip your iOS app down to its basic functionality and present it at an elementary level. Never allow a user to get lost within the pages your app. If you must include more actions than the navigation allows, consider condensing these into a watchOS menu, similar to an iOS action sheet.
4. Complications should not be complicated. Located on the Apple Watch home screen, complications provide the user with a quick snapshot of content without having to open the app. The largest Apple Watch series 4 screen size can only display up to eight complications. This makes it crucial to simplify content into what’s most valuable and glanceable to fit within the layout constraints. Consider what information would be routinely valuable to your user. Could that content shift based on the time of day? Designing a dynamic, targeted complication will help ensure that your app will find its way onto a user’s home screen.
5. Avoid notification overload. While watchOS provides built-in alerts and haptic technology for more personal communication, it’s easy for a user to become frustrated with overbearing content. Use notifications only when necessary to respond to significant user interactions or alerts. Haptic feedback can enhance these experiences and bring delight to important events, but should never be overused. Always apply haptics with their intended purpose to minimize a user’s annoyance or confusion with your app.
6. Let your app’s personality shine through. Color is one of the easiest ways to infuse your brand’s style into the strict guidelines of watchOS, while still keeping your app lightweight. Consider lightening and saturating your brand color to achieve maximum contrast on Apple Watch’s black background. Introduce your custom typeface sparingly into large headers. Bring simple iconography and infographics to the forefront to communicate information when necessary. Despite restrictions, your app can still maintain brand recognition without cluttering the screen with logos.
The Future of Wearables
It’s no secret that designers are used to adapting to rapid changes in technology. Apple Watch is no different, as users are able to do more now with wearables than ever before. Larger displays provide more room for content, and cellular data allows for the smartwatch to complete actions independently from the iPhone. Most notably, advanced health tracking sensors such as ECG monitoring are shifting Apple Watch in a health-focused direction. But among all of these changes, how do we ensure that users find our app valuable? Can we remain relevant in an ever-changing environment?
It’s difficult to predict whether the next Apple release will feature simple platform improvements, or the first generation of Apple AR glasses. Yet, we can be sure of one thing in the meantime: Apple Watch is here to stay. For now, designers should determine the unique value proposition of their watchOS app and do it extremely well. Continue pushing the boundaries of wearables by creating focused experiences that delight users with simplicity and functionality. By working smarter, not harder, product designers will continue to be the leader in shaping the future of the Apple Watch platform to come.