Smart Watches: The Best Interaction is No Interaction

Note: The first half of this post was written before the Apple Watch event and the second half after. I wanted to capture my thoughts before they were polluted by endless "reviewers" proclaiming the genius/delusion of Tim Cook. I almost didn’t want to write this because I knew my conclusion would be that you can’t review any technology this personal without using it for a while, and here I am reviewing a device I haven’t personally used. That said, I think this represents more of my thoughts on the category rather than Apple Watch in particular, a category that is going to bigger than we expect. So... here goes.

In the Beginning

On the eve of Apple’s watch event I'm trying to collect my thoughts about smartwatches. I’ve used smart watches before and recently purchased one of the best Android Wear devices. My general impressions for the category aren’t great, but the potential is huge. Let’s dig in.

A few initial thoughts:

Round watches look really cool but they just don't feel practical. I find them hard to navigate. My fingers keep wanting more horizontal room. Actually, you could design a great interface for circular watches that take advantage of the round shape, but it would be completely different from the rectangular UI. (remember the iPod?). Trying to make both shapes with the same software is a mistake on Google’s part. Pick one shape and stick with it.

It’s hard to evaluate the interface from descriptions and screenshots, or even animations. With a screen this small every tiny detail matters; minimalism to the max. The only way to evaluate is to use the device for a while. A long while. Like, a week or more. Keep that in mind when you read all of the "reviews" of the Apple watch this week.

The most useful indicator from a watch is actually the buzzer. (Hmm: Note to self. What about a screen-less watch? Vibrations as the only output? You can actually do a lot that way. Have to come back to that.)

Battery life isn’t as big an issue as I feared. Bluetooth LE is pretty damn good these days. While Pebble’s week of battery is pretty awesome, most people just need it to go a single day and recharge thoughtlessly on the bedside table. The future of power management isn’t going to be better batteries, but better chargers. Oh Touchstone dock, how I miss you.

Still, why would someone want one of these things? With a starting price of several hundred dollars and dubious ‘fitness’ benefits, why should the non-early adopter buy one of these? For now the answer is: they shouldn’t. But that will change; and probably faster than we (the techies) realize.

The Killer App

Smartwatches still lack the killer app. That’s okay. Smartphones really didn’t have a killer app at first either. Arguably the first killer app for smartphones was Mobile Safari, but that was just a portal to the many things on the web, not an app in itself. In a sense, good network access on the go was the killer app. There wasn't one particular task that made smartphones amazing at first.

After a decade of smartphones we realize there isn’t a single killer app. There are tons; and what is killer for you is unnecessary for someone else. It took building a rich ecosystem of 3rd party apps for the true value of a smartphone to be realized. I use at least ten apps multiple times a day on my phone, and only the alarm clock and Safari are built in. The rest were built after the iPhone existed.

And so it will be with the smart watch. The exciting things won’t be what we see today, but what we will see in a year, or five years. The little things that make your life better. The little ways they connect with the other digital (and non-digital) objects in your life. These are the features we simply can’t predict today. Even Apple can’t. But when they arrive, watch out.

The smartwatches I’ve used are clunky, large, have poor battery life, and are still too confusing; but make no mistake: when it works, it’s magic. All the pieces of your digital life in sync.

Example: my wife texted me while I was driving. I glanced, made a quick swipe, spoke a reply, and it was sent. No extra buttons. Simply magic. For a moment I was living in the future. This is what Apple is promising. Making your life magic.

A smartwatch isn’t really a device, it’s an extension of your smartphone, or more properly an extension of the smart ecosystem you are a part of. (If Google ever does support Android Wear on iOS I expect it will be a pale shadow of the Android experience). The watch is at it’s best when it leverages that ecosystem. All of the information already present on your phone and the cloud, working on your behalf. When it works together, it’s bloody magic. (Perhaps that's why we find iCloud's bugginess so frustrating).

Today, our smartwatches will not be magic all the time. Voice recognition is heavily cloud dependent. Google does an amazing job of making it fast but any latency on a watch breaks the illusion. Even the best smart watch can become frustrating fast. Apple’s ads make Siri look practically instantaneous but I want to see what it will be like under real world conditions.

Smartwatches will (are?) result in a flurry of notifications. Both Apple and Google have made recent changes to their respective operating systems to better manage alerts, but it’s still going to grow out of hand. We may need to start applying spam-filter like technology to the problem. It’s really a catch 22. Notifications make the watch worth while, but too many makes it a pain to use. Finding that balance, and adjusting it for every person without being a rules programmer is going to be very tricky

Is it worth it?

The final question I hear from lots of people: is it worth getting a smartwatch which simply moves the notifications from your phone screen to your wrist? Aren’t we simply saving 10 seconds of time to remove the phone from your pocket? The answer is yes and yes.

Yes, it’s totally worth moving the interface closer. It’s not just 10 seconds of time. This is a case where a quantitative difference becomes qualitative. An interaction that takes one second on your wrist really is different than the 10 seconds from your jeans pocket. It fits under a threshold that allows you to continue with your current frame of mind. It doesn’t break your concentration. It lets your short term memory remain undisturbed. It really is different.

...provided of course, that the notifications are minimal and can be immediately ignored or acted on quickly. Interaction design is far more critical, and difficult, on a wearable device than a phone. These apps are going to be a lot harder to build. Making apps for wearables is as different from phones as phones were from desktops. Perhaps this is why the Android Wear store is 90% ugly watch faces. I worry about a flood of crappy watch apps that give the field a bad name. Perhaps this is why Apple is so far being conservative on that front. Hopefully they apply stronger design filters in the Watch App Store.

The Best Interaction is No Interaction

The best interactions will be no interaction; things that happen automatically on your behalf, with a gentle notification that it happened. This will be Calm Technology at it's best. Your watch as presence indicator. Unlock your phone automatically. Unlock your car or house (when it recognizes your heartbeat signature to ensure it’s really you). Remember where you parked your car, automatically. Warn you when you leave a phone in a bar. Buzz you when it’s time to stretch, or drink some water, or leave early for a meeting because of traffic. *Smartwatches will be less a device than a guardian angel, doing things on your behalf.* This is, of course, terrifying.

Terrifying not because of automation, but because of how much of our lives may be controlled by just two companies. I'm afraid I don't have an answer for that. The robots taking over might be nicer.

After the Apple Event.

It's now Friday. I finally had a chance to watch the Apple event and my opinions haven’t changed much. The watch's interface is clearly more polished than what we saw last fall; and I really, really want the new MacBook.

So bearing in mind that I can’t judge a wearable I haven’t used, here is my judgement on a wearable I haven’t used.

  • I really like the new scrollbar design that’s more indicative of where you are in the dock. Please bring that back to OSX.
  • I have doubts about voice quality, but accepting a phone call on your wrist will be awesome when you are holding a 3 yr old.
  • The navigation feels more refined than Android wear, but still tricky. I really want to see how it works in person.
  • it’s not clear what actions you do with the digital crown and what uses swiping. Some gestures seem to be overloaded. This is the most difficult part to design and really must be judged in person.
  • The health aspects don’t seem much beyond what I can get out of other health trackers. The key will be filtering this into actionable data. That will require better 3rd party apps.
  • The app constellation is still chaos.
  • Digital Touch is the most fascinating part to me. Nothing else (mainstream) does that right now. It really sells the vision that these are personal devices in a way we've never had before. People want to communicate with their loved ones. It’s what separates us from the animals (except the weasel).

    Quick anecdote. I saw paired cylinders when I was an intern at Xerox PARC in the mid-90s. When you rolled one cylinder it’s match would move in tandem. The idea is that you could bring this with you while traveling and give the occasional gesture to your partner to let them know you were thinking about them. Digital Touch is clearly the modern equivalent.

    So, will I get one of these? Of course, I’ll get several. That’s my job. The interesting question is whether my my non-tech wife or mother want one. I think so. By Christmas there will be actually useful apps and a slew of bug fixes. This will provide real value in a way that can’t be quantified by a spec sheet. Value in the form of feeling and subtle interactions.

    Welcome to the new personal computer.

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    Posted March 13th, 2015

    Tagged: apple wearables watch