Wearables like the apple watch open up new opportunities for companies to connect with customers. The key to long-term value will depend on focused constraint, deep insight, and flexible solutions.

FOR THE PAST TWO YEARS, WE HAVE SEEN A STREAM OF WEARABLE DEVICES LAUNCHING INTO THE MARKET, CAPTURING THE ATTENTION OF THE PRESS AND MAKING IT ONTO THE WRISTS OF EARLY ADOPTERS. While some companies have had success, the majority are still seeking to find the true consumer market for wearable devices. Although analysts at IDC research predict that the wearable market will reach numbers of 111.9 million worldwide device shipments by 2018, the market is still emerging. The user experience of these early devices has been questionable and research data is showing a significant drop off in usage often only after 3 months of ownership. The question remains – who will deliver an experience that will take the wearable trend to the masses?
The Apple Watch may just be the watershed moment for wearables. While entering the market later than most, Apple clearly has made some definitive choices in form and function that already have distinguished it from other in-market devices. With Apple’s clout and reach, they will definitely be a formative player. Companies need to consider how they will prepare to be a part of this wearable revolution.

With wearables, and specifically Apple Watch, companies now have a new touch point to consider in reaching their customers. But just because you can create an Apple Watch application does not mean you should. The key to success for companies will be to first focus on defining a clear wearable strategy that answers the questions of why, how, what, and where. Once a clear strategy is in place, it should serve to guide how the Apple Watch or other wearable devices can be leveraged to take advantage of this new touchpoint and platform.

In this article, we share eight considerations for designing Apple Watch applications. These considerations include general principles about designing for wearable contexts combined with specific points on how to leverage the functions and features of the Apple Watch experience most effectively.



Time is the universal context

The most important feature of any smartwatch is that it’s a watch first. Despite the myriad of differentiated features that a smart watch might deliver, it must provide immediate access to basic watch functions. If not, consumers may grow frustrated around this baseline expectation, as they glance down at their wrist, find themselves in another context and have to find their way back to time.

Apple clearly considered the traditional sensitivities and expectations of consumers through their design choices in both form and function. The crown dial provides familiar controls common to most traditional watches. In addition, the personalization options provided in watch faces and bands ensures that consumers fashion and functional desires are supported. Apple understands that the adoption curve of wearables depends on building a bridge from the familiar to the new.

Referring to the time is one way to reference the “now.” When users glance at their wrist, they are looking for a quick awareness to guide their next steps. But whether glancing at a notification, map, or incoming message, pervasive access to the time provides essential context. As companies create new offerings that can surface at users’ wrists, make effective use of glance modes, utilize simple visual indicators for quantitative information, and always maintain easy access to time and date.

Currently, the Apple Watch platform doesn’t blur the line between watch face and watch application. They are distinct categories. But we look forward to compelling wrist-based applications in the near future that integrate time and essential reference information into one experience — saving the user from navigating and launching an app, and sidestepping the need to pester the user with notifications.



The best watch interactions are sightless

Wearable devices promise to enable users to focus and connect more easily with the people and things around them – instead of constantly staring at their wrist. Successful Apple Watch applications will deliver on this promise by leveraging more ambient modes of communication and connection.

Despite being one of the safer visible zones on the body for wearable computing, looking down at your wrist while in conversation still signals distraction, impatience, or that you’d rather be somewhere else. It’s rude. To avoid these connotations, haptics or subtle visual cues will communicate awareness while preserving the primary attention and focus of the user. For one wearable that we worked on recently, we designed a color system that made it easy for the wearer to stay aware of activity through peripheral vision. A personal buzz on the wrist signaled there was something to be aware of, followed by a shift in the background color that indicated the type of notification. Awareness delivered, the user could decide to actively look at their wrist later.

However, be careful not to overuse these indicators. Too many beeps and buzzes could become annoying, confusing, or burn through your users’ precious battery life. Selective use will deliver the clearest value. Balancing active on-screen interactions with passive off-screen awareness will provide the most flexibility. Smartphones have already turned us into screen addicts; your Apple Watch application can bring us back to the real world.



Short communication will only get shorter

With each progressive device form factor, the expected digital communication methods have been shortened by design or more often out of convenience. When computers offered email, it shortened to chat. When mobile phones offered voice, text became the dominant mode. And with each form of shortened communication, additional shortcuts have been enacted.

The rapid growth of temporary services such as Snapchat, with its temporal history, represent this continued progression. As wearable device usage increases, what will be the shortcuts or unexpected use cases that users will explore as alternates? Connect with real users and test your application over time to ascertain the common pain points and desired shortcuts. And when you think you have created the most minimal amount of content or features – be ready to trim even further.

Wearable users will always want info to be shorter, more temporary and more ambient than active. Embrace this fact and militantly apply constraint and flexibility in your feature and content choices within your Apple Watch application. Consider not only first day, first-month usage, but long term usage patterns and the impact they may have on user expectations over time. Plan for micro, temporary and non-verbal communication and adjust as users’ patterns evolve.



Notifications are about action, not information

Careful consideration should be brought to the use of notifications to ensure they are relevant, valuable and drive clear action. This precious wrist real estate is not a mini-billboard with flashing advertisements and superfluous notes. Focus on ensuring that surfaced notifications serve a purpose to help the user achieve something, not only something that helps your business. Deciding when to offer notifications and what content to surface will be critical to successfully delivering a positive user experience through your application.

Apple states in their developer guide that notifications “facilitate quick, lightweight interactions for local and remote notifications.” While information is the means to communicating a notification update, it is not the driving goal. The driving goal of notifications is prompting an action. Apple Watch’s “Long Look” accounts for this at the bottom of the notification, directing a user to choose up to four app-defined actions. With an understanding that notifications are more about action than information, Apple Watch applications should avoid using notifications simply as “promotions”.



You must earn your right to be this close

With any new device or service experience, the goal is building a trusted relationship that endures. Yet, trust is not immediately acquired; it is earned over time as experiences demonstrate a care for whom and where they are delivered.

The true, intimate value of a wearable like Apple Watch is the constant contact with the skin. Consider that as an application or service provider, you are a guest in the home (body) of the user. As you think like a guest in someone’s home or on their wrist, this should conjure up sensitivities to keep in mind that will guide the most appropriate experiences for growing a trusted relationship. How would you behave on your first visit? Would you bring everything you own or just a few items?. Would you persistently demand attention or quietly integrate into the flow? In similar ways, the key to success in creating your Apple Watch application is to enter gracefully, respect privacy, stay focused and provide support when requested.

Apple is helping developers by limiting the available features and functions on the first release. This may help new and eager companies to avoid overcomplicating their initial applications and jeopardize the adoption curve. Consumers have not been demanding wearables. It is technology companies who are selling with the hopes of a market to come. If you want to benefit from the wearable wave, stay focused and tread lightly. It is a privilege to be invited to this body zone, and your goal should be to preserve that invite to become a frequent visitor instead of becoming an unwanted guest.



Conserve mental and physical load

We often underestimate the importance of battery life in the routines of our users. It’s very discouraging to discover that the supercomputer you’ve strapped to your wrist is displaying the telltale blank screen of a dead battery. Because of the technology contained in Apple Watch, Apple has stated that it may need to be recharged daily. Consequently, the power demands on the battery will need to be considered just as much as the cognitive load of your experience. Although power efficiency may require limits in your design and features, unchecked power usage will frustrate and drive away users.

The biggest draw on the battery comes from the display itself. Apple has built in certain features that allow users to control how often the display is active. So together a balance must be achieved in these early applications that minimize power consumption to preserve battery life and the frequency of charging. As application designers and developers, it is exciting to conceive new features that leverage the next generation functions the Apple Watch provides. However, restraint must be maintained to not overload.

Just as designers need to consider the cognitive load of wearable users on the go, there is also an electrical load demanded on the battery that needs to be considered as well. Although power efficiency is not an exciting design consideration, if power usage is unchecked in a given design, it will frustrate users. The computing power of the Apple Watch is 10x of the original iPhone. That is an amazing amount of power. And with that technology comes a hearty appetite for battery power. A balance must be achieved in these early applications to minimize power consumption and the frequency of charging.



Delivering value is better than delivering first

Begin by identifying the unique value that your service can deliver. What are the critical functions that deliver the most impact in a consumer’s life? And then seek to focus on developing the most “signature” aspect of your service or application and make that work seamlessly.

Just because you can create an Apple Watch application, does not always mean you should. Avoid duplicating functions that could more easily be accessed via other devices. If users prefer to browse music through a larger screen on their smartphone keep it that way. Stay focused and don’t try to deliver too much information or you may just overwhelm and confuse users. Many brands familiar with iOS will rush to market to capture a place on the Apple Watch consumer’s wrist, and many will learn from the impact of wrong choices.

The power and reach of Apple have been clear to date with the success of mobile applications. But despite that fact, it is important to learn from the past and not just be a novelty and rush out a low-value application just to say you have one. The wearable space is still emerging and consumer demand is not clear yet. As a result, the early applications will get the most scrutiny and will be critical steps towards encouraging adoption of your service. The brands that deliver experiences with a unique value proposition that enhances their service through Apple Watch will be the long term winners.



In an emerging market, the Apple Watch offers an exciting opportunity to move the needle forward. Questions still remain about the true impact or success that it will achieve but there is a movement under way and companies would be right to begin to define their goals and offerings not only for Apple Watch but for an expanding wearable future. Companies have the opportunity right now to launch a value-add touch point to users in the wearable space, based on a well-considered wearable strategy.

We have shared a few general principles and tactical considerations that we believe will make your wearable strategy and solutions more effective and successful.

  1. Don’t overlook the basics of this traditional form factor as you design your Apple Watch experience.
  2. Free people’s attention with the use of non-visual or low visual cues and indicators.
  3. Be sensitive to the types and amount of data you surface from your Apple Watch application.
  4. Utilize micro, temporary and non-verbal communication.
  5. Careful consideration should be brought to the use of notifications to ensure they are relevant, valuable and drive clear action.
  6. Build trust over time through respect and sensitivity to the user’s time, attention, load, and activity context.
  7. Create features and content that consider their impact on power consumption.
  8. Focus on delivering new value for your customer through your wearable experience.

By applying the above considerations through the filter of your consumers’ unique relationship your brand, you can ensure that your first wearable experiences are ones that meet consumers where they are today, engage them with a new value and ultimately deliver seamless connections to them across the ecosystem.

In the end, the most important thing to remember when designing an Apple Watch application is to not think about it as an application at all. It is about creating a connected service – the watch being just one node in that total experience. With this in mind, it provides the best context for making the right decisions and choices for your customer’s wearable experience.

All images: Apple


Punchcut is a human interface design company specializing in mobile, connected products and services. Punchcut works with the world’s top companies to envision, design and realize next generation connected experiences across devices and platforms that engage customers and transform businesses in a connected world.
A Punchcut Perspective | Contributors: Ken Olewiler, Jared Benson, Mac McCusker
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