Using smartwatches

02 October 2015

Several of us in The Technology Studio office now own a smartwatch. One of us has an LG G-Watch Urbane, another has an Apple Watch and I’m wearing Motorola’s Moto360.

With the next generation of Android Wear smartwatches due to hit the market very soon and the Apple Watch increasing mainstream awareness of smartwatches, it seems a good time to remind people of the device’s forte.

And one thing’s for sure, we’ve come a long way since Michael Knight first showed us this in the ‘80s:

Obligatory Knight Rider reference

It’s all about context

Think about the context of use for a watch. Yes an ordinary, nothing-smart-about-it, watch. How long does a wearer look at its face? 2 seconds, tops? That’s how long you have to show a smartwatch user what they need to know. Smartwatches may be adding new functionality to a watch, but they’re still watches and their use will be governed by centuries’ worth of usage experience.

It’s very unlikely that people will stare at a smartwatch for lengthy amounts of time (OK, maybe for a couple of days after buying, but that’s about it), so you need to make your product work with that limited time.

Remember: a smartwatch user will mostly be consuming the content it serves them in a very brief timespan.

Keep it simple, stupid

The key feature of the smartwatch is accessibility. It’s always strapped to your wrist, so you’re notified of everything that happens on your phone. This can be a blessing as it means you no longer need to fumble around for your phone to decide if a notification is worth paying attention to (and can easily dismiss it if not), but it could also be a curse if you’re constantly bombarded with information.

Don’t forget: the primary purpose of a smartwatch is to tell the time! The longer the watch face is obscured by your notifications, the more potential there is for the user to get annoyed with you and remove your app from their phone.

On my Moto360, I’ve deliberately chosen a watch face which keeps the time visible whilst displaying the minimised notification card.

John's Moto360 smartwatch face

This face allows me to see the time, my watch’s battery level and the date without having to dismiss the card, so I can glance at the watch to tell the time, regardless of whether there’s a notification or not. The only thing which is obscured by the card is the day, which I consider secondary information. If I want to maximise the card to read more, I can opt to do so.

Also be aware that if your notification is too long, the watch will automatically truncate it.

It’s got that vibe

You also have vibration available, which is a very useful notification tool for the wearer. It makes you aware that a notification is available without even having to look. You then have the option to raise your wrist and read it if convenient to do so. This is particularly useful in meetings, or other situations where looking at your watch may be misconstrued.

Don’t forget your manners!

And that’s where the smartwatch’s biggest faux pas can be. You know that you’re briefly checking an email or IM notification, but the people you’re with don’t.

Historically, glancing at your watch during a meeting or conversation can be seen as rude, hinting that you don’t really have time for the people you’re with. You can’t precede the glance with “Excuse me whilst I look at my smartwatch”, because it sounds like you’re showing off and they’ll dislike you even more!

Because of this, you can’t bank on your user being able to read your notification immediately, even though it’s right there on their wrist.

Smartwatches definitely make life easier

That said, the watch is still quicker and easier to grab the user’s attention than the phone because it’s less hassle to check. If nothing else, it elevates the notification filtration process to a more convenient level. This may sound like a trivial thing: after all, how hard is it to take your phone out of your pocket? But all those times when your hands are full with bags or your phone’s on charge upstairs add up.

The future could certainly be interesting. Voice control is an obvious candidate for development and the watch handling calls without having to use the phone at all would be brilliant (except, perhaps, if you’re having a call with William Daniels!) Who knows? You could remotely start your car by talking into your watch, or remotely open the boot / trunk of your car with a command when you have your hands full!