Smart Watches - a Chicago UX, Design, Tech Perspective


The Pebble Smartwatch just destroyed Kickstarter’s fund raising record. March 9th marks the official launch of Apple’s “most personal device” the Apple Watch. Chicago-based Motorola created one of the most beautiful time keepers with the Moto 360 last fall. The industry is betting big on the market wanting smart watches that connect to your smartphone.

The smart watch user experience
John W Ostler (@seahostler)

Smartphone usage is quickly becoming synonymous with bad habits and questionable etiquette. It seems innocent enough, but when we pull our smartphones out of our purses or pockets, we habitually commit to prolonged usage. Simple actions like checking the time or getting a meeting reminders manifest into checking social feeds, reading email, messaging and ultimately distract from the space and people around us.

On the surface, a smart watch appears to be “just one more device to distract us.” In reality, I view it as an opportunity to untether our smartphones and elevate the only truly relevant data points we need to navigate our day. When we are finding a location, making a payment, checking the time, seeing a calendar reminder or tracking our steps, these are low touchpoint interactions that are better suited for a less immersive device.

In recent years, brands have become hyper-aware of what functionality is appropriate for a handheld device versus a tablet or website. To truly understand what makes technology personal, we must set out to create software that enhances real world experiences rather than detract. Instead of asking what a watch app could do, I think the question should effectively shift to how we can simplify and empower people to continue declutter the less-digital aspects of their lives.

The smart watch interface design
Steve Polacek (@stevepolacek)

Now’s not the time to rest on our responsive design laurels. The Apple Watch introduces a fashionable new challenge to embrace and an opportunity to dip our wrists into the wearables market. One thing’s for sure, you’ll be hearing “digital crowns” and “haptics” come up a lot more.

The minimalist in me is excited, as I expect interface designers to do some of their best work within the 38-44mm Apple Watch screens. It’s counterintuitive, but constraints can be liberating and increase creativity. Limitations force decisions about what’s important. Hierarchy is good for design.

But looking at the big picture, the realist in me is skeptical about our ability to deliver great design on every screen and beyond. The Apple Watch is just one flavor in the wearables market, which is predicted to reach 170 million devices sold in 2016 (source: IHS). That’s a drop in the bigger bucket of 50 billion internet-connected devices expected to be online by 2020 (source: Cisco). With so many available options and combinations, we will have unlimited opportunities to muck things up.

The need for great design thinking is only increasing. We must base our choices on what’s right instead of what’s possible. I’m encouraged to see more and more organizations, new and old, adopting this kind of values-based approach when facing the challenges of our time.

Creating for the Apple Watch will hone our design skills, testing our ability to deliver timely, lightweight, and meaningful interactions. The screen limitations will force us to examine each communication with even more scrutiny than smartphones. This should make us more sensitive to the moments that make up our daily lives. This could help untether ourselves from more invasive technology, freeing some bandwidth to be more present. Or will we create a new wave of distractions and go further down the information rabbit hole? It’s up to us all to design the future we want to live in.

The smart watch software development
Don Bora (@dbora)

Unlike some of my nerd brothers and sisters, I am not enamored of the emerging smart watch ecosystem. The watch, in its current envisioned state, shaves seconds off otherwise mundane tasks, like checking the time or seeing if I have any unread emails. Any meaningful productivity bump will come from serious hardware support that is just not available right now. Apple is coming close with a robust and dedicated user interaction experience but my iPhone needs to be in my pocket to get the most out of the watch.

What we need is time! See what I did there? We need to super-speed Moore’s Law. With the currently limited technical capacity of these platforms coupled with the increasing resource demands of modern app development, it is not likely we will see anything with teeth on smart watches anytime soon. Today, yes, a smart watch must be paired with a much more powerful device. This device will run the watch's application while the watch merely displays data, responds to a few prescribed user interaction events, and interacts with whatever hardware is available on the watch.

While it is true that these smart accessories are relatively underpowered, we can be sure of this: hardware will continue to get smaller and faster. Ingenious engineering has found ways around the feared physical limitations that have threatened the past 20 years of computer and device advancements. Having the current resource capacity we enjoy on our phones was unimaginable 10-15 years ago.

If I had a prescient scope, my watch would do all kind of Bond-ishly cool things. I want to see evolution in these platforms; I want to talk to my watch for the geek factor alone. My watch can be intimately aligned with my health and activity levels to collect and analyse meaningful data, giving me actionable feedback. That would be insanely cool and I know that’s where everyone wants to be.

What excites me the most is the unknown. The imagination of people dreaming in Lean Startup Business Canvases who seek to create new ways for people to experience the world. That’s what keeps me putting this suit and tie on to build products for my fellow citizens. Ok, I don’t wear a suit and all my ties are from the 90s but you get the gist.

We’re all pretty excited about the ever moving target that is the device industry. The sheer amount of progress we’ve seen over the past 10 years is nothing short of stunning. Heightening the user’s experience through screen real-estate restriction will force us makers to be ever more diligent and judicious about our design, user interfaces, and feature sets. This is the job we signed up for; these challenges excited us; this is why we get out of bed in the morning.

Have you purchased or are you planning to purchase a smart watch? Let us know in the comments and you'll use it!

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