The Apple Watch: We're Not There Yet

I may eat my words but my view is that the new Apple Watch is very much work in progress.

I am an owner of a Pebble smart watch so it was with interest I followed the Apple Watch was unveiled to a hungry media and tech loving audience yesterday. With the huge caveat that I have not seen or used the device I wanted to get a few thoughts down about the new device and other smart phones.

The apple watch is not like the iPhone.

It's not going to change the world, nor did it overturn watches as we know it, as the iPhone did for mobile phones. This new watch had the potential to change to way people interact with the world but, because of a few things, it won't. Here are the big things.

Battery Life

This is a big one in my view. The pebble last a couple of days from a practical point of view, which is the main reason I only use it sometimes. In my view a watch has to have a battery life much longer than a phone. My watch of choice has an effectively infinite battery life as it has a hidden solar panel in its face. The idea of having to charge a watch each day is a huge step backwards.

Display in Daylight

This is one thing the Pebble does well and the luminescent LCD display of the iPhone and all smart phones do badly. In bright sunlight my Kindle paper White is more readable, not less. A new kind of display is needed for all smart watches in my view, one that performs as well as an LCD but also works in bright daylight as a paper like reflective display. Many companies are working in it but we may be several years off.

It needed to be stylish.

Existing watches tell the time and tell people we have style and taste. The Apple Watch does a lot of things and, in my view, is ugly square blob, regardless what material it's available in. If Apple want this device to be a fashion item then, in my view, they have missed the target. This is ironic as I view the new iPhone 6 the best looking iPhone since the iPhone 3. The Pebble is ugly but others have done a good job of making a good looking watch.

It needs to be ambidextrous.

First there are all the left handed folks out there and there are special people like me who, possible because of our dyslexia, wear our watch on our 'wrong hand'. I am right handed and wear my watch on my right hand. I am not alone! To use the crown I have to take my watch off! Now I did read that the watch display can be reversed, but as the crown is not in the middle it puts it in an odd position.

And now the positive stuff.

I started by saying the Apple Watch was work in progress and we should see Apple and others explore what is needed to get things right - hopefully to solve the problems listed above. Having lived with a smart watch I know there are a few things that they do well and could do well. So, from a user experience point of view here's a quick, but not exhaustive,

Telling the time.

Yes, bloody obvious I know. But being able to change between time zones and having a date that is accurate is a big plus! I know digital watches have managed the date thing for years but My mechanical watch attempts to give me the date but fails.

Incoming Text Messages.

Receiving them that is. And then only if they're now and then. If a smartwatch is set to receive too many messages it becomes an irritating buzzing wrists instrument of constant distraction. For update addicts this will mean an easier access to their addiction. For folks who still receive their more interesting and important messages by text this is a plus. This remains the nicest feature of the pebble to me.

Seeing who is calling.

The second nicest pebble feature is being able to see who is calling on my wrist and reject a call without digging out my phone. Answering it via my watch I'm less sure about, regardless of if the phone has a microphone and speakers or not.

Way finding

Way Finding Using a Pebble Until we get augmented reality (several generations forward to google glass) the second best way to have a personal screen hand for finding directions and things is with a wrist display. The pebble attempts to do this and I've attempted to use it a couple of times - this is something I believe the Apple watch will do much better in that it will be usable.

In addition, when partnered with iBeacons, micro navigation and object finding becomes possible. So if you forget a bag, want to find your keys, find the business lounge or have more details on the high quality coat you're looking at in a shop then this could be better than using a phone alone.

Control music.

A bit of a gimmick but something I used a couple of times is the ability to stop music playing on my phone. Having said that you need to be close enough for it to work but it offers a slight improvement in controls on a headphone lead and can tell you what's playing.

Sports and fitness.

This is the big one. Running, working out in the gym, keeping a track of times etc are ideal uses for the watch. As someone who views gym membership as a tax on laziness it's not top of my list of Inge needed, although I have used my bike to get to work and for long rides on a nice day, so can empathise with how the fitness side of things us useful.

The User Experience Challenge

With every new device it is natural and vital to rethink the user experience. In terms of user experience we are seeing and will continue to see a more diverse set of platforms to design for. Just as those who started by designing CD-roms had to adapt to the limitations of the early web (such as no background colours or animation to start off with) so smart watches will require time for user experience and interaction design people to adapt to it.

For example getting the right level of level of information on an 'always there'(1) device will be a challenge. Too many alerts and things get out of hand. Likewise try to do too much on a small screen is always tempting to developers looking on a hack weekend but will be ultimately frustrating as a user experience. Such a small touch screen is not going to offer much space for buttons, although how dense things can be will determine its self via use.

The revolutionary Smart Watch has yet to arrive.

The Apple Watch is not a revolution and has not, yet, distanced its self significantly from other smart watches. In many ways I feel it has the same shortcomings. It will be mildly popular but expect people to become disillusioned quickly when they experience the reality of having to charge it so often. It will be successful in a niche way.

One day the smart watch that people will wear everyday and be as ubiquitous as the iPhone will come. Apple are not there and there is still an open goal which Switzerland could score in. Just as the next paradigm(2) of TV interfaces has yet to hit us, so the smart watch area, including Apples first effort, is very much work in progress.

(1) I claim 'always there' as a new term to add to terminology us UXers use.

(2) I'm also reclaiming the use of paradigms back from its near death experience from being shifted too much by business folks.

Update just after the launch (April 19th 2015)

I wrote all of the above without having touched the phone and without a single review being out there. So how far am I off and did I miss anything? Well I did miss one big thing:

Contactless payments

Contactless payments have taken off in London and adoption is spreading. At the time of writing Apple have yet to release Apple Pay in the UK so, for now , only some Samsung, Sony and HTC devices allow you to pay for things like Tube journies. Once Apple Pay is here then you can pay for coffee, tube travel etc. using it. This is a very nice feature, but is it worth the high price of entry.

More on updates

It appears that one thing Apple have not got right is being able to set the level of updates you receive. By default it is set to 'everything' mode which means, for many, the out of box experience will be very distracting to the point of being anti-social. Getting this right was key to the overall user experience of the phone and it appears Apple of missed the mark with this.

Too much and too little

Apple have thrown a lot at the hardware in terms of buttons and tap interactions. All this has left many first time users feeling very confused. This was not the case with the iPhone when it first came out so I'm taking this as an indicator that Apple have thrown too many interaction options in there. The second thing is that most of the apps are more like remote controls than free standing applications, and they're slow to update. So overall the UI aspect of the UX comes across as fussy, slow and trying too hard.

Pebble Time: A better smart watch?

It doesn't look as slick, hasn't had anywhere near the same coverage and you won't see it worn by well known TV celebs to do things like anounce the new teaser trailer for Star Wars but I personally am interested in how good the Pebble Time will be. It has seven day battery life, a good start, a colour e-ink display that appears to animate well and, the most interesting part, a new paradigm for an interface. Rather than the app based approach of the iPhone it uses the context of the time line and turns it in to a spacial thing viewed via the small screen. So obviously 'now' is the current time and past notifications are up and future events are down. This really makes sense.

Check out this video from Verge to find out more about the time.

What's next?

These 'always there' devices are evolving. We've still go somewhere to go before everyone is wearing smart watches. They need to be useful, great looking and have a long battery life. The technology is playing catchup to what users want in this case. Let's see what happens. Maybe Android Wear will become the champion over time. Interesting times.

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