Interaction designer focused on advanced analytics, data visualization, and other complex problems

Apple Watch, In Context

March 13, 2015

Everybody is talking about the Apple Watch this week, and although we are still in the early days of designing for this new type of device, there’s a lot we can say about what this product is going to mean for the design of mobile apps.

Most mobile apps are designed assuming that they have your full attention while you use them. The Apple Watch, however, is pretty clearly oriented towards apps and notifications that don’t require your full attention for an extended period of time. Apple’s presentations and guidelines for the Apple Watch emphasize the brevity and simplicity of interactions with the watch. This leads to some interesting consequences for app design. Looking through the list Apple Watch apps that Apple has already announced, you can see quite a few apps displaying current information about an activity, event, or task.

The Apple Watch is well-suited for apps that you use when you are doing something else. One of the things that watch apps can do even better than your phone is to track context and provide instantaneous status about long-running activities.

I have some experience in this area because DanceMaster is exactly this kind of app. When people are rehearsing using DanceMaster, they are usually not looking at the screen, except for brief interactions to stop and start the music. It’s awkward to dance with a phone in your hand. Maybe the phone or iPad needs to stay on a table while plugged into a speaker system. It’s often easier to leave the phone in one place and start and stop the music with a remote.

But something interesting has happened as I have worked through a draft of the watch version of DanceMaster. The watch app is, even more than the phone version, pulling the instantaneous context to the foreground. Where the phone app gives you an overview of an entire choreography at once, the watch app says, “here is where you are right now,” and, “here is what is coming up next.” The watch app is turning out to be both a natural extension of the core app, and a totally different experience.