How do you design for a platform, whose specifications are yet to be announced? How can you predict the characteristics of the most successful smartwatch apps and the most common use-cases? Is there a design workflow, which can be used to fill the gaps? As a mobile app development startup working for global Fortune 500 clients, we wanted to answer these questions and share our process and findings.
First, the process. We are big believers in the design studio ideation tool. It promotes democracy in sharing ideas and gets the ego out of the question. Prototyping by Todd Zaki Warfel is an excellent resource, it gives plenty of advice to get you started. Instead of dealing directly with the rumored specifications of Apple’s iWatch and Google’s Android Wear, we skipped to the fun part we know the best: designing applications.
Judging apps is still easier for us than judging predictions. Arriving to application skeletons as soon as possible allowed us to learn about the platform’s capabilities and the most important use-cases.
This was our real goal, designing apps was only a way to reverse engineer the smartwatch platform.
We identified 12 directions of which we started exploring the three most exciting ones. These directions all expanded upon what responsive design usually means, which is a bit too much focused on screen sizes.
The first of these directions relies heavily on responding to the context. With such a small screen and limited input capabilities (no onscreen keyboard), setting the context manually would be a hassle. Smartwatches need to do this automatically to provide a smooth experience. Luckily, upcoming technologies like Apple’s Continuity extended with iBeacon or Google’s Nearby suggest major breakthroughs in detecting the presence of multiple devices, thus enabling accurate identification of contexts relevant to sharing. Let’s see two examples of this behavior.
Seamless connection to an Apple TV, Chromecast or similar broadcasting device from your smartwatch would capitalize on the fact that it is always on and with you. The majority of our meetings are far from high stakes keynotes delivered on stage. They are daily meetings with little or no presentation materials prepared in advance, usually just screenshots and other artifacts representing the current state of the project. Collecting these in a bundle and accessing them from the cloud via a smartwatch could very well match the intended low investment. And if you already have a handy touchscreen strapped to your wrist, why not use it as a remote-control to the slideshow?
EXCHANGING BUSINESS CARDS
You knew this was coming, but it is hard to ignore the fact that a handshake can happen on a digital level from now on, complete with the strap squeezing your wrist to confirm the successful data transfer.
It was clear from the beginning that we won’t be able to display the large amount of complex information we got used to receiving from our other smart devices, at least not in the same way. This is where responsive content design could really shine and show us the most relevant formats, again with the help of drafting apps.
Infographics could deliver live updates on a soccer game you follow, your car’s gas level or establish a smartwatch specific messenger application using stickers only.
A single word could be just the right amount of information you need, if it arrives in the right time and place. Think about a translation tool, which prioritizes matches related to food if you are on a market, a Q&A based Wikipedia Light also using your context or a formatted todo list to show the project’s status.
When both hands are occupied while cooking or assembling your new kitchen from IKEA, a screen strapped to your wrist always in sight can conveniently show video instructions.
We were curious to explore if aggregated information can be used within a workflow to make decisions and not just consumed as the final output. Going through your emails, deciding which ones to archive, delete, or mark for followup can be done efficiently on a device capable of showing only bite-sized information. In fact, it can lead to a more focused workflow. It offers a limited set of actions and displays just the bare minimum, which forces you to deal with the ones requiring more work at a later, more suitable moment. Progress towards the semantic web can help apps interpret content and offer relevant actions. See schema.org or opp.io for patterns to follow.
Doing this on a watch while commuting also has the added benefit of being able to grab on to the handrails with at least one of your hands.
So far we were focusing on smartwatches as a gadget, designing UI and interaction gestures, but we shouldn’t overlook the obvious fact that watches have been worn for hundreds of years to fulfill the owner’s desire for self-expression. What do we gain here by adding interactivity?
WEAR YOUR MOOD
It could deliver on the promise of being the first fully personalized fashion accessory, even down to minute-by-minute responsiveness to its wearer’s mood by utilizing sensors and intelligent analysis of our digital life.
RESPOND TO MOVEMENT
Lock screen animation could also react to such simple things as walking, providing amusement for the folks around you in a purely decorative manner.
PHYSICAL ACCESSORIES AND A STORE FOR DIGITAL JEWELRY
Digital effects could be offered from a dedicated store and they could also be extended with actual physical accessories, like a user replaceable wristband invoking a theme change or a translucent clip-on prism refracting the light of the display.
COLLABORATIVE FASHION ACCESSORIES
You finally arrive to that concert where you opt-in for the enhanced participation feature, allowing the VJ to take over your smartwatch display, sending out ripples of light in sync with the music. How does that sound for a new level of engagement? Why would you keep all the fun for yourself after all? Let’s extend self-expression with all the sharing related ideas and introduce collaborative and personalized fashion gadgets.
Having done this research, we are convinced that smartwatches will have their place in the daily ecosystem of interactive displays. It can make sure that checking what’s going on will be truly a matter of seconds. Anything requiring more attention than that, will find its way to you at a more suitable moment on a more suitable device.
The enticing simplicity of the aggregated communication could lead to some marvelous design solutions, but it also introduces greater ambiguity and poses a challenge for designers. Simultaneously it could dramatically open up space for user interpretation while creating a fun, delightful and creative platform.