UX Implications of the Apple Watch (and smart watches in general)


It’s been a month since the September 9th unveiling of the Apple Watch. I more or less agree that it is Apple’s “most personal device yet,” and with that comes huge UX implications.

We’re no strangers to wearables, much less smart watches. But I strongly believe that with its design leadership, Apple will disrupt wearables with the Apple Watch, just as it did with the iPod for MP3 players.

But what exactly does more “personal” mean, and what are the implications for UX going forward? Let’s start with with why smart watches matter in the first place, and progress to how the Apple Watch gets the right (UX-wise).

Less User Friction = More Good Times

Users experience friction every time they take a phone out of their skinny jean pocket or purse. This user friction is basically a hindrance, a breaking point in completing a task.

GIF of putting huge smartphone in jeans

Let’s go through a common interaction using our (increasing bigger) phones:

  1. Wriggle the phone out of your skinny jeans / purse
  2. Complete your task (and/or get distracted)
  3. Place phone back where it was before

There’s a small, yet significant amount of energy expended when holding the phone and manipulating it with one or two hands. Not to mention the potential risk of dropping your phone every time.

Wearables like the Apple Watch remove one step out of the user friction scenario above, making the interaction a little easier:

  1. Look at your watch
  2. Complete your task (and/or get distracted)
  3. Continue with your business

NPH: Look at my wrist I gotta go!

There’s a potential reduction in the friction of interactions when using (smart)watches. The most obvious reason is that a watch is attached to the body, and a phone is not.

You don’t have to think about it, or can even forget that it’s there. Comparing this to phones, people often express their experience as “I’m tethered to my phone.” It’s like the phone is an island and users tether themselves to it when they need to use it

You can forget your phone at a restaurant table. You can accidentally drop your phone in the toilet. But with a watch, there’s no second-guessing as to where it is.

That alone, in my opinion, reduces the cognitive load associated with using a smart watch over a smart phone.

Use Existing Mental Models

Though familiar with the idea of smart watches, most people still don’t exactly know how they work, and in what context they should work.

Apple used existing mental models of how watches function by employing the use of the crown as a way to navigation and interaction, aptly calling it the Digital Crown. The result is intuitive:

Apple Digital Crown GIF

I think Apple really nailed it with this one. The Digital Crown is one of those designs that are so obvious after the fact (glances at Moto 360).

Continuing with existing mental models, Apple realized that people buy watches for two things: to tell time and to show off status. What else do you need a Rolex for?

While the Apple Watch seems like it can do a lot, the focus is on craftsmanship, high-quality luxury. There’s a good reason that the Apple Watch was launched with 3 customizable editions, notably the gorgeous-and-over-the-top gold watch. An independent watch enthusiast says it best:

The overall level of design in the Apple Watch simply blows away anything – digital or analog – in the watch space at $350. – Benjamin Clymer, Hodinkee.com

Where Microinteractions Shine

The opportunity for small touch devices lies in the microinteractions, the small pieces of functionality that do just one thing (Dan Saffer, Microinteractions).

The effort associated with taking out your phone to do that one tiny thing – whether it’s to read a message or turn something off – is annoying.

Smart watches can afford the user to be more passive with passive events (browsing, checking things) and get small tasks done quicker. More active input, especially typing, can be done by switching to the smartphone.

Apple Watch Navigation

Even more so than smartphones, smart watches should figure out what you need, in a certain context, by bringing content to you rather than make you look for it.

I’m particularly excited for the use case of smart watches in active situations like working out at the gym. It’s much more natural to view a workout video or time your exercise on a watch than taking your phone out at the gym.

Aside: the one-finger challenge

Since watches are meant to be worn, the interaction design challenge is to focus on one-handed, even more likely one-fingered (stop sniggering) interactions.

Making users take off their watch and use it with two hands defeats the purpose.

Two-handed operation of a smart watch defeats the purpose

Potential Pitfalls of Smart Watches

The #1 pitfall I see is the potential back-and-forth between watch and phone. This could increase cognitive load, increase distraction, and decrease task completion.

Imagine the interaction in reading & responding to a text:

  1. Read text on smart watch
  2. Smart watch keyboard is too small, user switches to phone
  3. User takes phone out of skinny jeans.
  4. Get through messages/other notifications to get to the same app that you want to work on told from your watch.
  5. Complete response to the text (or get distracted)
  6. Place phone back to where it was.
  7. Look at watch to also confirm the task is done / has disappeared.
Smartwatch and Smartphone distracting UX
Having to switch back and forth between phone and watch can get tiresome

The result? Way more distracting. Whoever designs apps for both the phone and watch will have to make the interplay of interactions as smooth and logical as possible.

If smart watches take off, as I’m sure the Apple Watch will make it so, I can only imagine a more distracted population.


I don’t see the smart watch as an end to itself, but rather an important step in the making wearables a feasible thing to the public. Here are some things I’m excited for that smart watches help pave the road for:

More sensors

Heart rate sensors and accelerometers are the standard sensors on smart watches like the Moto 360 and Apple Watch. I’ll be excited to see what else can watches can include. Maybe a thermometer or barometer for future sports editions?

More control

Wearables have many potential uses as a controller for other devices. As Internet of Things technologies and device integration grows, perhaps we’ll be like James Bond in no time by turning on the washing machine with a flick of the wrist.

But…We’re still looking down

Regardless of how cool smart watches are, the basic interaction is still the same: looking down at a screen. Sometimes I feel like I’m reduced to a tech savvy monkey when I catch myself staring down at my phone in public.

I still want a (near) future where we’re interacting with the world directly in a more immersive digital experience. Pairing up Google Glass with controllers like the Myo or Nod would be awesome.

Myo Control
The Myo Gesture Control
Nod Gesture Control
Nod Gesture Control

Dreaming aside, I do think the Apple Watch can be the vanguard that brings wearables into mainstream. Want to see if I’m wrong in a few months? Subscribe below for UXB update straight to your inbox.


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