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Wearable App Design Basics

It’s hard to argue that wearables look to be the next big digital design frontier and as a result, there has been a rush of articles and design concepts surfacing over the past year trying to show off the possibilities of this new platform. The only problem is that I think most of the authors haven’t actually designed for these devices so their work sounds interesting and looks pretty but they’ve missed a few huge real-world considerations that you quickly learn when you use these devices for an extended period of time and they are things that every designer needs to think about when creating an app for any wearable platform.

Over the past year and a half, I’ve experimented with a large number of wearable devices from a wide variety of manufacturers to really understand how they work and what consumers will want from them. Consumers often want to purchase accessories for their devices from sites like Mobile Mob where they can find replacement straps and charging cables to use with their wearable device. I’m also one of a very, VERY small group of designers who have designed and launched an app on Google Glass as well as working with Apple to bring our app to Apple Watch with the resulting work featured in their last two keynotes. So instead of acting like too many ad agencies and holding tight to this unique expertise, I wanted to go over a few of the basics that will be critical for creating a great experience on any wearable platform to help designers create better wearable experiences out of the gate.

This ISN’T a smaller smart phone

It sounds so simple – wearables aren’t smaller smartphones. Yet the number one mistake that I’ve seen designers make is that they think the experiences on wearables devices should be a smaller version of their smartphone app. I tried it in the beginning and I can tell you that you will fail if you go down that road so let’s get rid of that idea right from the top. You have to focus on how to create an experience that compliments your smartphone app as the vast majority of these devices must be paired with a smartphone to work. That means that these wearable apps don’t have to be a universe unto themselves and can be used for more focused interactions. But understanding those focused interactions is a more complex problem so let’s explore that in the next section.

Designing for the ‘now’


now-machineIf you look at how people interact with digital experiences across different form factors you will see that they don’t use them all the same. This is partially because of the physical size difference between devices that make different screen sizes between devices or input methods are different as one will use a keyboard and one will have a touch interface. It’s partially because of the context in which is the devices are used like sitting down at a desk or walking through the streets of a city. And finally because the more people use these different experiences the more they form new habits and expectations for these devices. This manifests itself in things like people don’t want the same depth of information on a desktop website compared to what they want in a smart phone app. They will browse a desktop top site because they have the time to experience more things but are much more task focused on a mobile device because of the smaller screen and the context of using it in public. It’s critical to understand the difference behaviors that these new form factors create to be able to create compelling experiences.

The best and simplest explanation of these different behaviors I’ve seen types came out of the design team at Google (X) when they created their design guidelines for Google Glass and is pictured above. It shows that people will use cloud storage to hold on to all the data and all the things that are interested in dating back as long as they have been on a computer. Their personal computer will have data from the past year and they will also use it as a platform to slowly browse and plan the things in their life. Mobile devices shorten that window to things that are relevant to them for a maximum of a month so it makes them more task focused in seeking out things to accomplish and plan. Wearables narrow that window down much further and are at their best when they focus on what the person is doing right now. The small screen sizes and much more transient way that consumers use them means that of all wearables focus on helping them with what they are doing right NOW.

That change in focus may sound small don’t be fooled – its huge. Creating an app that demonstrates value to a user on a moment by moment basis is very hard and requires a very different way of thinking. You have to be much more strict about the amount of content you present them with, you have to think much more about to curate that content so only the most valuable pieces make it into the experience and you have to start to create proactive user experience models that can use different cues to present that information at the right time.

Respect the battery life

The other huge challenge that I have found as I have designed for every wearable is battery life. These devices are small and as a result their batteries are small and don’t last very long. This means that you really have to think about a lot of different things you may not be used to when you are creating an experience.

The first is thinking about technical aspect of your app and working with your developers to think through how many data calls your app is going to make because the more call you make, the more times the device will need to use Bluetooth to get the data from the smart phone and the more the battery will run down. We even saw problem on devices like Google Glass where we would even have to limit the number of items in a search because Glass would have to build the results of a search and if we did more than 10 results Glass would get uncomfortably hot to wear and would chew up a huge amount of the battery trying to do the work of showing the results. We have also seen similar things across a number of the wearable devices so it is something you will need to think through.

On the design side you also need to think about how your design will effect battery life. This means that using a lot of colorful photos or using white backgrounds will cause the display to have to use more energy to display your designs and as a result it will use more of the battery. This is why most of the interfaces you see across all these devices are predominantly black with minimal color and photography.

If you don’t respect that limitation of the devices like battery life and try to accommodate them then you will end up creating something that will run down the users battery and they will delete your app because they will value the ability to use the device over any individual app experience.

This is only the beginning

Even I’ve just scratched the surface of what is possible from a wearable experience and every new day seem to bring the announcement of yet another new device. This needs to be a constantly evolving conversation and process for any designer creating anything for mobile or wearable devices as the masses continue to use more of these devices and we see new usability patterns emerge.

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