The Apple Watch is almost a year old now. Thousands of apps have been developed for it. What have we learnt so far? What makes a good user experience for a watch app? What works, and what doesn’t? Which apps should you be building for the watch?

Some Apple Watch experiences

The above is not intended to unfairly single out Twitterrific, one of my favourite iOS apps. Third-party watch apps all suffer from slow loading and slow or unreliable communication with the phone. Many of these limitations are inherent in the current generation of hardware and software. But, rather than wave our hands and say that third-party apps might suck now, but it’s all Apple’s fault and it’ll be great on Watch 2, it’s worth taking a look at what our watch apps should be doing and what we, as app creators, should be thinking about.

The watch is not just a small-screened iPhone, in the same way that an iPhone is not just a small-screened Mac. The usage patterns, interactions and user intentions are completely different. No matter how great the watch hardware becomes, users are never going to want to interact with it for more than a few seconds. Try this “fun” experiment:

Lift your arm up and look at your watch, or the part of your wrist where a watch would be, close enough to read the text on the screen.

Now hold your arm there.

Keep holding.

Bonus points if you’re doing this where other people can see you.

After a very short time it begins to feel socially or physically awkward. This is not a problem with the watch. It’s a design constraint to be embraced; the point of this device is to allow us to get our stupid primate faces away from staring at screens all day and spend more time doing something, anything else. Watch apps are not there for killing time while you’re waiting in the queue at the post office.

You can divide watch interactions into three streams 2:

I’m being told something

This is the domain of Dynamic Notifications, the best thing on watchOS. Unlike iOS, where the user is shown whatever text is sent with the notification and nothing else, dynamic notifications allow rich content and customisation. The watch shines as a notification delivery system, and it would be excellent for this customisation and power to come to iOS notifications as well.

The vast majority of my watch interactions are done via reading notifications and sometimes hitting one of the action buttons. It is not possible to have a dynamic notification UI without also providing a watch app. I feel that this restriction, and fears of watch apps being rejected for offering no “real” functionality, lies behind several of the somewhat lacklustre or pointless-feeling watch apps on the store today. I’m sure there are plenty of cases where dynamic notifications make sense, but an app does not.

The best watch app is the one you never have to launch. If you have notifications, put the work in to make them so good, the user never bothers with the app.

I want to know something

To make delivery of information valuable on the watch, the information must be compact, up-to-date, and quickly accessible. Your options as a developer are:

I want to do something

This is the trickiest area for the watch right now. You’re operating against tight constraints of space, time, input options and resources. Bump up against any one of these and you’re delivering a poor experience. Your competition, remember, is waiting in the user’s pocket or bag and can be out and active before they’ve finished looking at the loading spinner (though to be fair, the loading spinner only shows up if the app hasn’t been launched recently). This is where fitness apps have the edge — the phone may be in an armband or locker, and much harder to access.

There’s not much you can do about the launch time, but you can make sure that the user can do what they came to do as soon and as simply as possible. Focus on the most common use case, and defer to the phone app for the others.

Omnifocus is a great example of this category of app. The opening screen is a menu of sorts, yes (though it also displays information straight away) but then you can get a specific list of things to be ticked off, which is very useful when out shopping or doing a checklist-style task.

Do you want to build a watch app?

Given the above, it seems like these are the questions you should ask before developing a watch app:

A year in and the watch is still a nascent platform. There are problems that will disappear as the hardware and software evolves, and problems we can address right now by making sure the work we’re doing for the watch is relevant and appropriate. Watch this space 4.

  1. OK, good about 80% of the time. Sometimes Siri doesn’t want to play.

  2. David Smith has an interesting additional category, apps that are watch-exclusive because they depend on sensors only available on that device.

  3. Seriously, what is that? You need the app installed on your watch to get the good notifications, but you might only want to use a couple of them as apps. The duckpond might look good in a demo, but it’s horrible to use.

  4. Come on, I’m allowed one pun per article, it’s in my contract.

Richard Turton

Cocoa Engineer