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Smartwatches and one-shot interactions

For a while, I’ve had an Apple Watch, mostly out of industrial curiosity—I am interested to see what a smartwatch does, how they are interacted with and how they will change the tech industry. Before the Apple Watch, I had a Fitbit but when it fell apart, I thought “let’s try out a fully fledged smartwatch”.

The main things I use the watch for are: telling the time, health tracking and as a quick reminder of what I need to do (calendar and tasks). I also use it to pay with Apple Pay (which itself is a bit of an unreliable experience: some places that take contactless don’t take Apple Pay, some places will take contactless and Apple Pay but will be picky about what types of card they take contactless).

The more I use the watch, the less convinced I am about the app model. Each app becomes its own little silo that you have to jump in and out of. Not interesting. Finding and launching an app on the Apple Watch is fiddly. If you have a phone full of apps, when you set up the Apple Watch, there’ll be loads and loads of quite pointless apps that you don’t want or need. To pick on one random category: Flipboard and Feedly have Apple Watch apps. I have no idea why anyone would want to try and sit and read news on a watch. Just pull your damn phone out. Hell, there’s even dating apps like Scruff for the Watch now.

What I’ve found is that the apps which work really well on the watch are ones that require minimal to no interaction. The built-in Apple Maps app is great precisely because you don’t need to interact with it much. Just set where you are going, and you’ve got a little screen you can glance at when you want to see where you are and where you are going. It works really well when trying to walk some of the fiddlier streets in London. (Same with Google Maps, and I’m excited to see that the OSM-based maps.me now has a watch app.) The Citymapper app is similarly great: you set where you are going, and when you need to get off the bus, it’ll tap you on the wrist and show up on the screen.

One thing I think could be improved on the Apple Watch is the use of the button. Currently, pressing the button once will bring up a list of friends. I have found absolutely no use for this. This may just be that I’m anti-social but I use the watch mostly as an accompaniment to the world around me, not as a way to talk to or contact people. The phone is a much more natural way to talk and text people. The ability to send a pre-canned response from the watch is handy when someone texts you and you just want to fire back a quick reply, but if I want to text, the watch is a poor way of doing so compared to the phone in my pocket. It is interesting that Apple have tried to build a socially-focussed (rather than app-focussed) UI here, but it isn’t something I use at all. It is just this thing that comes up when one is trying to use Apple Pay.

Given that this social UI isn’t much use, what would be nice is if the future evolution of the Apple Watch would lean away from apps and instead focus on simple one-shot, sightless interactions. An app I use all the time on both the Watch and the iPhone is Shazam. Shazam itself is a horrendous mess of ads and crap, but here is how it used to look before growth hacking marketing droids fucked it all up:

Beautiful. As interactive experiences go, Shazam was like Kodak. You press the button, we do the rest. Even better than Kodak, you don’t even have to point the box in the right direction. You press the button, we tell you what song you are listening to. There’s now SoundHound which brings back the good old days of Shazam, but the library isn’t as good as Shazam, so I always end up going back to Shazam despite its terrible UI.

Shazam is a perfect example of a one-shot, sightless interaction. You are in a bar or a nightclub or waiting in line in a shop and a song comes on you like. So you reach down to your watch and you press the button—the one that currently brings up the pointless friend list UI that I don’t use—and it works out what the song is and stores it in a list for me. And that’s it. You don’t have to look at the screen. Maybe after the song has been recognised, it’ll vibrate slightly to tell you that it has recognised it, and maybe drop a notification to tell you. That’s all customisable.

(It being Shazam, it then doesn’t work with Spotify this week because their biz dev guy decided that they didn’t like Spotify anymore.)

The point here is that instead of interacting with an app, having to open the app and press the button, the app just sits there waiting for you. Now, Shazam is something I’d want to be able to use frequently because I care about music. Other people are different. They could wire up the button to their favourite interaction. Maybe that’s texting their partner saying they are on the way home. Maybe that’s checking in on Swarm. Maybe that’s play/pause on their audio. Once we start breaking out of the “app” way of thinking and start thinking about the interactions that people want to do while in the world. Rather than having to delve into the watch and into the apps, the watch makes the individual interactions you care about ready-to-hand.

On a watch computer, I don’t care about having a hundred apps. I care about having the interactions I do most frequently possible in a seamless way. That’s what smartwatch designers should think about. It might have the nice side effect of making people less obsessed with apps as some kind of brand vehicle, something you use to measure how many DAUs or MAUs or whatever you have and instead something you use to deliver valuable experiences to users through. Some of those experiences will involve your users not even seeing your app or your brand.