Designing apps for the Apple Watch: best practices and considerations

Announced back in late 2014, Apple jumped into the wearable world with the release of its first generation Watch early last year. With software development kits in the hands of developers for a year now, and devices on wrists in the wild around the globe, what have we learned about how to give users the best experience? And what best practices should we have at the front of our minds when designing a new app for the Watch?

Note – whilst this article will focus on the Apple Watch, the design and human interaction basics can be broadly applied to any smart watch, including Pebble and Android Wear devices.

Beware the constraints of the Watch

One of the first things to consider when developing for the Apple Watch is how much of a constrained space you are working with. The Watch comes in two sizes: 38mm and 42mm – not much bigger than a large stamp! In terms of pixels, this comes out at 340×272 for the smaller one and 390×312 for the larger model.

For comparison, this is smaller than the screen resolution on the original iPhone (320×480). In an age of smartphone displays touching (or exceeding in some cases) 1920×1080, this is one of the biggest challenges to consider when contemplating an app.

Although Apple has been reticent, as always, to reveal actual specifications for the on-board hardware, reverse engineering analysis puts the CPU as a single core Cortex A7 processor at a clock speed of around 520MHz and deduces 512MB of RAM, which again, is much less than modern smartphones.

An important thing to remember is that although the watches range from the hundreds of pounds for the sport model, all the way up to the thousands for the gold designer edition; these specifications remain the same across the product lines.

What is the Apple Watch used for?

Perhaps the question I get asked most when people notice me wearing an Apple Watch is ‘So what do you use it for?’ – which is a harder question than it sounds. The bulk of my interactions using the watch are notification triage when out and about. Email is archived, PPI calls are declined, text messages read and acknowledged. Beyond that, I will use the watch to check the weather before I head out to lunch to see if I need to take an umbrella. I will check the football scores on a Saturday, check when my next train is or pick a podcast to listen to.


Dark Sky, presenting key, quick information

So what do all these interactions have in common? They are short, controlled interactions, often for a specific purpose or to find a specific piece of information.

Whilst it is possible to browse a Twitter timeline or flick through your friends’ latest Instagram pictures of their dinner, these sorts of prolonged interactions are limited by the size of your screen. A full tweet won’t fit on the screen, so you have to do a lot of scrolling. Furthermore, holding your arm up for prolonged periods gets uncomfortable surprisingly quickly!


Instagram, with a picture not fitting entirely on the screen

Methods of interacting with the Watch

The Apple Watch is something of a departure for Apple in terms of human computer interaction in that it is surprisingly complicated. Presumably to combat the size of the screen and the device, there are five main ways to use and interact with your device:

  • Gestures: your normal taps, swipes and scrolls
  • Force Touch: pushing into the screen with more force
  • The Digital Crown: the scroll wheel on the side
  • Side Button: the button next to the scroll wheel
  • Voice: because who doesn’t love talking to their wrist like a lunatic?

The issue with these interactions is that it’s not immediately clear when and where you can use them. Whilst designing your app, consider the methods of interaction you are going to use and be careful not to hide functionality where users might not expect to find it or think to look for it. Whilst it’s easy to hide additional options and settings in a hamburger menu for a Phone app, that is not an option on a small Watch screen.

Furthermore, Apps can use iOS techniques such as handoff to pass data and information between the Watch and the iPhone, allowing a user to quickly continue an action from the watch on the phone. This helps when a notification requires a more in-depth response than the Watch can offer. Smart use of this functionality can prevent users from being frustrated with limitations of your Watch app, allowing them to pick up actions on your phone application.

Introducing Glances and Complications

As well as the application itself, the Apple watch provides two additional, optional ways of allowing users to interact.

Glances are aptly named, as they are ways of display a quick non-interactive burst of information from a single screen. Glances are pulled up from the bottom of the screen, are non-scrolling and are not permitted to have any buttons or other controls. Glances offer quick access to key information and, crucially, don’t need the user to open the app itself, which can often save vital seconds and prevent frustration.


Goal Live Scores Glance, showing latest match information


Complications are small elements that can form part of a watch face. They can come in various sizes (depending on the modularity of the user’s chosen watch face). A Complication is a great way to keep your app front and centre in the user’s Watch experience by becoming a part of the first screen they see on any interaction with their device.


Dark Sky complication, showing information on the home screen

These additional methods of interaction can keep your app at the forefront of users’ minds, increasing its use and value to the consumer – especially if they can quickly get the information they need.

Designing apps for the Apple Watch

When the original iPad was first launched one of the common complaints was that it was just a ‘big iPod touch’. This was in part due to developers and designers: in their rush to tap into a new platform they would essentially upscale existing iPhone apps to run on the larger display, instead of redesigning from the ground up for a new platform with unique strengths and weaknesses. Early apps on the Watch can suffer from the same problems, especially when partnered with an existing phone app.

Apple, in their Watch documentation, suggest that your app offer only a subset of the functionality of your primary app. Some apps have taken this to the extreme, offering such a limited selection of data or functionality that the user experience is largely degraded.


The Uber app – yes this is the whole thing

On the flip side, some Watch applications essentially try to shoehorn so much of the functionality of their full phone app as to make it unwieldy, difficult or hard to understand. These bloated apps are also prone to running slowly on the constrained hardware of the watch.


Twitter, with a tweet not fitting on the page

The best apps are the ones that find the happy middle ground. They offer the user enough of a reason to use the Watch application, generally by limiting or pairing down the functionality offered whilst still delivering value. They present it in a way that works with the user interface and input methods and they negotiate the constraints of the device. Clever co-ordination between Phone and Watch can allow you to offer users real benefits.


CityMapper, showing concise information and limited actions


CityMapper displaying information visually


Slack, offering only key information on the Watch

The key question to ask yourself before embarking on an Apple Watch development is – does this add value? Do you have a compelling use case as to why your application needs a Watch extension, which can be delivered within the constraints of the device? If the answer is no, consider the alternatives of offering richer, interactive notifications which allows interaction from your watch without a native app.

7 design considerations for Watch apps

  • Consider the constraints of the device – size and power
  • Aim for short, quick user interactions
  • Consider which input methods you use, and be careful about hiding functionality
  • Use Glances and Complications where they add value
  • Offer enough value with your use cases, but…
  • …don’t overload your application with bloat.
  • Does this need to be a Watch app, or can you deliver all the required functionality with interactive notifications?

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