Skip to main content

A sceptic's guide to the Apple Watch

Having recently gotten hold of the Apple Watch,  I’ve been able to spend some time road-testing it. I was particularly interested in speaking with sceptics of the new wearable tech to find out what their initial impressions were of it.

Rob is a UX consultant who I work with. He is also an Apple Watch sceptic. “If it doesn’t fit into my life then I’m not interested”, Rob said as we sat down to discuss the watch. Rob had previously mentioned that he’s reluctant to “jam another device” into his day-to-day life if it doesn’t solve a pre-existing problem for him. Much of the perceived benefit of the watch is about how it improves the moment between receiving a notification on your iPhone and taking it from your pocket to read the message. I wanted to know if Rob thinks there is room in his life for a device that takes information from the phone screen and makes it even more immediate.

Q. As designers, we’re advocates of technology that meets user needs. You mentioned that you started using the watch without having a burning problem to solve or a real need for any of its features…

A. That’s right. Like many people, I questioned the need for such an expensive device that does things I can already do (better) on my iPhone. Because I was able to try the watch for an extended period without having to buy it, I was able to evaluate its usefulness to me without the confirmation bias that comes with a big tech purchase.

Although the moment between receiving a mobile notification and checking my phone is short, I found it genuinely useful to split open and triage that moment. Without the watch, I would sense a phone vibration so I know that something has happened but I have no idea how important it is. Is the house burning down? Do I need to pick up food on the way home? Have I got horrible news from a client? Going to the watch rather than my phone to understand the importance of that message is where the watch becomes really useful; like a gatekeeper or a PA on your wrist.

That said, I can’t think of many cases where I went to the watch to do something unprompted. For example, when I was on a train and had 15 minutes to read the news or play a game, I used my phone. It’s a more appropriate form for things like this. App designers will have to bear this in mind and think of use cases that don’t involve replacing the phone. The more I used it, the more I found myself asking “Do I really need to pull my phone out to do this?”

Q.Having received these notifications, did you take action straight away?

A. I used it a lot more for triaging notifications; making decisions about importance and only interrupting my current task if absolutely necessary.

The watch was very capable of replying to my wife’s messages, answering questions like “Will you be home for dinner?” If I was asked “Do you want steak or pizza?” the watch would automatically add the options “steak” and “pizza” to my canned responses. Generally, if the message was worthy of an emotional or more complex response I tended to get my phone out and type a message. The watch uses the contents of the original message to create a list of responses. Q. How much effort did it require to triage these notifications as you went?

The process wasn’t disruptive for me. The number of notifications allowed through to the phone would dictate how much I’d be distracted, so I deliberately removed Facebook notifications from the watch straight away. It was definitely necessary to filter the amount of notifications coming through to the watch and, thankfully, this was easy to manage (although as more apps become watch compatible even without social media, I can foresee an issue juggling notifications for email, Slack, WhatsApp, SMS etc)

Interestingly, it became obvious very quickly that the watch is a two-handed device. If I was carrying something or pushing my baby buggy, I was able to see the notifications come in but I had to stop what I was doing to take action.  Siri integration is great, but I still have a barrier about speaking into my hand/wrist in public.  And I guess I’m not the only one!

Q. Was it disruptive for anyone else around you?

A. I turned the speaker off immediately for this reason. Also, the screen doesn’t turn on automatically when the watch vibrates so I’m able to use it at work without distracting other people. The vibration is subtle enough that you notice it but you don’t feel like your wrist is being hammered.  Apple talk about the vibrations being ‘different’ based on the message and the messenger, but I didn’t notice this.

Q. So when does the screen turn on?

A. The watch detects when the user performs a “glance” motion with their arm. A big problem is, it’s not quick enough for me. If you do a stereotypical watch movement, it works every time (albeit a microsecond too slow) but using the watch naturally – such as having a quick glance to see the time – sometimes I had to repeat or exaggerate the movement. It really needs some kind of sensitivity setting. Also, as it is based on motion up, lying horizontally in bed trying to check the time became a game of ‘how to twist my wrist up and around to activate the screen’.  Not a great experience.  It’s my choice to burn the battery to make sure that I can always view the time quickly.

Most of my friends and family are relatively sceptical. The majority of replies to an Apple Watch Facebook post were about poor battery but I’m happy to report that the battery is fine. Like all modern smartphone owners I charge mine every night and plugging in a watch at the same time was not a major barrier for me (although I would need an extra plug socket). 10% battery was the lowest I reached and that was using it all day with my GPS running . I have no issues with the battery life now but my big worry is that I would be nervous how Apple batteries perform after two to three years when the available Apps are only going to become more power hungry.  I’m hoping the advances in the OS will help to alleviate this, but truly I expect Apple to improve the hardware for version 2 or 3.

Q. I notice you’re a watch wearer. How do you feel about the Apple Watch as a replacement for a conventional watch?

A. You’ll never get rid of the Patek Philippes and the Rolexes – timeless jewellery that will last for generations. I don’t see timeless jewellery in Apple’s future. Apple’s Jony Ive has already stated that he doesn’t think about the watch in terms of luxury.

I still liken it to a piece of elegant electronics. I have a nice dress watch at home that I will give to my son. I will never feel that way about the Apple Watch. It’s too digital, too tech. They have however made something that feels like a real watch, rather than the Samsung Galaxy Gear which looks more like a computer on your wrist, and to be honest, that was a nice surprise.

Q. Did it affect your timekeeping at all?

A. Yes. A lot of my time-based decisions are related to travel. For example, I commute via Liverpool Street station. At the station I know exactly where 60 seconds will get me and this 60 seconds can be the difference between missing or catching the train. I run my commute that tightly sometimes.

The visual theme that I was using on the watch allows for several customisable modules, which I benefitted from, but there was no option to have a second hand unfortunately. When running for my train, if I’ve got 1 min 59 seconds then I might make a different decision than if I have 1 min 0 seconds but the watch would display the same time in both cases. It’s an issue I have with the software so I don’t consider it a serious fault of the watch.

Of course the watch needs to tell the time but I can see the watch giving me the bottom line, like “Don’t bother trying to make the 6pm train” instead of making me calculate this myself based on the current and departure times. With the watch, you could pick any time-based decision and ask how the watch could help me make a decision and not just give me all the data at once.”

Another example of how the watch could give you only what’s relevant would be a cooking app: You’d cook a recipe and the watch would show you the next instruction at the appropriate time and is a solution to the problem of using recipe apps with mucky hands although there are others. Watch apps can help make time-based decisions for you. The watch’s glance mode opens up the last app you used so there would be no need to touch the watch face. An idea like this plays on the best thing about the watch, which is the quick look functionality that allows information to be drip-fed very easily. A recipe app that only allows you to scroll through them is not fit for the watch form factor. Any similar tutorial content would work well because your watch acts as your hands-free instructor. This drip-feed principle is used in videogames and other software all the time to help people learn or change behaviours.

Q. It sounds like the watch has a variety of applications outside of just being a smartphone on your wrist.

A. That’s right. I tried some experiments using the remote camera app and its video preview. On a few occasions I was able to prop my phone up next to my baby. I was then able to go to the kitchen around 15m metres away, get snacks and look at my phone camera feed on my watch to make sure he was all right. The remote app actually works really well just as a viewfinder. The watch being used as a remote viewfinder. The sat-nav is perfect for use in the car. I currently have a cheap dashboard kit that I would like to do away with. It’s frustrating to fix this to the windscreen for every journey but I would rather stay security conscious until I have a watch of my own to control the whole experience.

I was also able to check my email in the shower using the watch. I was able to keep my phone charging with no danger of it getting wet.

Q. You showered with the company watch?! Do Apple say that you can do that?

A. To a certain extent, I tried out of curiosity. I’ve read articles that warn you not to use it in the shower but Tim Cook has reportedly say it’s fine, even if Apple don’t officially describe it as waterproof.  My guess is that Apple have slapped it with a “lesser” waterproof rating to pre-empt thousands of pissed off customers looking for a return when they did another ice bucket challenge and their watch went kaput.  Unlike other similar tech brands such as Garmin, GoPro etc, they specifically didn’t make this a USP.

Q. Would you consider buying an Apple Watch?

A. Normally for any Apple product I would wait for the second or third version of a product to take advantage of improved hardware packaging and new features since the experience usually improves with the technology. With the iPod, iPhone and iPad, there was a vast step change in performance between V1 and V2.  That would be the moment to buy.

Q. Are you still a sceptic or has your attitude towards the watch changed?

A. Now I’ve spent time with the watch, I understand that the moment between receiving a mobile notification and checking it is a burden. After giving the watch back, I genuinely missed not being able to read notifications straight away, which is odd because you wouldn’t have been able to sell the watch to me on this without me trying it for myself.

I’m the type of person that wants to improve my current behaviours rather than create new ones for myself. I think the watch has potential in both of these areas but, for me personally, any extra features added to the watch potentially also add time and complexity to a task, and anything that complicates the operation of the watch is one step away from it doing what I want it to.

Summary #

Overall, it seems that Apple’s first challenge is to demonstrate that there might be a place for the watch in the lives of a wider group of people. The difficulty here is in the fact that, for sceptics like Rob, the benefit of the watch has to be experienced to be believed. The value for these people isn’t in the feature set, or in the quality of the materials used to make it.

I suspect that after the early adoption phase, we will see Apple’s marketing emphasis move away from the watch as a beautiful object to featuring more examples of the watch in context.

Cover image based on confusion by rivda and apple watch by Ema Dimitrova from the Noun Project