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by adam mathes
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The Apple Watch Will Make Me Cool Or Die Trying

It’s easy to be cynical about new technology and products, particularly from Apple. It’s also easy to be caught up in the hype before a product launch, which maybe I am.

But I’m more excited about the launch of Apple Watch than I’ve been for anything since the iPhone (which we could only imagine) because it feels very, very different than any high profile tech launch.

Fashionable or Bust

This is a product intended to be worn and seen on your person. It’s going to touch your skin all day. It’s going to tap your wrist to get your attention. It’s designed to be noticed by others.

Mobile devices are personal, intimate, and used in public — the whole package matters. And therefore how these devices make us feel, and what these devices say about you to others matter. […] Wearables (watches, glasses, whatever else comes next) will be even more about fashion as these things will be even more a part of how we present ourselves to others.

me, October 2013

Google’s offerings (Glass, Wear) tried but weren’t cool.

Apple Watch is going to make you feel fashionable and cool or die trying.

Apple Watch looks serious, designed, and beautiful in a way that the competitors in this space as of yet do not.

I was skeptical of the Pebble, but now I wear one every day and I love it, but it is borderline embarrassing as an adult to be wearing it. (The new Pebble Time looks much better, and I’ve preordered one.)

That tech pundits are skeptical of Apple Watch is irrelevant. The early adopter smartwatch phase of Pebble and Android Wear wasn’t that fun. It was kind of boring, the devices were clunky, the software was slow and hard to use, and the devices were just pretty fugly.

The Apple Watch is something else.

Evaluating it purely as a functional object misses the point. It’s a watch and a piece of jewelry as much as anything else – and it’s nicer than lots of the existing traditional watch competitors in this price range. But, also, it’s a hyper-awesome-space-age-internetworked computer on your wrist while it does that.

Wrists Are On Human Beings

Having 38mm and 42mm sizes is one of the few acknowledgments in a major technology product launch that there are customers in the world who matter who are not, statistically in terms of body sizes, best served by a product designed for tall white men. In fact there are people in this world who need products in shapes and sizes beyond what is designed around a statistically average white american male! Like, me. And many women. And all kinds of people all over the world.

In an ideal world we’d expect products to regularly be designed to account for a range of human bodies and this wouldn’t be so out of the ordinary. With wearables a one size fits all approach is unlikely to be as successful. Comfort matters. And you have to invest early on to get it right.

Making designs work at multiple screen sizes in a v1 is something Apple didn’t do with the iPod, iPhone or iPad at launch. It would have been a lot less work for Apple to just pick one size, but I think they rightly concluded that it would have made for a significantly worse experience for everyone.

Mediating, Replacing, and Creating New User Experiences

I think the Apple Watch is going to succeed in large part because it acknowledges fashion, comfort, consumer desire, and luxury in a way other wearables haven’t even begun to, but I’m a hobbyist in that realm.

I have a lot more experience in the world of technology mediated user experiences, and while I think evaluating any wearable purely in functional experiences misses a big part of the story, here’s my take.

The time and effort to glance at a watch is fractional compared to pulling out a device from a pocket, powering it on, unlocking it, and then interacting with an application. It’s seconds vs a fraction of a second.

That’s awesome and exciting.

The premise - and promise - of something like the apple watch is three-fold:

  1. Mediate and filter phone/tablet/computer experiences to save you time
  2. Replace existing experiences with faster, easier, more pleasant ones
  3. Create new experiences that are only possible with a wearable

An initial critical analysis of wearables from technology pundits tend to overly focus on how they don’t really want or need (1), (2) is not yet feasible because of supposed constraints, and they don’t properly imagine (3). I think these are short-sighted critiques.

Mediating Experiences

Because you almost always have your phone with you, and it’s nearly always connected to a network, smartphones quickly became better mediators/filters/messengers than their larger predecessors.

Smartphones mediate experiences - based on emails, notifications, or other things you might interact quickly with an application on your phone, or it may trigger a longer more complex interaction on a computer later.

Push notifications on smartphones are victims of their own success - by providing information outside of the application context, notifications inform and help users to decide whether to re-engage with an application. They help us to filter and mediate (or addict us, depending on your perspective) but are abused by many applications, so often fail to “scale” as you use your smartphone more.

Because we now live in a world of constant pinging, ringing, dinging, txting, liking, retweeting, snapchattering, instabrogramming, hyperspacefumbling, and spammy-re-engaging the idea of having these things show up on our wrists (especially to tech-heavy journalists addicted to social media) is some combination of awesome and/or terrifying for many.

Pebble (in its first version) really focused on this. Having used a Pebble for a year, if you take active control over your devices, notifications, and permissions this can actually be a great experience.

It’s actually quite simple on iOS: go into settings, then notification center. Turn off everything (notifications, badges, sounds, etc) for everything but phone calls. Wait. Breath deeply. Take a walk.

Meditate.

Cleanse your soul.

Only when you are spiritually and emotionally stable - selectively turn on the 2-3 things you might actually need to be interrupted for (phone calls, text messages, VIP email.) If those then actually show up on your wrist and you can glance at them without taking out your phone, it might actually make things easier for you.

On Android it’s also simple, especially if you’re on Lollipop with the “priority” notification features: just unlock your Android device, spend minutes in vain trying to find out how any of it works and why dozens of apps notify you without permission, scream in a combination of futile anger and anguish, then smash your device against the nearest concrete block, drop out of consumer society, go to a 14 day silent meditation retreat, move to New Mexico, switch to a pre-paid phone plan and put your SIM in a used Motorola Razr.

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Telling you who’s calling you, seeing a text message, and other little bits without pulling out your phone will be an easy win for the Apple Watch, and it’s the easiest part to understand, though some are skeptical it will make things easier. (I was when Pebble was announced and mocked it as a device for those too lazy to pull out their phones.)

Apple watch will likely do a better job of it than the Pebble, which was already useful pretty much based solely on that (the apps on Pebble are too clunky and slow and unusable.) That you will then be able to have super tiny instant reactions / interactions with it will make it not just faster than pulling out your phone, but better in some cases if they get it right.

Think of how many “coordination” text messages happen (are you there, are you on our way, etc) that would be nice to respond to with a single tap on your wrist (‘omw’, ‘5 minutes’, or ‘running late’) rather than futzing with your phone while you’re trying to get somewhere.

Android Wear tried to do some of this, but my experiences with it were the interfaces, navigation, experiences, and hardware were too clunky to get it right quite yet. My expectation is Apple will do better on their first try, and Android Wear will improve, and overall this sort of thing is inevitable for some segment of users.

Replacing Experiences

In the pre-smartphone era, you might have gotten on your laptop in the morning to check traffic for the morning commute. Today that would seem cumbersome (and your laptop probably isn’t on the bedside table like it was in 2005.)

In 2010 if you were on the cutting edge you might have checked your smartphone, using an application, perhaps seeing if other routes were better.

In 2015, you probably use your smartphone, but most modern iPhones or Android devices are smart enough to pull that information and experience outside the context of an application and provide it to you faster via Google Now or Apple’s Today experiences.

It’s not hard to imagine how you can take those sorts of experiences and replace them with something “glanceable” on a wearable that gets most of the value, but faster, with near-zero interaction required.

Interactions and interfaces are often the enemy of great experience - if you can do what you want without impediment, or with as little as action possible, you’ve saved more time in your day for “real” life.

In the early days, many people didn’t imagine that smartphones would swallow up as many “big device” activities as it has - maps, web browsing, messaging, social networking, photography. But as the hardware and software accelerated its pace, it wasn’t just possible to replicate activities you’d do on a laptop with a smartphone with subpar experiences, but it was also more pleasant in many cases. And this happened, very, very fast – a period of a few years. Compared to the adoption of personal computers, the web, and other technologies smartphones adoption and power is just mind-boggling.

If you squint, you can imagine something similar happening with wearable technology, with Apple Watch leading the effort. Directions, short messages, weather, traffic, and a whole host of things might be better experienced and general usage eclipsed with smaller, smarter, zero-interaction or “minimal” single tap experiences if we (as product and technology people) get our shit together.

In the same way that the constraints of the smartphone led to a whole world of simpler experiences vs. the bloated, WIMP and web modes, wearables offer that same blank slate. This doesn’t mean the other platform experiences disappear, but if you can get 80% of the value for 80% of the use cases without the bigger form factor, interface, and annoyance, that’s a huge change in behavior and time spent.

Creating New Experiences

This is the part that is hard to really grok. It’s also the most exciting.

It’s easy to be cynical about how things will not work; it’s easy to speculate about how battery life isn’t great yet. It’s hard to imagine how things might actually work in the future and what will be most impressive.

When I see things like the “send a heartbeat” feature - this is a feature that has to be evaluated on an emotional level, not just technology. It’s a magical, awesome thing that you just can’t do and get the same visceral, emotional, magical thing to happen on any other platform.

Things that weren’t possible before that don’t necessarily even make sense at first glance - that’s what’s most exciting. You don’t get Instagram without the iPhone. You don’t get Snapchat without smartphones either, and you don’t get it by starting with something everyone understands.

New sensors, new inputs, and new contexts offer up completely new worlds.

The kinds of things that seem exciting to me:

  • self-evaluation - imagine the watch that listens to the tone of the voices around me and my heart rate to understand mood and quietly pulses my wrist to try and get me to breathe deeply and lower my pulse.
  • communications - imagine a watch face that shows my loved ones physical status (sitting/walking/running), and one tap to urge them on if they’re exercising
  • swapnote reborn
  • proximity alerts on my wrist if friends are nearby
  • a million other things I can’t even imagine

The point is: I’m probably buying one and if it’s awful I’ll be sad.

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