Things to think about when planning an Apple Watch app

The first question to ask yourself is, “Just what the heck is this thing going to do?”

For the average user, the Apple Watch will be joining an entire constellationof devices they already use in the course of a day. If they use their laptop for general computing, perhaps they use their iPad for reading books or blog posts on the couch. Or watching Netflix. They pull out their phone on the go to play games or catch up on Twitter. We’ve all seen someone browsing Instagram on the bus.

Despite how connected to our smartphones we’ve all become, the Watch will be even more intimate. It’s literally strapped to your body. You need to respect that.

Should your app exist?

Assuming you have some say in the matter, take a moment to ask yourself if creating a WatchKit app for your product is really beneficial for your users. I love Dropbox, but struggle to think of any reason I’d want it on my wrist. Perhaps they’ll surprise me.

What would your app bring to the table? In my mind, useful Watch apps do one of three things:

1. Make it easier to do my job or live my life.
2. Improve the connections I have with people I care about.
3. Bring a small moment of joy into my life.

If the app concept in your mind doesn’t fit into one of those three categories — or more than one — I would think long and hard about whether it should exist at all.

When in doubt, why not ask your users? By speaking to my app’s potential users, I’ve avoided making false assumptions about how they’ll use it.

If I try your Watch app and you piss me off, I won’t be back.

Precious Seconds

If we measure iPhone app usage in minutes, Watch apps will be measured in seconds. In my testing, users want their smartwatch to integrate into their life/workflow, not become the focus of it.

Watch apps should get the user in and out as fast as possible. Convenience is your guiding principle.

I had the opportunity to test a Pebble smartwatch for two months and I loved how little I had to pull out my phone to deal with my digital life. New message from a contact? I glanced at my wrist, decided whether or not it needed to be dealt with in the moment, and got on with my day.

That’s powerful.

When you’re planning your app’s functionality, design, and UI don’t disrespect my time by asking me to do any more than that.

Duplication of effort

A Watch app complements your existing iOS app, it doesn’t replace it. Don’t try to re-create all of the existing functionality. What are the top three features your app needs and your users would appreciate? Better yet, what’s the one killer feature?

  • I want to start/stop recording my bike ride in Strava, I don’t want to read through a long list of every ride I’ve ever taken.
  • I want to see the latest deals at the store and find the closest location. I don’t want to browse every product you carry.
  • I want to see the top 5 reviews of the restaurant I’m standing in front of, not read every damn review ever written.
  • I want to read the top news stories of the day that are most relevant to me, not flip through every story in the paper.

Your Watch app is bundled with a fully-featured iOS app. Don’t duplicate your effort. If you simply “minify” your existing app, you blew it.

Working on an awesome app for the Apple Watch? I’ve released a set of 113 HIG-compliant icons called Chronicons. Designed specifically for the Apple Watch, they’re $5 off until Wednesday.

How to Design an Icon Set for the Apple Watch

As I prepare to wrap up work on the first edition of Chronicons, my menu icon set designed for the Apple Watch, I wanted to share a few of the steps I took to (hopefully) ensure its success.

Designing for a brand-new device — particularly one that hasn’t been released — can be tricky. It’s important to find ways to anticipate design considerations ahead of time, rather than just waiting for launch. Here’s the approach I took:

1. Read the documentation

Often the docs are all you’ll have to go on at first. For Apple products, the Human Interface Guidelines are your bible. Following the guidelines in the HIG won’t stop you from designing garbage, but it’s better than going in blind.

I went one step further and used iOS Artwork Extractor to grab the menu assets included in the beta OS. By studying how Apple’s designers had created their icons, I was better able to understand the guidelines set out in the HIG.

2. Follow what other people are doing

Every morning I sit down with a coffee — or a Red Bull — and open a new tab to the Apple Developer Forums. Ditto for Stack Overflow questions tagged “WatchKit”. Oh, and a Twitter search for the same.

Part of the reason I do this is to find great links for WatchKit Resources. But it also allows me to stay abreast of the problems other designers are facing — and the solutions to those problems. When it’s the Developer Forums, those solutions often come Apple devs, designers, and evangelists. Invaluable. Where I can, I try to offer solutions of my own — either by responding directly, or writing blog posts.

3. Fake it

Designing for a device that hasn’t been released yet is really hard. Sure, you can read the HIG and look at pretty mockups on Dribbble. But it doesn’t help you understand the context your work will be used in. It didn’t for me, at least.

The size of the Apple Watch simulator window can be deceiving. If you want to get a better sense of just how damn small the Apple Watch is, I suggest using Bezel to bring it back down to size.

But that wasn’t enough for me. Forget launch dates, I wanted to hold an Apple Watch nowEnter 3D printing. I created a model of the 42mm Watch and, at one point, strapped it to my wrist with duct tape. If you have access to a 3D printer, I highly recommend it.

Oh, and I wore a bunch of competing smartwatches. Every single one I could find. Pebble, Moto, you name it. Fitness devices like the FitBit and the FuelBand, too. I wanted to understand their individual strengths and weaknesses, along with the benefits of wearables in general.

4. Talk to your future customers

Coming up with icon concepts was easy, at first. I knew the kind of apps I wanted to build for the Watch, so I created icons to fit those ideas. After a few weeks, however, I realized I needed to ask other developers what they were working on.

I chatted with my fellow Apple Watch devs every chance I got. Heck, I stilldo. I asked them what they were working on, where they saw the Watch going in the future, and what sort of design assets they needed for their projects. Basically, I listened to their needs and then said, THAT’S AWESOME PERHAPS I CAN HELP.

There are plenty of icons that wouldn’t have made it into Chronicons Edition #1 if it weren’t for those conversations. And I already have a great list for Edition #2.

5. Assume you’ll be wrong

This is all well and good, but we still don’t have the damn Watch in our hands. And, despite all the efforts to lessen the risk, that’s still a risk. Particularly when you are asking customers to give you cold, hard cash for your design work. I know there’s a good chance some of these icons will need tweaking once the Apple Watch has been released to the public. If something ends up looking like crap, I don’t want people to feel ripped off. But I also want them to be able to make use of Chronicons now.

To that end, I am committing to free updates for all customers. Dead stop. It just seems like the right thing to do. If you are getting ready to launch your own pre-launch products for the Apple Watch, I would suggest thinking about doing the same.


Working on an awesome app for the Apple Watch? Chronicons Edition #1 is now available. Want to hear more from me? Sign up for the mailing list to be first to know about new icons sets and deals.

#nerdlearn x NSNorth: Apple Watch

For the next edition of #nerdlearn, TWG's semi-regular developer event series, we're teaming up with our friends at NSNorth to chat about the Apple Watch. Working on your own Watch app? Should you be? What does the Apple Watch mean for your business?

Come on out, enjoy some food and drinks on us, and learn the answer to those questions and more. February 19th at the TWG studio in Toronto.

You can RSVP over on the Meetup page.

Looking for someone knowledgeable to chat to your company, team, organization, or meetup about the Apple Watch? Let's chat.