New UI on the Block: Apple Releases Interaction Design Kit for Apple Watch

In case you missed it, Apple released the first draft of the interaction design kit for the Apple Watch last week.

Wearables have become increasingly prevalent in our cultural lexicon over the course of the past few years, varying in focus from productivity, data collection, just-plain-cool-gizmo-from-the-future and a combination of all three. The rise of wearable tech can be largely attributed to fitness trackers and Google Glass but if you really sit back and think about trending tech, it was only a matter of time.


An Extension of Yourself

“Apple Watch was designed to blur the boundaries between physical object and software,” as stated in the Holistic approach to the UI guidelines. This sets a clear tone for all of the apps Apple Watch pairs: this isn’t just a smaller version of your mobile app. Instead, the intent of Apple Watch is to become yet another digital extension of ourselves.

By Proxy, this presents a bit of a challenge that the UI guidelines only speaks of on a granular level. App developers and designers must now think quite carefully about how their apps can be presented quickly, at a glance and at their most fundamental level.


Another Screen

Before the launch of the iPad, a tablet computer was a dream of the future. We weren’t quite sure how we would use it in our daily lives but, boy, were we intrigued. Almost four years and three iterations later, the tablet format is now a natural part of the technology ecosystem that interaction designers account for.

The Apple Watch’s display comes in two sizes, 272px x 340px and 312px x 390px, which immediately begs the question, “Why isn’t it just one size?” I think Apple learned their lesson when introducing color to their iPod Nano collection so many years ago; when you make a product an extension of a person, one size no longer fits all.

This will be an interesting challenge for Apple Watch app developers because on touch screens, the rule of thumb is for targets to be as big as possible. On a screen as big as your wrist, real estate comes at an even higher premium than ever before.


Layers Upon Layers

Navigation structure is an explicit challenge to designers in the Apple Watch ecosystem because there are only two ways you can design a menu structure. Users will either follow a hierarchical navigation pattern, making one choice per screen, or a page navigation pattern, swiping through the interface. This makes sifting through messages and calendar tasks fairly easy but more complex tasks will be harder to manage.


A New Interaction

Your ATM, your movie theatre, your GPS and your smartphone all use touch screens in different capacities. For each of them, the amount of force you have to exert to complete a task is totally different depending on which setting your in. Some screens require a light touch and others require a more firm approach.

Apple Watch now uses both and can tell the difference between a tap and a press, or “force touch” as Apple has named the interaction. This investment in haptic sensing further diversifies how many actions can be loaded into such a tiny screen.

So, what’s it all mean?

While wearable technology may have a direct impact on a fairly small number of digital products, the addition of ever-present and quickly accessible interactive devices may have numerous indirect consequences.

With a new platform to develop for, a slew of new and innovative apps for both recording and displaying data is inevitable. As has been seen in the past few years, when smartphone apps became commonplace and started to shift the design expectations of their users, so too may wearable app patterns start to seep into the greater digital design space. Beyond design patterns, the deluge of data collected through wearable tech provides opportunities not just for apps on the wearable platform, but for digital products across all platforms.

While smartphones furthered the “Bring Your Own Device” movement in business technology, wearables are poised to introduce “Wear Your Own Device” (or WYOD) to the corporate IT ecosystem. Users of wearable devices are unlikely to leave them at home when they head to the office, providing the potential for their use not only for personal apps, but for business utilities as well. Even more so than other devices, however, wearables are personal – they are, quite literally, connected to their users. Developers targeting business use cases should take a substantial amount of care in when and how their users will be expected to interact with their apps.

Businesses should review their current suite of products and consider where – if at all – users may benefit from the ability to passively record physical data (location, fitness, etc.), get critical notifications, or input simple non-text information (remember, there’s no keyboard!). If such an opportunity exists, now is the time to start designing your wearable app. In addition to areas for wearable apps, consider where new data from other wearable apps could factor in to your existing products.

This could also be a good time to go “back to basics” and consider the core purpose of the business app. Much of the UI principles are focused on that core purpose, the more alignment and value a business can show, the more indispensable their app will be on a wearable.


Joining the Pack

While other wearables have been on the market and on our bodies for years, the Apple Watch still doesn’t have a release date beyond the vague promise of “Spring 2015.” We’ll be watching to see how Apple’s existing UI styles and our behavior patterns evolve as Apple Watch becomes part of the product family.

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