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Thoughts on Designing for Wearables


Smart watches are the current wave of smart wear.

A few of my friends have Apple Watches, and I have a Moto 360 (Android Wear). Each has its own specific pros and cons in terms of usability. Android is card-based and has a simple scrolling action, a shallow learning curve and an interface which gets out of the way. Apple Watch apps, once set, stay in a consistent order and provide more of a consistent experience.

tap to enter card swipe up to see content
Tap to enter card, swipe up for content

In this article I want to look at their strengths and weaknesses, and discuss some best practices to consider when working on the user experience design of a product aimed at these platforms. 

I’ll argue that you’ll want to design for less interaction, rather than more!

Platform User Experience 

Watches tell the time. They are fashion accessories and sometimes feature water resistance, the ability to tell the date and so on.

The smart watch is more of another way to interact with apps and push for the “internet of things” It’s a signifiacnt move towards everyday things being connected to the net.

I spent a lot of time learning how to use my Moto 360, install apps and update software. It can certainly feel unnatural to spend so much time looking down at your wrist, and using your finger to scroll up and down can get cumbersome after fifteen minutes or so. 

In my opinion, watches are not really suited for such intensive use, and apps running on the platform would be better off getting out of the way, or being “transient”.

Cooper defines a transient application as something which has a tightly restricted set of accompanying controls. The key point being that they are only called upon when needed. 

Android Wear: Moto 360

To give some kind of context, this product is at the core of Android Wear.

Android Wear Moto 360
Android Wear: Moto 360

The Moto 360 Android Wear is, at the time of writing, one of the most popular smartwatches on offer. It’s heavily focused on the situation you’re in. You may, for example, receive a notification from a certain app at a certain time, but that app is not necessarily accessible in your apps menu. 

Apple Watch

You’ve heard of this one, right?

The Apple Watch acts more as a sovereign application, in that it has a more consistent experience in regard to app positioning etc. App notifications and such do not appear on your phone and disappear once they have been dismissed, but are readily available based on traditional smart phone paradigms. 

Let’s look at the way users interact with their smart watches and how we, as designers, can best cater for them.

Reducing the Steps

Updates: Notifications are probably one of the ubiquitous features of the smart watch. Check the time. Get a message. Dismiss the message. All in all, you want to glance at the watch get notified and then move on.

Lightweight actions: Beyond notifications, the next step is the lightweight action, like checking the weather. You might do this at the start of the day; check the weather before you leave the house, and perhaps for the week ahead. The apps currently available for this are very lightweight and you only need a couple of swipes to get the desired information. 

Initiating tasks: Initiating tasks happens less frequently on wearables. They are more intensive and require more time focusing on the watch than is necessary. It’s vital in situations like this to reduce the steps. If you have an analogous app on the app store, it might feature just one component which is available on the watch. 

For example, All the cooks allows users on the website to create their own recipes exclusively. Users can also browse and “favourite” recipes, all from within the iOS app. However, on the watch it’s only possible to check out the shopping list and ingredients. 

Even this specific aspect of the product is quite cumbersome for a wearable, so ensure you design something that significantly reduces the amount of steps. Where possible, eliminate interfaces to embrace natural processes.

Communicate Hidden Gestures

The average user can’t be expected to wade through a 60-80 page guide to find what they’re looking for. 

There are a few Visual Design techniques that we can use in order to ensure that we can give the user a more intuitive experience. 


For example, an onboarding process. The Moto 360 takes users through a journey when they first start it up. It covers all the major functions, such as changing the watch face and dismissing alerts. 

JIT/Education Tips

Having tips available only when the user requires them is a powerful technique. For example, having a partially visible dialogue window (or card) that the user can see more of or dismiss. Give them the opportunity to see the tip in context. 

Animation Cues

Animation cues give the user an opportunity to get a glimpse of what’s possible. For example, a glowing button or something appearing briefly at the bottom of the screen.

The Moto 360 has prompts such as animation around “OK Google” in the Android search widget on phone start. It appears briefly and then disappears.


Designing for wearables poses many challenges. Wearables are arguably devices which are better suited for less intensive interaction. By putting ourselves in the users’ shoes and thinking about the user experience, we can use visual design in subtle ways to guide the user.

Do you have a smart watch or wearable device? How do you use it most of the time? Leave your comments below!

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