Dear Smartwatch, thanks for the notification, now what?

Every now and then I try out a variety of smartwatches. The latest I am putting through its paces is one based on Google’s own Android Wear platform. I keep hoping I’ll crack the nut and discover something new that may explain why this particular product might be successful. I’m still skeptical, but perhaps I found some light at the end of the tunnel.

The value proposition of smartwatches, to date, is notifications. What stands out to me, each and every time I use a smartwatch, is that nearly all notifications pushed to my wrist are just duplicates of what is on my smartphone. Nothing different. Same thing, on both devices. A phone call comes in and my pocket and my wrist start making noise. A text message comes in and my phone and my wrist start making noise. An email, a twitter message, a message saying my photos have been backed up to Google cloud, a message from one of the six messaging apps I use regular to talk to people all over the globe, each renders a nice buzz and ring on both my smartphone and my smartwatch.

Where this really is amazing (/sarcasm) is when I’m on my PC, have my phone on my desk and my watch on my wrist. I get chimes, buzzed, and notified in several different ways all at the same time. With regard to the watch, these notifications are utterly useless in most situations. Given I am OCD about Twitter, email, and texts, I thought I would genuinely like getting notified of a text, email, Twitter message, or phone call on my wrist. The problem I’ve found is the notifications I’m interested in always knowing about are only somewhat appealing when I’m not staring at some other digital screen in my life, which also gets these notifications — like my tablet, PC, or smartphone. So when are these situations? When I’m walking through the city from meeting to meeting and my phone is in my pocket. When I am driving. When I am in a lunch meeting with a friend or colleague. Basically, whenever my smartwatch is the only personal screen I have in sight. The problem with this is, in many of those contexts, the notification is nice to know but un-actionable. Thank’s for the notification but now what? This is how I feel more often than not when I get dozens of notifications on my wrist.

So where do we go? Is there a “there there” with smartwatches? Perhaps an experience I had today gives us insight.

I was on my way back from a meeting in Palo Alto to have dinner with some colleagues in Santa Clara. I had two hours to kill before appointments so I went to Starbucks to catch up on email and Twitter. I’m accustomed to looking at my smartwatch with every little buzz, even though I am rarely rewarded for doing so. However, at about 5pm, I got a notification that was rewarding, relevant, and extremely useful. I was deep into email and Twitter and lost track of the time. I got a notification from Google Now, which said leave at 5:11pm to arrive on time. Pictured below.


Thanks to Google Now, my smartphone knew what my next appointment was, where it was, looked up local traffic data, and notified me when I had to leave to be there on time. Given I had lost track of time, that was useful. I’ve noted Google Now is the beginning of an anticipation engine, and for the first time that anticipation engine yielded value which appeared on my wrist.

As I use these devices, what becomes apparent is most notifications pushed to the wrist today are useless. More importantly, they are notification overload. One of my concerns is this causes a “my watch cried wolf” kind of syndrome. When so many notifications come to my wrist, and 90% are not useful, I learn to ignore them and then subsequently miss the few that are actually useful.

All of this to say, and to agree with Tim’s column today, we still have a long way to go for this to be a viable mass market solution. Notifications must get smarter. Google Now telling me when to leave with a notification I don’t see on my PC, and one that can be lost in other notifications on my Android phone, was useful. It was contextual and relevant. These are the kinds of things that make sense. The problem is, I find them few and far between. Maybe Apple cracks the nut, but maybe we just aren’t ready yet. We will know soon enough.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

8 thoughts on “Dear Smartwatch, thanks for the notification, now what?”

  1. The fundamental problem with notifications is that all incoming messages are treated as being of equal importance. This is classic stupid programmer binary thinking — either we want to be notified of every incoming message or none of them. Even Apple falls down on this.

    In real life, not every email is something we need to be beeped about, but there’s no setting in IOS for “only beep me for emails from people on my VIP list.” Notifications on your wrist (or in your pocket, for that matter) will only become truly useful if and when IOS and Android adopt a more granular, less obtusely stupid way of parsing the few actually useful and welcomed notifications from the vast sea of crap ones.

    1. This is an issue with Android notifications in general. Most of the notifications it pushes to the top bar are useless.

      Per my experience with the drive time notification. Things like that are smart, but I also point out, not really pushed on my phone in a meaningful way. All I saw on my phone was a little timer alert. It did not really alert me in a meaningful way that I run the risk of being late. It was pushed to the watch in a way that made it seem like, this alert you really need to see, kind of a way.

      We need more examples like this.

  2. I still think with this example that there’s a question around uniqueness: is this a notification that’s truly native to this device? Won’t Google Now still push this exact information to your phone? It may indeed get lost in a sea of notifications but so could anything: you can always change your settings to turn some notifications off or give precedence to one app’s notifications over another. So if you’re in front of a screen already or are just standing still, there isn’t much utility there.

    In saying that though, I DO think that context changes the equation slightly. If I received a similar message pushed to a watch while I was driving: e.g. a notification from, let’s say, Waze, to tell me to take a different route to get to my destination by X time, then yeah, that would be valuable to me since I don’t want to be doing anything with my phone while I’m driving and it’s a lot easier (and safer) to just flick my wrist up. But as you said, we live in an age where we spend most of our waking hours either in front of a screen or merely a couple of feet away from one. So how many of those instances are there for this to be useful? Enough for most consumers to drop a few hundred bucks on? I’m thinking no.

    Maybe what ends up happening is you have a fragmentation in smartwatches/wrist-based computers: on the low end, you have bands ($50 USD or less) that do nothing but send you notifications and then a more advanced device that’s selling for what today’s smartwatches are selling for now but with a truly unique case. I just don’t know what that is yet. 🙂

  3. For notifications to be truly helpful, rather than just another recurring nuisance that people will eventually disable, you need to set it it up meticulously right? Go through each app’s notification settings, determine what level of notification you want for each, determine the hierarchy of importance for each app, etc. Notice you can only do this if with respect to your day to day life, you’re already pretty organized in the first place. But if you lead an organized, disciplined life, chances are you don’t really need notifications that badly. So the great irony about notifications is that the people who can set it up to deliver maximal benefit are the people who need its help the least!

  4. I just got the lg smart watch and problem I’ve found is that most of the time it’s just tells time and the weather until you swipe it away. The voice recognition is almost perfect and I use it when I’m not close to my phone but other than that there isn’t anything that I would miss if I accidentally left it at home

  5. This parallels the experience I’ve heard from people receiving notifications on Google Glass. Without any kind of prioritization, the overload of trivial notifications becomes annoying and worse than useless, so they get turned off. At that point the device is then not much more than a camera strapped to the face, that doesn’t take photos or video of a quality anywhere near that of the camera on the smartphone in that person’s pocket.

    Clearly the key here with any kind of wearable devices is going beyond just what’s technically possible, by actually *reducing* the features or functions down to just the pure essence of what’s desirable. This is obviously not Google or Samsung or Amazon/etc.’s strong suit. Hopefully Apple will be able to get this right, with their understanding of the value of saying “no.”

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