Dear Smartwatch, thanks for the notification, now what?

on August 22, 2014

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.