My First Week With the Apple Watch

on April 8, 2015
Reading Time: 10 minutes

It is rare in this industry to get to experience the beginning of something new,  something for which you have no frame of reference. While not a stand-alone computer (yet), I’m convinced the Apple Watch represents something completely new. It is a unique way to interact in a digital world.

I say this having used nearly every smartwatch to hit the market over the last few years. None of them felt like a mass market product but more for a tech enthusiast or early adopter. The Apple Watch is easily the first smartwatch I’ve used that was designed for the average consumer.

Because of how powerful the Apple Watch is, I believe it will appeal differently to different people and for different reasons. What I’ll share here are the experiences that stood out most to me and the observations I’ve made.

Notifications Done Right

I’ve been using smartwatches since the first Pebble. I had always been attracted to the idea of notifications delivered to my wrist but most smartwatches to date just duplicated the notifications on my phone. It’s been said by many smart people that a notification that just tells me to take out my smartphone is useless. It is in this area the Apple Watch sets itself apart from the smartwatch pack. Apple’s implementation delivers on the promise of notifications done right.

Unlike many other smartwatches, the Apple Watch lets you take action in a simple and efficient way directly on your wrist. For example, when a text message comes in, you can respond with pre-set answers, an emoji, by voice dictation via Siri or a voice recording. Interestingly, the pre-set text answers are contextual and change based on what the Watch understands of the content of the conversation. Meaning, it is trying to predict the types of answers you will need and bring those to the top for quick, easy replies. I found this to be incredibly useful and efficient.

The Apple Watch became my primary notification panel/dashboard. It is not only the most natural place to be notified and to decide what action needs to be done but, because the entire user experience was built for quick interactions, notifications may have found where they were destined to exist.

Apple allows for a tight filtering of the notifications you want to occur. By limiting what I want to be notified of, I ensured only the most important things — from email, to texts, to calls, and even relevant app notifications — are exactly what I want to be notified about. It ensures each notification is meaningful.

Meaningful Taps

Since the Apple Watch is worn, it has the ability to get our attention and deliver value in ways different from our smartphones. Smartphones are usually out of sight but not out of mind. A buzz or ding alerts us something requires our attention. The challenge is we don’t know exactly what requires our attention. Is it important or not? We have to pull our phones out of our pockets or bags, or find where we left it around the house to find out. As the Apple Watch helped me figure out, not all notifications are created equal. Yet our smartphones treat them as such.

Since we engage with the Apple Watch for only a matter of seconds, we need to know the information delivered is extremely valuable. Therefore, the notifications I allow to come to my wrist are ones I have ranked as the highest priority. When you know which notifications you want and which ones you don’t, then each notification is meaningful. Since the Watch is the thing I have on me and is visible at all times, it is a natural place for the most important information to be accessible. With the Apple Watch app, you can filter the notifications you want to allow to get your attention. This is the most compelling aspect of the Watch experience. I can leave my iPhone out of sight and, even if I hear it buzz or ding, if I don’t get notified on the Watch, I know it isn’t something important and doesn’t require my immediate attention.

Apple Watch also notifies you via different sounds and through vibration using the Taptic Engine. Each type of notification has a different feel. Once you learn these taptic patterns, it helps you know the type of notification before you even look at it. A good example of this was the Maps experience. When walking down the street to a meeting in San Francisco, I used the Watch to guide me there. The Apple Watch has a different taptic pattern for going left and for going right. This way, I didn’t need to lift my wrist to look at the display to know which way to go. The implications of these different types of notifications based on feel are unexplored territory.

Primarily around the notification and glance-able data experience, I saw a behavioral shift in how I used my iPhone. In many ways the Apple Watch untethered me from my iPhone the way the iPhone untethered me from my PC. I was free to leave my phone somewhere in the house, at my desk, or in my pocket, and focus more on the moments of real life. Sometimes it was a meeting, at home, out in my yard, at the kid’s tennis match, etc. There was peace of mind knowing I can leave my phone out of sight or mind but still have access to the relevant information or notifications and even be able to interact and respond to them. The most important interactions and information are no longer only accessible on my large screen smartphone. This experience, of moving key functionality from my iPhone to my wrist, proved to add a significant amount of value to my overall day.

Software

After just a few minutes with the Apple Watch you realize how powerful it is. It feels overwhelming to start, because you are trying to wrap your brain around all that this brand new type of computer can do. But quickly you realize that, while powerful, it is also very simple. Capable, yet approachable, in its user interface.

The reason I believe many who have had demos of the Apple Watch at both events initially felt somewhat uncomfortable with the user interface is because most of us are used to the fairly complex software interactions we use on our PCs, smartphones, and tablets. These computers have large displays where software and user interfaces are built with minutes or hours rather than seconds of interactions in mind. Once you grasp how well designed the Apple Watch user interface is for interactions measured in seconds rather than minutes, the more you realize how well thought out it is.

The Watch face is your main information dashboard. From this state, you can swipe down to get all notifications you have not yet seen. Swiping up reveals “Glances”, which are snippets of relevant information like stocks, weather, battery life, exercise, etc. Swiping left or right navigates easily through the glances. Swipe down at any time to go back to the Watch face. The digital crown is your Home button and takes you to the app screen. What is interesting in this interface model is how the apps are a layer below rather than front and center as on the iPhone and iPad.

Customization

One of the areas where the Apple Watch excels where so many other wearables, including luxury smartwatches, fail is in customization. With deeply customizable watch face options, you can quickly and easily change the watch face based on your mood, style, clothing, or just because you feel like something different. You can also customize all the “complications”, what the watch industry calls the additional information on a watch face not related to time. In my use of the Apple Watch, I always kept my calendar and weather information on each watch face. Then I customized several other watch faces based on different needs. For example, the Mickey Mouse watch face became my weekend watch face. Often times, I changed the colors of certain watch faces to match my clothing for the day, particularly when I had to dress up for client meetings or presentations.

Another customization element that was truly compelling were the watch bands. Most expensive watches require a professional to change the band so most people never change them and are stuck with just one. Apple designed the Apple Watch for quick and easy swapping of the band. My primary watch band is the Milanese Loop, but I don’t want to go to the gym or play tennis with it on the Watch. Yet, while I exercise, I still want the Apple Watch to track my activity. Because it is so easy to switch out bands, within a matter of seconds I switched from the Milanese Loop to the Apple Watch Sport band. I fully intend to buy a few more of the bands as well, so I have more options to change the band based on my mood or style.

With a product as personal as something we wear on our body, it is a huge differentiator for the Apple Watch that it is customizable for the personal preferences of each person.

A New Interaction Model

Ultimately what I am convinced of is the Apple Watch represents a completely new computer interaction model. A PC is for when we have a few hours. Our smartphones is for when we have a few minutes. Our smartwatch is for when we have a few seconds. Each device, and the software and experience built for it, should help us maximize those hours, minutes, and seconds.

We never expected the smartphone to disrupt the amount of time we spend on PCs yet that is exactly what happened. It is not uncommon for people to be sitting in front of their PC and simultaneously use their smartphone because it is more convenient to do certain things on a smartphone thanks to the apps and the software built for minutes not hours of use. Checking the weather, stocks, Facebook, etc., are often quicker and more easily done on a smartphone than on a PC. Similarly, I found myself doing things on the Apple Watch I used to do on my phone. Most often these were things useful at a glance. Things like reminders I set, task lists or goals I have organized, my next appointment, having Siri check my calendar, text my wife I’m on my way home, etc. All quick things I used my phone for (and still can) but are actually better, more useful, and super convenient when done right from my Apple Watch.

What makes this shift possible is how the software and UI are built for these micro-interactions. The software is what truly enables this new and added functionality and it is specifically because the experience was built around interactions measured in seconds. Which means quick, efficient, and relevant usage of the Apple Watch in the moments where you only have seconds and not minutes or hours to do something.

It isn’t just one thing about the Watch that makes it compelling. If it was only good at one or two things, it would suffice for a portion of the market but not satisfy the market as a whole. What I have found is it is the entirety of the Apple Watch experience that makes it compelling. It is an additive experience to the iPhone and one I found particularly valuable.

After a week, I’m convinced Apple is onto something with this product. It may not be a necessity for most people but it is absolutely complementary to our digital lives. And the best part is the whole thing is going to keep getting better. More apps will come, developers will evolve and create new and compelling software to take advantage of those interactions that are measured in seconds and not minutes. Apple will update the operating system to include more features and functionality. That is the beauty of this being both a hardware and software play. The experience is not static but dynamic and we can look forward to watching and using the Apple Watch as it continues to evolve in meaningful ways.

Extra Observations

All the Little Things
With Apple, it is the little things you do that you tend to appreciate. The things where you say, “That’s smart!” Here were a few of my favorite examples:

  1. Cover the watch face to silence a call
  2. Quick glance at notifications, but then holding your wrist up a second longer will reveal the contents of the notification if you want to read it
  3. Security settings allowing you to not reveal text notification in case you are in the presence of people you don’t want seeing or reading the content of a text or email
  4. Helpful notifications throughout the day coaching you health-wise to meet your goals
  5. Apple Watch learns about your movement over time and adjusts your goals and coaches you accordingly.
  6. The ability to use the watch to ping your iPhone so you can find it if you have misplaced it. A quick “find my iPhone” experience if you will

Force Touch
One of the most revolutionary things about the Apple Watch is Force Touch. If there is one single thing the Apple Watch possesses that I believe is a major step forward in Apple’s product ecosystem it is Force Touch.

Once Force Touch comes to other iOS devices like the iPhone and, perhaps more interestingly, the iPad, and developers start imaging new ways to use this new gesture and UI element, I believe we will take another huge step forward for touch computing.

Digital Crown

I found the digital crown to be dramatically more useful than I initially thought. I am so used to touch as an interface I thought there was no way I wanted to use the digital crown to navigate. But with the Apple Watch screen being smaller, you find your fingers get in the way of the screen as you are trying to read it. This is where the digital crown comes in handy. I found myself using the digital crown significantly more than touching the display.

Battery
From my experience with battery life, Apple appears to have undersold it. The Apple Watch easily lasted a day, even a long day of heavy use. My Apple Watch battery never got below 20% and only once even got close to that. The day it did was a long day when I took it off the charger at 5:45am and used it frequently, including tracking my activity during a two hour tennis match, and I didn’t plug it back in until 10:30pm.

With my average usage, I tried to see how long I could go and several times over the week got nearly two days of battery life. 
This will obviously vary by person, but the fact Apple Watch users will not have to worry about battery life over the course of the day no matter how heavy it is used is important for the experience.

Digital Touch
Lastly, this is the area I feel has very interesting potential. I was able to test this out with a few other people, and it truly is fascinating to have a new way to communicate via digital touch. However, no one in my immediate family has a Watch yet. Where I feel the ultimate potential for digital touch resides is when those you have more intimate relationships with send you messages where there is sentiment behind it. My wife and I could agree that three taps means I love you or I’m thinking of you. When I’m traveling on business this has huge potential for me personally. Or my kids could draw a picture of a cat or a flower. These little interactions, while brief, have the potential to be more personal. Love taps, or even love drawings, have the potential to bring a deeper level of intimacy to our digital communications.

For Tech.pinions subscribers I wrote a deeper analysis on the Apple Watch and what it means to the Apple ecosystem, the competition, and the category. If you are not a Tech.pinions subscriber you can learn more about our analysis service here.