March 21, 2015

Apple Watch: short term concerns, long term success

After an initial sales spike, I expect Apple Watch to be a relatively small success in the short to medium term, and a massive success in the long term. Here is why.

Unfinished interactions

When the iPhone came out, there was a solid set of interactions that defined how the phone would be used. There were audible gasps in the auditorium for the iPhone keynote when Steve Jobs first flicked through the contacts and inertia kept the movement going after his finger left the screen. Pinch to zoom was intuitive. A home button—the iPhone’s version of an escape key—always provided an obvious ‘way out’. Apple oozed confidence in having the building blocks of the iOS user experience in place, and that confidence was well founded.

The same is not true of Apple Watch, because there is are essentially no established patterns for interacting with a ‘smart watch’. It’s incredibly different. How do you support such complex interaction with something that’s so small? No one’s done it (well) before. Touch for the iPhone was obvious, and multi-touch technology was ready to support it. And voice would seem to be equally obvious for Apple Watch, except (a) voice recognition technology isn’t good enough yet to handle all the interaction, and (b) a watch is meant to be discreet, for use in many situations when voice is not appropriate.

Also, importantly, learned touch interactions from iPhones and iPads do not translate to Apple Watch. There is no pinch to zoom. The button that looks like a sleep button actually brings up friends to contact. Glances, which at first seem to resemble the slide-down notification panel, are not available at all times. The list is long.

These two issues will have two outcomes.

First, some users will inevitably be confused when interacting with Apple Watch, and this will affect word of mouth and will soften sales. Many users will of course ‘get it’ and adjust; some will find the differences be the tipping point that makes them hold off.

Second, Apple will inevitably have to refine the interactions in future watch iterations. I would strongly expect buttons to change in shape or purpose, and some key software features to adjust. This is no slight against Apple; we are in uncharted territory here. However, change is inevitable. That in itself will send a message of an ‘early adopters’ product that will make some potential buyers wary.

Uncertain uses

Many believe Apple Watch will suffer without having a ‘killer app’, a notable, compelling reason to buy one. I do not understand the reasoning behind this argument; even the iPhone on release was touted by Apple themselves as being three devices in one (a widescreen iPod with touch controls, a phone, and an Internet communications device), and we know how that turned out.

However, Apple, in exploring uses for the Watch, is again in uncharted territory and, I suggest, misfiring in places. As one example, some of the communications features with friends do not make sense. How many people ultimately want to send their pulse to another person? I love my wife; I do not wish to send her my pulse during a meeting or while driving to work. (I think there were some audible sniggers from the audience during this part of the keynote, and little applause.) Drawing pictures to send to someone, at the same speed and in the same style I have drawn them? Why would I, or they, care? Also, the screen is too small and fiddly for drawing; the flower drawing in Apple’s keynote was proof positive of this. I would rather send emoji characters, the feature for which also looked slow and awkward during the keynote. And having contacts presented by initials? That is not a natural way to refer to people. Nobody calls me ‘A M’. A better way is needed.

Again, much of this is understandable for such a new type of product. And again, I think it will affect initial interest in the watch. Tim Cook said recently in an interview that people didn’t know they needed an iPhone until they got one, and that the same will be true with Apple Watch. I disagree. I think people completely got the value of an incredible phone with visual voicemail, a revolutionary mobile browser (remember WAP anyone? thank goodness that’s gone), a touchscreen music player and several other valuable apps. I don’t think people have enough of the “I need that” with Apple Watch. It’s just not as obvious a need as the iPhone was. Establishing that need, and smoothing out the kinks, will take time.

Breaking conventions

Apple is singlehandedly fighting two long-established trends in watches:

  1. Typical watch batteries last months, years. No matter how well you wrap it, and no matter how understandable it is from a technology perspective, it’s jarring to the average person that Apple Watch’s battery ‘only’ lasts for a day. It sounds poor. And there are also practical, glaring issues. #1: you can’t use the watch for an extremely obvious use: waking you up in the morning with a little tap on the wrist. #2: you can’t take it camping, or sleep over at someone’s house, or….
  2. Typical watches are considered an investment, especially when you start talking high hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of dollars. Apple Watch is in those price brackets. But: everyone is used to most technology being relatively disposable, and getting ‘slower’ after the first couple of years. That’s not anyone’s fault, that’s just the way most technology is. So to consider buying a relatively expensive ‘watch’ that you just know will be obsolete at some point in the medium term… that needs some minds to be changed—if, indeed, they are wrong. They may have a point. (It was notable, if not unexpected, that Apple has not said that Apple Watch’s innards will be upgradable in the future.)

And in the long term…

In the long term, Apple Watch will be a revolution, a roaring success. There’s no question. Technology use is constrained only by its physical form factor, so it’s a no-brainer that the wrist is an excellent place to do anything that does not require a large screen. And as Apple is busy demonstrating through their intense marketing efforts leading up to the watch’s release, there are plenty of those ‘anythings’ you can do.

And Apple has already tackled several intangibles that many other technology companies will have great difficulty in matching. Such as the extraordinary importance of having something on your wrist that looks good and feels good. It’s fashion, after all. And the understanding they now have, and will continue building, of these intangibles will only make future Apple Watches more compelling. They’re easily a couple of years ahead, and that’s before you consider the control they have over the whole stack, from manufacturing methods through to the OS and the apps. They are in an immensely powerful position.

So Apple Watch be an incredible success down the road. There will just be some bumps along the way.

March 20, 2015

How responsive web design fails mobile

The de facto approach to modern website design is to have a ‘responsive’ website: one general page design for the website that adapts to fit any screen, be it a mobile phone, tablet, or desktop computer. The concept is great: design once, view anywhere. Job done. Or is it?

The problem with this trend is that the ways of interacting with the website rarely adapt with it. Links stay the same, buttons stay the same, text stays the same. Entire page sections stay the same. The only typical interaction change is the navigation, such as navigation links on a desktop screen turning into that ‘hamburger’ three-line button on a mobile screen. Panels of content go from being side-to-side on a desktop to top-to-bottom on mobile. Perhaps a picture will shrink or expand. It’s usually fairly minimal.

And so all the important constraints of mobile interaction—because most website interaction has desktop users in mind, whether the site’s design is responsive or not—are not addressed. For example, what worked visually on a larger screen, perhaps because that bit of information is obviously “over there” or you can just “look on the right” for something important, is lost on smaller screens.

So new patterns—and we’re talking hundreds of new patterns—are needed for adapting a website’s structure and interaction for mobile devices, not just the layout. Here are three that immediately come to mind:

  • Contextual help becomes crucial. Explanations or definitions for anything should almost always be provided in-place, not taking the user away from their carefully-managed current location.
  • Every single ‘fixed’ bit of information on the page—that is, anything that stays in the same place on the screen when the page is scrolled—takes away from the limited viewing area, so becomes worthy of ruthless scrutiny to ensure its value.
  • ‘White space’ must be reined back in. The current trend in desktop website design for excessive space around the actual content is ridiculous enough; when such excesses transfer to a mobile view, such that the user is relentlessly scrolling to consume more than a few words on any one screen, it becomes downright frustrating.

Mobile is more than just a small screen. It requires a different way of interacting. If you get that, and you build your website accordingly, users will delight.

March 19, 2015

A new beginning

A new site, a new place to share UX insights and my latest work.