Screen – skrēn – noun: a flat panel or area on an electronic device such as a television, computer, or smartphone, on which images and data are displayed.
Ratio is well-known for creating seamless multi-screen experiences – it’s core to our mission. In today’s world, those screens are easily defined – phone, tablet, TV, PC etc. but in the future, we will need to evolve our definition if we are to capture all the interaction and information consumption scenarios that new hardware will offer. Part of our culture is to explore those new opportunities and imagine future user experience paradigms and technologies – Ratio Labs is our digital workshop where we do most of this work.
We’ve been observing the wearable market for a while and in particular the ways that, in the future, smart watches will become part of the fabric of our daily lives. The Ratio Labs team recently undertook design explorations looking specifically at this problem and a vision of where we see the smartwatch heading in the future. You can read more about the exploration in this companion blog post here.
In this article we offer a strategic perspective of where devices, like smart watches, fit in the general ecosystem of devices. In doing so, we apply our theory of the App Lifecycle to highlight areas of opportunity for the ecosystem and certain challenges that we think need to be solved in order to realize the full potential of the technology.
Here’s a brief excerpt from the blog post to give you a quick insight into the theory:
During my time at Microsoft in the Apps Team, we helped many publishers build great experiences for Windows and Windows Phone. Throughout the process of explaining all the various features and scenarios available on the platform, I developed a framework to help structure and prioritize product planning. The framework begins with the level set that the usage of an app is cyclic, i.e. people use the app, they don’t use the app, they use the app and so on. The app’s design and use of native features dramatically impact the duration of each phase and also how quickly you can transition from one phase to another. Of course, the goal is to keep the user in the app for as long as possible, but once they do leave it, figuring out the way to get them back in again is critical. More often than not, the app also serves some business purpose, i.e. generating revenue. Developing an approach for this is as complex as it is important: there are numerous options for generating revenue from mobile apps and understanding each one and its advantages and disadvantages takes time.
We believe you can apply the same theory of mobile apps to watch apps. Doing so helps to think through all the various considerations that we need to make when designing the experience.
In today’s world of mobile apps, user acquisition (app installation) is a key consideration for any app publisher. We see an opportunity for new digital screens like smart watches to be a core part of the continuum of devices that we use every day. Experiences the user cares about and the data that powers those experiences will flow seamlessly across all their devices and when a new device is added, the user will automatically be prompted to acquire their apps.
Ideally, this would work across different vendor platforms and app stores. However, this is in conflict with the business goals of the platform vendors, who are interested in maintaining their walled gardens. In an ideal (disruptive) world, this problem would introduce the opportunity of some kind of app acquisition aggregation service. Imagine having Nike+ installed on your Xbox 360 and when you buy your new iWatch it automatically asks if you want to install that app there too.
Just because you have the ability to build an app for a smart watch, doesn’t mean you need to. There are some experiences that just aren’t suitable for a small screen on your wrist. Furthermore, the experience that you build for a 10ft experience (connected TV) should be very different from that of a smart watch. If we use the difference in use case between a TV and a cell phone as an early barometer for this, we see that TV is typically great for long form content where as cell phones are ideal for “information snacking” or glance and go. In this model if we continue to reduce screen size we also reduce the interaction time and also amount of information that the user will be able to consume. Within these constraints we start to understand the overlap & gaps between the watch and phone (and other devices).
During design explorations, our team found that functionality that complemented the Phone experience but didn’t detract from it, provided the most value for the users. For example, Andrea designed a phone app that would provide you an instant reminder of how much money remained on your Orca account (Orca is the public transit system in Seattle). The Phone app, by comparison, could provide more detailed information such as a record of fares or ability to add credit cards to your account.
Another example of this was Aaron Johnson’s “Instaclock” concept that elegantly provided the user an image in the background of the display. It doesn’t attempt to compete with the Instagram app on your phone, which allows the editing, upload and advanced browsing of photos – it just does one thing.
One of things we like most about the smartwatch, is that it encourages the user to spend more time with their phone in their pocket and more time with the “real world” outside of the screens. It provides more glance and go information snacking which increases “pocket time” for our phone devices, only needing them when a core scenario facilitated by the phone is required.
We really liked the idea of specialized smartwatches for sporting scenarios (e.g. waterproof or ruggedized) – we’ve seen running watches before and our designer Ryan Hoback who’s a keen surfer imagined a watch that tracked your surfing session information and could intelligently track how many waves you caught and end the session when you left the water, automatically.
One of our other designers, Caylee Betts, is an avid snowboarder. She imagined a more social snowboarding experience that allows you to listen to a common soundtrack and challenge each other to races down the mountain.
One area of focus for the team was the user interaction models for smartwatches. Given their small screen real estate, there’s an inherent issue with the number and size of touch targets on the screen. We imagined ways to get around this limitation including swiping from the bevel and rotation of the crown of the watch, and side buttons providing extra navigation options for the operating system and for apps.
With limited options for interaction using fingers, there is also an opportunity to use voice to control the smartwatch too.
Another area of consideration were the sensors that could be included in the Smartwatch itself, for example, GPS, gyroscope, temperature, accelerometer etc. Some of these are already finding their way into watches but as with any sensor there is a battery life trade off where the watch requires charging too regularly to merit inclusion of certain sensors. This is where the pairing of a Phone – which has longer battery life – to a smartwatch allows the sensors to be located on the Phone but benefit the experience on the smartwatch.
Regardless of if the information comes via sensors in the phone or the smartwatch, location plays an important role in the user experience that people will come to expect in the future. We are early in mobile-location specific experiences but it will be common for an app to adapt to a different experience automatically, inferred by proximity to a specific location or time. This kind of contextual experience can be carried over to the watch so that when a user glances at their wrist they have the right experience at the right location. E.g. if I’m near work, I’ll see a what’s next on my calendar view. If I’m at the golf course, I’ll get course information so I’m prepared for my round. This will happen automatically.
Getting the user to re-engage with an app is critical for any publisher. On mobile devices, tactics include notifications, integration with the app via intents or protocol handlers etc. App publishers need to find the right balance of value between notification and nuisance else they risk the user exercising their right to uninstall the app. We see the same dynamics and considerations playing out on the smartwatch.
The operating system also shares the responsibility of being a trustworthy custodian of user re-engagement. By providing things like a rules framework for notifications and ability to “silence” notifications for a period of time, the operating system will allow users to unplug from the internet and escape from the digital world.
As well as being conscious of the user, there is the broader environment to consider also. Thinking through the appropriate level of volume for notifications and vibration / visual only modes keeps from interrupting other people in the vicinity. The Fitbit Force is an example of a device that does this really well for the alarm function, using vibration to wake the user and not their significant other.
Thinking about how app publishers will be able to monetize smartwatches is interesting. At one end of the spectrum you effectively have a device that can be used for “tap and pay” scenarios – providing a more convenient method than either phone or wallet can compete with. At the other end, are opportunities to get the user to part with their cash through the actual device experience e.g. paying for content / advertising etc. It’s possible to see a world where in-app purchases, paid downloads, advertising – existing mobile monetization mechanism – have a role to play with smartwatches. Imagine, buying a new, designer watch face using an in-app purchase – that will likely happen.
New business models that subsidize the cost of the hardware by sharing information with the manufacturer for downstream monetization are also possible in the future, especially when the cost of hardware continues to decrease. As an example of this value exchange, imagine a world where the Smartwatch is free due to a subscription service that the user opts into where their information from smartwatch sensors is aggregated and sold onto interested parties.
Amazon is a great example of this model where they aggressively drive down the cost of their hardware in order to facilitate increased channels to their core business e.g. content & shopping. With the cost of hardware decreasing we may live in world where our data is more valuable and that influences the incentive structure for tech companies when pricing their products & services.
Over the coming months, we’ll see a number of new smartwatches hitting the market. These devices stand to open up further opportunities for app publishers and ecosystem partners whilst on the consumer side, providing new valuable experiences. It’ll take time for us to fully mature the ways in which we acquire apps, interact with them and monetize but we can learn much from the ways that the mobile app ecosystem has evolved over the past few years and the way user experiences adapt when reducing the screen size and input mechanisms.