If smartwatches are to ever succeed in the marketplace and replace, rather than augment smartphones, the development of a more user-friendly interface is key. In this post, we'll track the evolution of the smartwatch to date, explore some of the current challenges designers face, and take a look at the future adaptations for smarter watch screens.
A brief history of the smartwatch
The smartwatch has been the next big thing since 1982, with the release of Seiko's primitive Pulsar NL C01). There was no connectivity way back when, which meant smartwatches in the early 80s were not actually all that smart.
Swatch's The Beep, and Seiko's 1990 Receptor, were the first watches to be connected to the wider world, but the first watch to double as a phone came from Samsung, with their SPH-WP10. Microsoft burst onto the scene in 2004, with their SPOT watch, which used FM broadcasts to update subscribers' data in major US cities. The cost of which was $59 per year.
By this time the clock was ticking on the smartwatch, but at the beginning of this decade the pieces of the puzzle came together. The tech giants turned to Bluetooth technology, rather than FM. This was complemented by a host of advancements, including touch screens, better batteries and short range connections to internet-connected devices like smartphones.
Samsung have been leading the way for the last couple of years, but while many of their offerings have been technically good, sales volumes to date have been small.
In 2014, two of the 21st century's major players, Google and Apple, released their Android Wear and Apple Watch respectively. When Apple enters the market it tends to change the game, but consumers have struggled to put their finger on precisely what the Apple Watch is. As a result, so far only Apple's ardent band of fanatics have bought into the hype.
The challenges of responsive design for smartphone screens
Defining the market has been one of the major obstacles to mainstream success for the smartwatch manufacturers. The challenges posed by these tiny screens have limited the smartwatch to pockets of commercial success, predominantly in the fitness markets, where numeric information can be displayed clearly and effectively.
Smartwatches do not offer enough functionality to allow them to be a replacement, rather than a mere addition, to a smartphone – and most people aren't willing to buy both.
The real problem is that the majority of web designers are not designing websites to be viewed on such small screens. It's only in the last couple of years that designers have managed to effectively overcome the transition to smartphones and tablets. Is it even possible to fit the content we want to view on a 1.5inch screen?
Is shrinking websites into such small sizes necessary or workable?
Reducing a web design from desktop to smartphone size is a struggle in itself, but the demands of wearable technology make even basic interaction a challenge. The interface and behaviour of smartwatches is extremely restrictive, so much so that responsive design, without disabling major elements of a website's content and functionality, is unlikely to be a future-proof solution.
What are the workarounds?
If responsive design is not the solution, how will we use this next generation of devices? Despite a history that extends back to the early 80s, wearables in their current form are still in their infancy.
If customers expect to be able to look up information on their wrists, then responsive design is not the answer. Instead, designers will have to create a separate version of their website or application to deliver the user experience smartwatch users expect. Whether the sales of smartwatches will justify such a significant investment in website design remains to be seen.
Are touch screens practicable for smartwatches?
Most modern devices come equipped with a touch screen, so a touch display for your smartwatch would seem like the most logic choice. Generally speaking, touch screens are better for navigation, as there can be a significant amount of scrolling involved when physical buttons are used. However, touch screens on such a small scale can make it difficult to target individual icons.
Over time, it is predicted that touch screen technology will predominate in the smartwatch space, although at present, there is still no general consensus to which system is the easiest to use. The result is that myriad different interface options exist.
What are the alternatives to touch screens?
There a number of smartwatches that use gesture based interfaces to bypass this problem, but the majority of users find them to be less intuitive than the touch screen alternatives. Google's Android Wear makes good use of swipe movements to dismiss notifications, but a lot of swiping can be required to navigate between options and apps.
Apple opted for a combination of touch screen controls and a digital crown located on the right hand side of their watch, which can be used to zoom in and scroll through content. The touch screen element of their interface uses a Force Touch system, which can differentiate between a tap and a long press to perform the required actions.
The latest in gesture control
After spending a couple of months with the Apple Watch or a touch screen alternative, the limitations of such a system soon become clear. There are times, like when you're eating, or walking hand-in-hand on an evening stroll, that a touch screen prevents you from responding to notifications or using apps. A recent innovation aims to solve this 21st century problem.
The Aria is an add-on wrist band which is compatible with the Android Wear and Pebble Time products. It allows users to flick through their interface options, notifications and apps with simple finger gestures. As you can see from the video below, there is no need to touch the screen or use physical controls on the side of the watch.
The Aria wristband is due to make its debut on Kickstarter in the next weeks, so we'll be able to see just how much appetite the market has for gesture-based smartwatch control. Although the Aria is unlikely to be able to control the Apple Watch anytime soon, this could be the first we're seeing of the future of smarter watch screens.
If we compare the lifecycle of the smartwatch to that of the smartphone, perhaps we can gain some insight into the future of wearable screens. Designers initially made attempts to create separate mobile websites, before refocusing their efforts on responsive design. If the smartwatch is ever to offer more than simple notifications and apps, it demands its own web solutions that will come from a more flexible approach to website and screen design.
As companies and researchers pour money into developing new ways of making devices understand what we want them to do, gesture-based control is increasingly seen as the most natural method of interaction. Touch screens, swiping movements and side mounted smartwatch controls all have limitations which limit the appeal of the smartwatch, but gesture control could be the ace up the manufacturers' sleeves that creates the mass market appeal the smartwatch needs.