There has been a lot of talk about the upcoming smartwatch revolution. In anticipation, there have been a lot of really silly concepts done about what the “iWatch” or “Google Watch” will look and feel like, many of which are based in disappointment over the first generation of smartwatches from Samsung, Sony, Pebble, I’m, Qualcomm, and others. Both the real and imagined products are failing to gain significant traction and interest because they’re going down the entirely wrong path.
There is an array of conflicting ideas about the relationship between these upcoming wearable devices and their big sibling, the smartphone. Should the watch be a standalone device with the full functionality of the smartphone? Or should it simply alert a user of when the smartphone has a message of some sort? Or is it somewhere in the middle? Each one of the first crop of watches takes a slightly different position on features– but all of them share in their disregard for the what is going to make these devices actually compelling. The design and experience of each one (generally a hefty chunk of glass and metal strapped to a leather band) leaves something to be desired.
The only real sustainable way for new technology like this to be designed is to have it blend in. The general purpose of tech is to solve people’s problems, make their lives easier, and better connect everyone within the world we live in. The purpose is not to immerse people in a separate world. That’s precisely why flat design is beating skeudomorphism and natural interfaces are beating the mouse and keyboard– the more smoothly technology can blend into our environment, the more compelling and useful it is. We’ve heard “content first” a lot this year, and that speaks to what is important in designing future products. A smartwatch must be a watch first and a gadget second. It’s a fashion accessory, not a phone.
It’s natural then that there are a lot of concepts floating around that try to envision a small, simple watch that serves as a counterpoint to the massive watches on the market, and although it’s a step in the right direction, it’s still not right. This can’t be the same conversation about minimalism we’ve had about current hardware and software. Just because minimal, simple, and stark have won in those worlds doesn’t mean people want it everywhere. Look through a selection of regular “dumb” watches or glasses– the designs aren’t following the same trends as the tech we stuff in our pockets or put oun our desks. Sure, there are a handful of accessories that are going the minimal route to appeal to the techies who that appeals to, but most wearable accessories use a variety of materials, colors, patterns, adornments, etc. because their stylistic uniqueness is important. So to say that the smartwatch must be sleek, small, and simple, while better, is also misguided.
What has to be minimal and invisible isn’t the device, but the gadget/tech/connected part of it. This is about the tech side being as invisible as possible and letting the overall style be dictated by what the user wants to wear.
One day, smartwatches will be the norm. When tech is small enough and cheap enough to put in every watch and not compromise its style, the public will opt for connectivity in their traditional watches. Same thing for glasses. They won’t look like Google Glass, but rather traditional glasses with integrated lens displays. Does that mean that Apple, Google, Samsung, and Microsoft will dominate the markets for traditionally non-tech accessories like they dominate the tech markets today? Seems unlikely.
Smartphones evolved from phones and computers, markets that tech industry created, molded, and defined. The first cell phone users were content to just own one and accepted the fact that it was fat and hideous. To the contrary, wearables have been personalized and perfected for many, many years with no involvement from the tech industry, and most people won’t ditch their style for a few features their phone is already OK at.
The real smartwatch revolution won’t be as in-your-face as the smartphone revolution of the late 00′s and early ’10s. Pushing features over design is even less effective when you’re selling a watch because you won’t trick the average person into strapping a computer onto their arm.
With the Galaxy Gear, Samsung is being lazy– it’s just a downsized smartphone for your wrist. They’re ignoring the lessons that they were forced to learn with the iPhone release in 2007. The reason the iPhone was huge wasn’t only because it was pretty and sleek. It was because it felt like a more natural extension of the user than anything else on the market. The use cases were well-developed and exquisitely designed.
Now that I’ve discussed what the others are missing, here are some of things that the ideal, proper smartwatch will need to have/do in order to be successful:
1. It should look like a watch people would wear even if it wasn’t a smartwatch– and these means diverse offerings that cater to all styles.
2. The UI should have customizable colors, fonts, and watchfaces to match the style of the watch. Uniform sleek white Helvetica/Roboto/Segoe text won’t work for everyone.
3. Voice control (Siri, Google Now, etc.) should be available and usuable from any screen on the watch. Not having this was something Glass has gotten wrong so far.
4. It should make extensive use of gestures (obviously). There’s no room for lots of buttons. Bonus: Leap Motion
5. The battery life has to be great. Nobody wants to charge it more than once in a single day.
Update: This is now by far my favorite (link):
Below is my (previous) favorite concept so far, done by Stephen Olmstead. It doesn’t tackle the variety I would hope for, but the general hardware and UI design is a lot better than what is on the market now.