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Strategies for High-Tech Wearables: 3 Lessons on Smartwatch App Development

Read Time: 4 minutes

Smartwatches have been in the mainstream since 2015’s debut of the Apple Watch; and yet, they’ve not penetrated the market as quickly as the other devices we rely so much upon. In part, their slow introduction into our culture is because of the challenges of both reading and inputting text on a wrist-worn device. Smartwatch app development practices are now evolving in response to these initial struggles as the goal is to achieve a more user-friendly interface.

For those reasons, many companies fail to see the value in developing dedicated apps for a smartwatch or other wearable. After all, phones are ubiquitous and utility-rich. Smartwatches are a growing segment with a narrower range of features. But that’s precisely why it’s worth considering the development of an app for smartwatches.

Smartwatches present companies with a unique opportunity: to reach customers and employees through service-minded apps, those that are designed for time management and alerting. In other words, apps that call users to immediate, definitive action. Yes, watch apps are simpler than mobile apps, but they’re also more intimate and more urgent. Companies that understand the value in developing an app for these specific purposes must then have an app development strategy that is unique to the wearable itself, as opposed to being yet another app with the same functions as a mobile app.

If you’re interested in creating a killer app for a wearable, consider these lessons from smartwatches’ successful and not-so-successful apps.

Good Smartwatch Apps Respect the Purpose of a Watch

As Simon Sinek would advise, begin every smartwatch project by asking the question “why?” The wristwatch has been a staple of human technology for over five centuries because it is the most convenient way to access the time. A glance at the wrist is far more fluid than asking for the time, searching for a clock, or pulling out a pocket watch.

Use this understanding to your advantage by introducing fluid capabilities—like real-time alerts or service-minded assistance—that stay true to the original intention of the watch. You can use the device’s “always on” connectivity to deliver your message when the timing is just right. The Starbucks smartwatch app, for example, will navigate you to a nearby store, pay for your coffee, and deliver rewards updates.

Sending a promo code or other rewards to a nearby customer’s watch is far more effective than delivering a time-sensitive discount by email. Since the watch is perpetually connected, one notification, sent at the perfect time, is typically all you need to reach a user and prompt an action.

Remember, most interactions between a user and her smartwatch should take less than five seconds. So work with your developer to distill the app experience by sharing short, direct, and actionable updates and tips. Keep your smartwatch application features consistent with the “why” of the equation. In our firm, we take special care to develop apps with the fastest loading times possible, as we know that slow load times on apps are one of the most common reasons for app deletion. Our goal is for apps to load significantly faster than the App Store standard, with response times of 200 milliseconds and 500 milliseconds being the bare minimum.

Bad Smartwatch Apps Require Major User Input

It’s difficult to send data, even search criteria, from a tiny watchface. On mobile, users can perform complex input-based tasks such as sending emails and updating social media accounts. A watch is different. Successful games like Trivia Crack and Rules! failed on smartwatch because users found it frustrating to respond to the (already highly simplified) gameplay.

The focus of watch apps, then, is on output-based tasks such as alerts and notifications. Rather than responding to the needs of the user, your app should anticipate the user’s needs. An app like CARROT Weather will, for example, send updates on local road conditions during a storm, before the wearer even thinks to perform a search. The TripAdvisor app will recommend a nearby restaurant when lunchtime draws near.

Also, consider the logistics of working on such a small screen, as this is what makes input challenging. A watch face can only handle about four touch targets per screen, so each prompt can have a maximum of four responses. Narrow down your users’ choices to the most essential inputs, then, and infer the rest. Also, minimize the text for easy on-screen reading, as scrolling can be a hassle. Distill your message to one sentence, maximum, and always put the most important data first. Our own discovery process involves gaining a deep understanding of our clients’ business, their needs, and their users before the first line of code is ever written. This ensures even the smallest details, such as character count, or touch targets vs. screen size, never get overlooked.

Good Smartwatch Apps Integrate With Other Devices

Smartwatches offer their own distinct set of capabilities, but they are also satellite devices that can effectively extend the reach of phone apps. Take full advantage of the interactivity between watch and mobile by using the “Handoff” (Apple) or “Open on phone” (Android) feature. With this feature, a user can seamlessly transition between a company’s watch and phone app, getting the best out of both experiences.

Companies should also be on the lookout for innovative and clever ways to integrate new technology with an existing smartwatch app. The best smartwatch applications evolve over time, integrating with new devices and technology in a way that’s useful to the wearer. The app Workflows, for example, utilizes the handoff feature to seamlessly direct the smartwatch wearer to urgent tasks on phone. Every watch manufacturer has its own guidelines for app development based on its hardware and software specifications. See Apple’s and Android’s specs for the development of apps for smartwatches.

At 7T, we are proud of our unique, open source platform, STAX. Our agile development platform and its components deliver higher performing apps for iOS and Android, painless scalability, and seamless updates. For expert advice and guidance on creating your very own user-friendly apps for smartwatches, contact the developers here at 7T.


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Lacey Williams-McGhee

Lacey Williams is a marketing professional and Harvard graduate student living in the great state of Texas. When she's not working at 7T's headquarters, she can be found on the next flight to the Bahamas, hanging out with her husband and fluffy golden retriever, or studying! Lacey earned a B.A. in journalism from Baylor University. Sic 'em!


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