On future wearable devices like Google’s rumored smartwatch, content isn’t king

Rumors persist that Google might announce its own smart watch any day now. To kickstart its development in this space, Google acquired smart watch startup WIMM Labs a little more than a year ago. What will Google’s watch need to succeed? Two former WIMM Labs directors tell us what they’ve learned about designing wearable devices. For more on design in a multidevice world, check out our Roadmap Conference in San Francisco starting Tuesday.

Full-length news blogs. An angry bird smaller than the tip of a pen. Some of the first third-party apps for wearable smartwatches contained popular mobile content and global app brands but miss the point entirely.

At WIMM Labs, our team developed the first independently connected wearable device, capable of distilling critical notifications from your smartphone and functioning as a discreet on-body monitor at the same time. While the module packed as many sensors, memory power and connectivity as you’d find in most smartphones, the one-inch square screen size brought it all onto your wrist.

Apps on the WIMM One.
Apps on the WIMM One.

This challenged the standard interaction model for early wearable developers. A wearable app’s value is not about the consumption and collection of data but the extraction of it — at the right time and place.

Contrast how you use a wearable device with the other screens in the house. The television? Maybe one or two sessions a day, but for an hour or two at a time. Our computers? A handful of “work-sessions” throughout the day, for creating content with heavy apps like Photoshop. Our smartphones? Dozens of times an hour or more. But you might glance at your smartwatch hundreds of times a day.

Mobile-first, lean design has become a design standard in recent years. But even smartphones have their limits. The average person in the U.S. has over 65 apps on their smartphone, all with the ability to push notifications at you at the most inconvenient time – when you’re in a movie, on a date, or in a meeting. According to a study conducted at WIMM Labs, 80 percent of smartphone users are limiting or removing notifications altogether. People are looking for customization that’s not available yet.

Developers for wearable technology have to find a more relevant, more context-appropriate way to extract information. Wearable apps are not immersive. They should be designed to keep you at play. Content is measured against a new value: glanceability.

Glanceability can be achieved by following three key design principles:

  • Immediate Access: Despite all of the technology in a smartwatch, an on-the-body wearable app must deliver at least the same functionality as a 100-year-old wristwatch: data at glance, with no touches or delays. Wearable developers should balance style and function by allowing the wearer to push personally relevant information to the screen. Instead of pulling a device from your pocket, you might discreetly glance to get your next appointment from your calendar or receive a text from your child’s school.
  • Contextual Relevance: Fitness devices, with their onboard sensors to monitor, measure and collect data, often lack the ability to provide context. With an onboard GPS, persistent connection, and an open operating system, the next generation of devices allow developers to turn that data into immediate inspiration. Instead of latent data tracking, in-field alerts might tell you where your teammates are during a road race or send an immediate alert if you’ve fallen and could be in danger.
  • Wearer Control Customization of accessories and app experiences is critical for wearable adoption. Developers should design for higher levels of control over settings for updates, notifications and appearance of apps from a website or smartphone app.

The flurry of smartwatches entering the market might herald a new wave of productive technology, or it might signal a bubble that will burst under the weight of its own complexity. Smartwatch manufacturers and app developers will decide the fate of the sector by a strict adherence to the simple maxim of glanceability.

Ted Ladd and Lori Malm were the directors of ecosystem and marketing respectively for WIMM Labs, a Silicon Valley startup focused on wearable hardware and software backed by Foxconn. WIMM Labs was acquired by Google, which is rumored to be releasing a new smartwatch soon.