Wednesday, May 23, 2018

watchOS 5 wishlist: enable a Watch-first mentality

I love Apple Watch. I’ve had one on my wrist every day since the first model came out, and I think it will serve an even larger purpose in the Apple ecosystem as time goes on. In my Watch Series 3 review, I likened it to a high school graduate living above the iPhone’s garage. And we all know how fickle young adults can be; there is always room for improvement, with tons of promise. With WWDC around the corner, the major themes most in need of attention are apps, and the ability for Apple Watch to continuously handle more rudimentary or smaller tasks with greater ease than iPhone.

Based on observation, I believe I use my Watch on an above-average frequency because I see the inherent value of a Watch-first mentality. In other words, Apple Watch should compel you to use it first over any other device for a subset of tasks. And those tasks have to work every time — not some times or most of the time — every time. It has to be a consistent experience that builds trust. What follows is a list of barriers I feel are in need of being addressed in order enable said mentality.

Enable developers to build better apps

Developers have increasingly been pulling their Apple Watch apps in droves for about a year. Major ones of note include Google Maps, Slack, Amazon, eBay, and Instagram. The reason must come down to low utilization and the reduced feature set offered by Apple’s WatchKit. Let’s face it though: who needs to make purchases from their wrist or scroll a tiny version of their Instagram feed? Google Maps and Slack are the only ones I mentioned that have a more useful place on a wrist computer, but I digress.

Marco Arment wrote the perfect piece on this subject, summarizing why “developing Apple Watch apps is extremely frustrating and limited”. Here’s the crux of it:

Developing Apple Watch apps is extremely frustrating and limited for one big reason: unlike on iOS, Apple doesn’t give app developers access to the same watchOS frameworks that they use on Apple Watch.

Instead, we’re only allowed to use WatchKit, a baby UI framework that would’ve seemed rudimentary to developers even in the 1990s. But unlike the iPhone’s web apps, WatchKit doesn’t appear to be a stopgap — it seems to be Apple’s long-term solution to third-party app development on the Apple Watch.

Marco suggests fixing this situation in one of two ways:

One solution is for Apple to reimplement all of its own Watch apps with WatchKit instead of their internal frameworks, which will force them to fix WatchKit’s many bugs and dramatically expand it.

The much better solution, and the one I hope they take, is for Apple to expose its real watchOS UI and media frameworks to third-party developers, as it has done on iOS.

I’m not a developer, but I can understand the limitations at play here. Just the other day, I was complaining that after four watchOS iterations, Watch apps are still almost never perfectly in sync with their parent iOS app. For instance: I have been using the amazing task manager app Things 3 for a few weeks, and while I have five tasks scheduled for ‘Today’, the Watch app shows none of them. I don’t place the blame on the developer because I see this happen so often across many third-party apps. Apple needs to get its act together here. Watch Series 3 and beyond is powerful enough to run real apps, which I’m hoping is what we’ll see at WWDC.

Podcasts

With the introduction of Apple Watch Series 3 with Cellular, Apple enabled its Music and new Radio app to function purely off the device’s LTE radio. Many of us thought they would follow suit with their Podcasts app, but that sadly hasn’t been the case. I think the stars may finally be aligning for this to happen in watchOS 5. This has been a long-time coming. Delaying this any further will be incredibly confusing as more people are consuming podcasts than ever before.

Related to my point above about enabling developers to build better apps: Apple should also explicitly give developers the tools to build their own podcast and music apps on Apple Watch.

UI Improvements

Apple has consistently improved the UI on Apple Watch ever since its introduction. I expect this trend to continue as time passes and Apple further understands how people use the device. Here are a few areas I’d like to see improvement in.

Additional Watch Faces

I’m sure Apple will introduce a few new stock Watch faces, and I really have no recommendations or anticipations for those. I only hope for continued improvements of existing ones like the Siri face, which I use 90% of the time due to its versatility.

Now, I’m of the mind that Apple will not allow just any third-party developer to create completely unique Watch faces. What I can see is Apple partnering with specific brands to make new faces available in the App Store. This would be similar to the Hermès or Nike watch faces that are only available on their respectively-branded Apple Watch models, but I’m talking about ones that would be available for all. For example, a couple brands or institutions I’m thinking of would be: colleges, professional sports teams, movies and TV shows, etc.

If Apple were to let any developer create a custom Watch face, I’d expect it to be heavily templated. I’d argue the watch face makes up at least 50% of the design/brand of a watch (not just smart watches). I don’t anticipate Apple ever compromising their brand or performing essentially a ‘design review’ for truly custom watch faces, but I’d love to be proven wrong.

Replace the Watch Face Edge Swipe

watchOS 4 added the ability to switch between watch faces with a left or right edge swipe. This still perplexes me, because each face is typically slow to load in this manner. As you swipe between them, Apple Watch has to load each face’s unique UI, complications, animations, etc., resulting in a janky process that is slower than the original method of force touching, scrolling a list of your cached faces, then loading the one you pick. I still do it the latter way because it’s a better, faster experience.

I propose Apple either remove this gesture or replace it. I think some interesting things could take its place, in theory. Perhaps a left edge swipe could show the Home screen, while a right edge swipe could show the Dock, fitting in with Apple’s increasingly buttonless world of gestural navigation.

Home Screen and Dock

In watchOS 4, Apple introduced an option for the home screen that displays all your installed apps in a list, as opposed to the often-disliked honeycomb arrangement. They also changed the Dock interface to a vertical arrangement of apps you last used. In watchOS 5, I propose Apple tweak these further.

By default, the Dock will display the last eight applications used with a large app preview. Here’s the problem, though: because the frequency in which I use my Watch is less than other devices, I never remember which of the eight applications are even in my Dock at one time. Therefore, I’m typically always going back to the list view by pressing the Digital Crown.

You can change the Dock to show your favorite applications instead of recent ones, but either way, the large app previews make it a bear to scroll and quickly get into your desired app.

I think Apple should:

  1. Make the list view the new Home screen default. Everyone I show it to loves it way more than the honeycomb. The whole honeycomb situation seems to have missed the mark, both from a usability perspective and a branding/marketing one. Jony Ive himself said the square screen and Digital Crown were perfect for scrolling lists. Why use touch-and-drag here?
  2. Leave the Dock functionality as is, but make it a list view and remove the huge app previews. This would move me to only allow my favorite Watch apps to show here, therefore truncating the main Home screen list view — a sort of folder, if you will.

Grab Bag

Now for a few other things that get on my nerves.

Custom notification sounds

I mean, come on. This is another thing that’s way overdue. It baffles me that notification sounds don’t already mirror iPhone settings. Audio is a huge part of UX. It would be extremely helpful to differentiate notifications just from the ping on your wrist.

Visually speaking, if you think managing notifications is hard on iOS, try it on screen that’s quite a bit smaller. iOS notifications UI and UX need to be addressed before improvements trickle down to watchOS, but I had to call out the distinction.

Better radio priority/switching

Right now, all Watch models hang on tightly to your iPhone via Bluetooth as their primary data connection. This means that if you’re just a little too far from your iPhone, you’re gonna have a bad time. Siri will stall, dictation fails, iMessages don’t go through … you get the picture. This happens to me most when I’m at home and have left my iPhone in another area of the house. Apple should improve the radio priority to use a known Wi-Fi network first, perhaps on Series 3 and beyond due to battery concerns.

If nothing else, they should at least improve the Watch’s ability and rate of switching to Wi-Fi or cellular if the Bluetooth connection to iPhone is degraded.

Add a Drumming Workout Type

This is a bit of a self-serving ask, but it would be great if the Workout app specifically supported drumming. Right now, I’m using the ‘Other’ workout type to track my practice, and while I’m sure the calories are a bit elevated than reality, the “steps” count is hilarious. Apple Watch must think every stroke of the drum head is a step.

Conclusion

So, that’s it. As Apple Watch becomes more capable and independent, I’m certain more of a Watch-first mentality will emerge. Like Matt Birchler’s wishlist, I think mine is relatively modest. Make sure you read his, by the way. He’s also a big Apple Watch proponent.

Suffice it to say I’m excited to see how this awesome little wrist computer evolves at WWDC and beyond. What are your suggestions for improving watchOS? Let me know what you think!