News & Views

Opinion / Will the Apple Watch force companies to rethink their business models?

by Contagious Contributor

Designing for the Apple Watch is a fundamentally different challenge than building a mobile app. Wolff Olin’s Sarah Morris explains how brands need to master contextual awareness if they are to thrive on this new platform.

One of the iPhone’s most important features is that it’s a blank canvas, working together with the App Store to connect brands with users in a myriad of ways. It’s easy to think of the Apple Watch as an extension of the iPhone in that it’ll act in the same way, but will it be so accommodating? Will some brands find it a real challenge to cement their place on your wrist?

An interaction on your wrist has key constraints – you might be mid-conversation or mid-task, or out and about when the watch signals for your attention, not to mention the obvious limitations due to the tiny screen. This means that the watch interface lends itself to a very particular set of experiences; those that are temporal, fleeting, geographical, micro, utilitarian and hyper-personal. And designing these types of experiences will present new and interesting challenges for brands that want in on the watch interface action.

A recent survey from Greenlight Digital suggests that one in three brands currently plan to design for the Apple Watch. At the user experience level those brands will now need to think about designing for tap and hold interactions, how to integrate glances and create content strategies and user journeys that are briefer and more concise, as well as think about the immersive possibilities for haptic branding. It’s a lot to think about at the detail level, and there is also a more strategic imperative for some, as certain brands won’t have products or services that lend themselves to these types of experiences, or the ability to stretch in the required ways.

Businesses will need to remember that people will decide to put a brand on their wrist not because they want to go to it, but because they want it to come to them. The watch centres on intimate, disruptive interactions, so being interrupted will quickly force users to evaluate the value that’s being delivered. This means that only the brands that add enough value will stay. This is quite a shift in the relationship we currently have via our phones, where we have adopted techniques to limit interruptions, like placing the phone outside of our peripheral vision or screen-side down, or in our bag. The new requirement to deliver instant value offers a different challenge to even the most known and loved brands.

Think of your favourite aggregate travel site; it’s great at helping you browse effectively through lots of choices; it inspires with the right extras and add-ons for you. But you’re not going to do all of that on your wrist. And even once you have purchased something, does the brand have the permission to deliver anything extra on such an intimate, brief device? In this context, airlines and hotels are a more obvious choice; they could help people navigate the airport and check-in seamlessly, so they can make the most of their free time.

Even digital giant Amazon doesn’t have an obvious place on the Apple Watch if you consider its current user experience, which encourages exploration, presents a magnitude of choices and delivers rich, multi-faceted content for each product, all optimised for a larger screen. A more obvious transition is possible for eBay, where the watch can naturally extend its existing business model because the service is centred on temporal elements.

There’s no doubt that the potential reward of being on the wrist is big – the customer relationship will become even more personal and more intimate and this opportunity will encourage companies to evaluate their offering, add in new dimensions and extend their business model.

It will not be as simple as adding utility; although that’s a big part of it, it’s also going to be a lot about timeliness. Designing experiences for the Apple Watch will mean properly embracing context-centred design. As the etiquette around interacting with the watch begins to emerge, designers will need to incorporate an even more granular level of contextual awareness – where, when, how, even why, and what does that mean for the interaction we’re about to deliver?

For instance, when prototyping and testing, participants will need to be recruited for extended periods of time in specific situations, rather than just turning up to a one hour lab session. This would have an exponential impact on a brand’s design and development time. It’s also possible that such an unforgiving platform might bring back the days of getting the design right on release. The luxury of putting something live, testing and iterating, then re-releasing, is unlikely to feel right to customers through this device.

In many ways, the watch is creating a new category: in retail, in user experience as well as in design processes, and the consequences of this will be dramatic. Imagine a world where people aren’t checking their phone every hour, one where phones live more and more in their bag. The simplicity and focus of the interactions on their watch can now give them more of what they want in the moment. That’s a world where all brands will need to think and do things differently.

Sarah Morris is user experience director at global creative consultancy Wolff Olins