Wired.com: “Shazam is a great example of a glanceable wearable app in the way that it only presents you with what you need,” says David Hindman, an interaction design manager at Fjord.
THINK BACK TO around 2007 and try really hard to recall something that you’ve probably long forgotten: What was it like the first time you used a touchscreen phone? You don’t remember? Me neither. But that’s OK! In fact, that’s the mark of successful design.
At that time, designers made choices about the way we would interact with our phones. How should we navigate from app to app? How much information is too much to squeeze into a 4-inch screen? Watching Steve Jobs introduce the first iPhone in 2007 is like listening to a teacher giving a lesson on a foreign language. It took time to figure out what worked, and how, across various operating systems. Eventually, things got easier and more streamlined. Over the better part of a decade, nascent design concepts became long-standing principles, and interacting with our smartphones became second nature.
Today we’re experiencing the same awkward period, only this time it’s with computers we strap around our wrists. Designers are quickly learning that the rules they came up with for the phone don’t necessarily work on the shrunken screen of a smartwatch (just imagine if the design principles of our laptops had carried over to our smartphones). New rules apply.
We’re sort of at the throw-shit-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks phase of designing wearables. A very public beta testing, if you will. Plenty of people have tried defining what it means. Concepts and principles have been floated. Words like “glanceability” are tossed around. Apple and Android Wear are doing a pretty good job, but the canon for wearable interactions is far from set.
Fjord has its own ideas about what works. The London-based interaction design studio has come up with five principles it believes will guide the future of wearable design. These aren’t intended to be the principles of design, just a jumping off point for thinking about what it takes to create a thoughtful experience on our increasingly tiny screens.
Keep It Glanceable
No word has been thrown around in wearable design theory quite as much as “glanceable.” We were first introduced to the concept through screen-less fitness trackers, which rely on lights or other simple indicators to explain to the user what’s going on. The term is used a little differently in the context of the smartwatch: Glanceability is less about reducing the interface down to its most basic visual feedback and more about figuring out exactly what the user needs to see at any given moment. “Shazam is a great example of a glanceable wearable app in the way that it only presents you with what you need,” says David Hindman, an interaction design manager at Fjord. “The Shazam button.” Faithfully recreating an app experience for wearables just doesn’t work—you can’t just take a UI and shrink it down to the size of a postage stamp. If the goal, as Fjord explains it, is to show users one thing at a time, that requires a new framework for how those users will move through an application. What do you serve them first? How do you keep them engaged? And just as importantly, how will they communicate with the application?
Don’t Look Now
It’s time to stop looking at our screens. Much of the way we interact with wearables will be dependent on other senses: looking, hearing, feeling. Many design thinkers, Fjord included, believe the future of getting and inputting information on wearables is a matter of non-visual communication tools. Think: vibrations that tell you which way to turn, voice dictation to compose texts and emails, gestures that activate certain applications. We’re already seeing this with things like the Apple Watch’s Force Touch, which senses the difference between a tap and a long-press. It’s a small but significant design detail that greatly expands the functionality of a tiny screen by ignoring it almost entirely.
Avoid the Data Avalanche
Hindman likens mobile communication to a funnel. If computers are the catch-all top where all of your news and information is present, then wearables are the narrow bottom where only the most important stuff gets through. The information pushed to you via a wearable should be filtered, and making that happen is an intense design challenge that’s mostly reliant on smart AI that understands what any given person actually needs to see. (The best example of this is Google Now, Android Wear’s personal assistant that analyzes repeated actions and contextual information to serve up relevant information.) Context is the backbone of almost all other UI principles—once you understand what a user needs, you can design an experience to be lightweight.
Balancing Public and Personal
Smartwatches are meant to be seen. As pieces of fashion, that’s sort of the point. But while a wearable itself isn’t private, the content on it often is—which creates an inherent tension. “You can literally be wearing your relationships,” he explains. The solution is what Hindman describes as “considerate defaults.” Given the choice, designers should always opt for more privacy. This means being aware of which way the device is facing—inward allows for more personal content to be displayed, outward should default to a dimmed screen. It’s also a matter of notifications: buzz first, display second. “Out of the box it should be the most considerate setting,” he says.
Design for Offline
Wearables are gadgets, and gadgets often don’t work as planned. They lose connectivity or don’t sync up correctly. Hindman says it’s important to design for the moments when things go wrong. He points to Facebook as a good example. “While I’m offline, I see a UI element letting me know that, one, I’m offline, and two, that I can still post while offline,” he says. “It both acknowledges the situation and provides clear steps to the user about what features are currently available.” The way he sees it, you should build core functionality into offline mode, but if you can’t, then you should at least explain to the user what’s happening.
Now, it’s easy to rattle off a list of heuristics and proclaim this is how it shall be, but the truth is, if you gave this task to another set of designers, they would probably come up with an entirely different list (proof: see Google and Apple‘s design guidelines). That ambiguity is really exciting from a creative point of view, but the flip side is even more promising. As you start to draw lines between the similarities of what Google or Apple or Fjord or Ideo believe are the guiding principles of design, you’d begin to see a rough outline of what the smartwatch might actually become.
The principles that work feel almost boring in their simplicity. But the obvious, well-worn ideas of designing for glanceability or using gestures are obvious for a reason: We might be in the wild west stage of wearable design, but we’re finally starting to agree on what the technology can and should be.
This article originally ran on Wired.com.
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