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Unplugged, But Not Out of Touch: The Smartwatch Experiment
How a Conversational User Interface Could Create the Best Smartwatch Experience
When Apple revealed the first watch, there was great excitement surrounding its potential as a versatile mobile platform on the wrist. Developers eagerly flocked to create many apps and games, but the adoption was disappointing. The watch was not only slow, but people soon realized that shrinking a phone's user interface to a small wrist-worn screen had significant drawbacks. The touch gestures that were smooth on mobiles became cumbersome. The initial launch was a humbling reminder that the smartwatch was not a miniaturized phone. Apple subsequently repositioned the device as a health and fitness companion.
When the cellular version was launched with the Series 3 model, the possibility of using it without a phone finally became a reality. The live demo of a call during the keynote sparked a wave of excitement.
Despite the initial enthusiasm, those who opted for the cellular version used the connection mainly as a backup to stay plugged while going for a workout. The cellular mode drained the battery quickly, and the interface was still impractical for most other uses.
The recent introduction of the newest Apple Watch Ultra version opened up some exciting possibilities, though. With a brighter and larger screen, longest battery life, standard cellular connectivity, louder speakers, higher quality microphones, dedicated action button, the Ultra raises a tempting prospect: what if we ditched our phone for a smartwatch?
While still equipped with a display, a watch is smaller and less intrusive. It's a subtle antidote to the constant information overload in today's digital age. It rests elegantly on the wrist, liberating the hands to engage in other pursuits while keeping important information within reach. Although it may not be the definitive cure for phone addiction, it is a step in the right direction. It's a way to disconnect to connect more with people around. It's the perfect balance of being unplugged without being out of touch.
It's fascinating that the intention of Apple with the first version was to create a multi-purpose wrist-device, but it primarily became a health and fitness tracker. The Ultra version, however, was explicitly designed for serious sports enthusiasts. Yet, it may ultimately surprise us and become the one that actually serves as a multi-purpose device.
To explore the boundaries of the user interface of the watch as it ventures into the realm of mobile phone functionality, I decided to embark on what some may consider a heroic experiment:
Dumping my iPhone to exclusively use an Apple Watch Ultra for a week.
The first few times when I intentionally left my phone at home, I frequently found myself reflexively checking my pockets, assuming I had forgotten it. It was a brief moment of confusion before realizing that the phone was left behind on purpose. Even as I walked away from my parked car, I couldn't shake the nagging feeling that I had left it inside. The mental habit was hard to break.
But the freedom of not having to constantly carry the phone or worry about it getting in the way while I was on the go was far more liberating than I could have ever imagined. It was particularly noticeable during my workouts.
What follows is not a product review but rather an exploration of how the seven sins of smartphone usage manifested on the watch during my experiment.
Let's dig in.
Phone calls are incredibly effective, and feature voice commands for added convenience. The sensation is reminiscent of a futuristic fantasy. When paired with AirPods, the audio quality is best. Responding to texts is effortless with speech-to-text. If you're on the move and unable to glance at your screen, the watch can read messages aloud to you.
Short email handling is similar to instant messaging but reading and responding to longer ones is not practical. As a visual person, I want to have the ability to view large parts of a long email at once. Additionally, with the widespread prevalence of HTML formatted emails, the viewing experience is severely compromised. The solution was to resist sending responses until accessing a standard computer. The other major drawback is that while Siri can read text messages, it can't do it for emails.
Zoom does not currently offer a watch version. As a result, the only option for joining a conference is through a traditional phone call to one of the bridges. Even if direct Zoom links were available, they would only be relevant for voice interactions. The screen isn't large enough for shared presentations and video feeds. It would be like trying to catch a glimpse of the performance through a keyhole.
Jotting down notes while on the move proved to be quite usable. Interestingly, Apple doesn't include the iOS standard Notes app. Drafts and Bear are good alternatives that do provide a watch version. Dictation is easy and highly accurate whether using AirPods or not. The only downside is the lack of text-to-speech functionality, making it a hassle to review your notes. Asking Siri for assistance results in the disappointing response, 'Sorry, I can't read that on the Apple Watch.' So, taking notes is smooth, reviewing and editing, not so much.
When it comes to keeping track of to-dos, I have been using Things for many years. The minimalistic layout helps to quickly scan through the daily tasks and mark them as completed or reschedule them with just a couple of taps. Adding new tasks is quick with dictation. For what's needed to operate while away from the computer, the current handling of tasks is drama free.
3. Content Consumption
Listening to audio-based content, such as podcasts, audiobooks, and music, is smooth and effortless. Curating and updating playlists is not quite as seamless, though. You can 'like' a song and add it to a list, but for more in-depth exploration and editing, you'll still need the big guns -- your phone or computer.
The web browser app is not explicitly included but the functionality is secretly there. For example, if you click on a web link inside an email, the related page will open up in a tiny browser. You can also directly open a website with a voice command. For example: 'Open cnn.com'. However, the page readability feels like trying to decipher ancient hieroglyphics.
I was astonished to discover that the Apple News app lacked any form of audio narration. Instead, it presents a short-written overview and an image for each article. The test was underwhelming but also amusing. For example, if you ask Siri 'Read the story' it won't read the current top news. Instead, it will recite a random story like ‘Once there were two mice who became friends at mouse college…’
Twitter, Flipboard, Instagram, and TikTok are all out of reach. But in this context, it's kind of the whole point. It's a feature and not a bug.
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4. Transport and Navigation
Since the initial version, Uber was among the first companies to make the leap on the watch. Sadly, they discontinued the app in early 2022. The watch edition had limited features. It didn't support pooling or contacting the driver, which most likely had made it non-viable for many users. Lyft ended its support even earlier in 2018. So, for now, no ride-hailing if you ditch your phone.
Walking navigation works nicely but when it comes to driving, the experience falls short. The voice and minimalistic display directions are not detailed enough for a big city with complex roadways and multiple lanes. To render driving navigation viable, adding CarPlay support is crucial. It would also make driving safer.
The lack of food delivery apps is not an issue, as they are primarily useful in a domestic or office setting.
5. Photo and Video
With the Photos app, you can scroll through albums. It is not the best way to look at pictures, but a pleasant experience is revealed when used as a Watch Face. It displays a gallery of memories on your wrist, like a personal museum. Each time you raise your arm, it unveils a new piece of nostalgia.
If you're at a social event and the urge to capture a memory strikes, you're out of luck. The absence of the camera feels like a missing limb. A workaround could be to carry a dedicated digital cam, like in the good old days.
Unsurprisingly, the official YouTube app is not supported, but there is an alternative called WatchTube. Is it a sensible use of the watch? Definitely not, but it does demonstrate the video's potential.
No surprise here. Using wireless payments feels like a natural fit for such a device. With a simple tap of the wrist, transactions can be made in a few seconds without having to pull a wallet.
7. Scanning QR Codes
The consequence of the shift to digital menus at restaurants, as a result of COVID, was something I hadn't considered. Many establishments never resumed providing print menus. Using QR codes on a watch is unfeasible not only due to the lack of a camera but also because of the screen size. Viewing a standard menu layout would be highly uncomfortable.
The challenge is temporary, though, as most dining places will return to paper or tablet menus at some point.
The user interface evolution that could alleviate the form factor limitations
The results of my experiment revealed that certain usability limitations are inherent to the form factor. Some functionalities, such as following a shared presentation during conference calls or browsing long-form content, may never be entirely solvable. Still, many other experiences could be significantly improved with a re-envisioned user interface.
What's hindering the watch's potential is that the operating system is built with touch and display as the primary means of interaction. The OS is designed as if it were a tiny mobile phone around the wrist. Although voice interactions are supported through Siri, they are limited to basic commands such as dictation, scheduling reminders, setting timers and alarms, and launching individual apps.
For the watch to become truly versatile and possibly replace the phone, it should completely revamp the interaction model. It should holistically operate with natural language through a voice user interface. In other words:
It should work with more talking and less touching.
The emergence of powerful large language models (LLMs) has opened up tremendous possibilities. Imagine each application having its own natural language conversational interface, where the OS acts as a central hub for processing general user prompts and seamlessly directing them to the appropriate apps. The replies would be in an interactive conversational manner with the ability to consolidate and retain information from previous interactions. A voice conversational user interface (CUI) baked into the OS would propel the watch's usability to a new level in specific scenarios.
To evaluate what kind of domains would benefit from such an evolution, let's plot the primary type of apps on a 2-dimensional graph with 'current user experience' on one axis and 'potential user experience enhancement with a CUI' on the other.
The blue rectangle shows the areas that would experience significant improvements by implementing a voice-based conversational user interface (CUI). These domains represent the functionalities that could reach an optimal state at some point in the future. These are the kind of apps that Apple and other device makers must strive to perfect on the smartwatch.
This meme encapsulates nicely the potential trajectory of email:
An advanced CUI doesn't have to be limited to input and outputs in a conversational manner. It could also be coupled with a summarization and auto-reply engine.
For instance, it could handle requests such as:
What important emails from the last hour should get my attention?
Draft a reply to Joe in a formal business style in a maximum of 200 words and read it back to me.
For news, the UI could offer the possibility of asking:
Create and read back a news briefing about what happened yesterday in technology and local politics in less than 3 minutes.
With those abilities, many limitations imposed by a small screen would become insignificant.
The red quadrant serves as a reality check revealing the inherently unsuitable scenarios to run on a watch, regardless of how sophisticated the user interface becomes. These should be left for computers, tablets, smartphones, and perhaps augmented reality glasses. Trying to run them on a wrist-device would always result in a bad experience.
The green quadrant includes the domains that presently have a good user experience on the watch and wouldn't benefit much from a future conversational user interface.
The watch can be a powerful tool if you want to practice Digital Intermittent Fasting, but it is not yet ready to fully replace the phone. Like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, the smartwatch is still in the process of evolving. As technology advances, the user interface will morph and adapt, but some features will always belong to the realm of larger devices.
On my side, the one-week experiment has been a journey that helped me better engage in the present moment and savor the flavors of social interactions. The disconnection from the endless scroll of content was incredibly liberating, and the forced brevity of communication due to the interface constraints was a blessing.
Consequently, I have decided to embrace the Digital Intermittent Fasting lifestyle fully. I am committing to dedicating parts of my day to rely on the watch solely. At the same time, I will gradually work towards the goal of having phone-free weekends. Let's see how long I can sustain it.
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