You Might Not Need an Apple Watch App

Most Apple Watch apps are useless. There I said it – others have too – and even Google has some pretty harsh things to say.

Let me set the stage a little better so you can understand where I’m coming from.

I’ve had an Apple Watch since the week it was released, and I’ve worn it daily. As a developer that likes to tinker and explore, I’ve made a point to experiment with far more apps than the average user would — over 100 at this point — and despite that, I can count the number of third-party apps I find to be genuinely useful on one hand.

There are several reasons for this, some of which I believe are the Watch’s fault, and some of which I believe are due to developers’ not thinking through whether building a watch app is actually worthwhile for their users. I’d like to explore each, and along the way help developers that are still on the fence about whether a Watch app makes sense for their service.

Convenience

Here is my #1 guiding principal for whether you should have an Apple Watch app: will it make some piece of functionality easier to do than it would be on an iPhone? If the answer is no, you don’t need an Apple Watch app.

This sounds somewhat obvious, but here’s the catch: the inherent limitations of the Apple Watch make it really hard to build a Watch app that’s more convenient to use than a traditional iOS app. Remember that the Apple Watch is basically an accessory for an iPhone, and that the Watch requires a Bluetooth connection to the phone to do just about everything. This round trip to the mothership is often painfully slow, and so I find that grabbing my phone can be a lot faster for most things.

Apple’s upcoming watchOS 2 release will attempt to address this performance problem, as Apple is adding the ability to run apps on the Watch itself, and the ability to connect your Watch to a Wi-Fi network.

On top of the slow Bluetooth connection, the other thing keeping me from using Watch apps is the sheer difficulty of opening them, as the Watch’s inexplicable honeycomb UI makes finding files in Finder look simple.

honeycomb

Side note: For a company whose own interface guidelines recommend giving all interface controls a hit target that’s at least 44 x 44, and “ample” spacing, I’m wondering who thought cramming a bunch of icons on a tiny screen was a good idea?

But as a developer it’s important to recognize the Watch’s limitations. The Watch is slow; therefore don’t try to port your entire iOS app over to the Watch. Instead, focus on a small subset of functionality with actions that users can complete quickly.

Marco Arment has a spectacular writeup on redesigning his Apple Watch app to account for slow WatchKit load times.

Users will almost never traverse the honeycomb to get to your app; therefore don’t bother adding a bunch of features to your app’s home screen that almost no one is going to see or use. Your time is better spent leveraging a few far-more-likely-to-be-used APIs that the Apple Watch provides.

Glances

Whereas I almost never launch Apple Watch apps through the honeycomb UI, I do use glances. Glances are basically mini dashboards that you can provide for your app. I use these because they are far easier to access — all you have to do is swipe up from the watch’s home screen — and because using glances just feels more natural than navigating to an app.

I’m used to glancing at a watch for the date and time, and it feels logical to extend that concept to other information I want to see quickly. Glances also pass my convenience test, as it’s easier for me to use a glance than it is for me to grab my phone to get the same information.

Glances are best done as a small dashboard of the information your users are most interested in. As an example, my most-used third-party glance is MLB At Bat, which intelligently only shows the score of my favorite team’s game:

mlb-glance

The cool thing is glances actually function as links to your full Apple Watch app — links that are far easier to access than the honeycomb UI. The MLB app handles this perfectly, as tapping on the glance takes you into the full app with additional information that doesn’t fit on the simple glance, such as the score of previous games, and relevant headlines:

mlb-detail

Glances work great for apps that have dashboard-like data. But a number of apps have glances of questionable value. For example Flipboard has a glance that shows me a single headline that I might be interested in:

flipboard-glance

Maybe it’s just me, but personally I have no desire to “glance” at my watch to see a headline, much less read a full article. To make things worse, if I tap this glance to go into the full Flipboard Watch app, I can’t even complete the article without getting out my phone:

flipboard-detail

Another app that fails my convenience test is Twitter, who’s glance only shows the top trending hashtag:

twitter-glance

Even if I am interested in this hashtag, which is highly unlikely, I’m going to get out my phone to browse it, because scrolling through a list of tweets on the watch is less than ideal:

twitter-detail

In general I would say that glances are great for apps that have a limited set of timely data users want to see quickly — weather apps, sports apps, financial apps (think stock quotes), and so forth.

For apps that don’t have that sort of data, such as content-based sites, I don’t see a compelling case to build a glance just because all the cool kids are doing it. If your glance isn’t useful, people won’t use it.

But even if you don’t use a glance, there is one other really good way to reach Apple Watch users.

Notifications

Notifications are the single biggest thing I use my Apple Watch for. Being able to quickly glance at a notification when I’ve got my hands full can be really useful. You don’t need to have an Apple Watch app for users to receive notifications on their Watch, but if you do, notifications present another way users can enter your app without navigating through the cumbersome honeycomb menu.

The Apple Watch supports iOS 8+’s interactive notifications, and using them provides a really convenient way for your users to interact with your service. As an example Twitter’s notifications include a very convenient “Favorite” button that I use quite often to favorite tweets as they come in.

twitter-notification-1twitter-notification-2

Another good example is Gulps, which is a simple water intake tracker. The app notifies you every so many hours to drink water, but they’ve intelligently included ways of adding gulps (or drinks of water) directly into the notification—making it trivial to interact with the service.

gulps-notification-1gulps-notification-2

You can do a lot with interactive notifications on the Watch, including the ability to launch your full Watch app to complete a given task. (The “Reply” button in Twitter’s notification does this, for instance.) Make sure to check the Apple Watch documentation on interactive notifications for more information on everything you can do.

So do you need a Watch app?

As with any software development, the answer is always “it depends.” If you have a service that has dashboard-like data, an Apple Watch glance is a great way to use let your users view that data quickly. If your app relies on notifications, interactive notifications offer a really convenient way to interact with your service.

But if your app or service doesn’t fit one of these use cases, don’t feel feel compelled to build an Apple Watch app just because. If your primary business is magazine articles, then you likely don’t have a compelling case to be on people’s wrists. And if you don’t build for the Watch, you won’t be alone, as Facebook, Snapchat, and many other top apps are also avoiding the Watch (although Facebook does use interactive notifications).

Here at Telerik we believe that if you do have a good use case for a Watch app, it should be relatively easy to build. Our Apple Watch Cordova plugin makes it trivial to build a Watch app using a simple JavaScript API. Yes, JavaScript. For example, here’s the code needed to generate a really simple glance:

var payload = {
  'label': {
    'value': 'A nice blue header',
    'color': '#1884C4',
    'font': {
      'size': 13
    }
  },
  'label2': { // optional, max 2 lines
    'value': 'And a white message, served @ ' + new Date().toUTCString(),
    'color': '#FFFFFF',
    'font': {
      'size': 11
    }
  },
  'image': {
    'src': 'www/styles/images/cordova.png',
    'width':  30, // optional but setting it is recommended
    'height': 30, // optional but setting it is recommended
    'alpha': 0.8
  }
};

applewatch.loadGlance(payload);

And here’s what that glance looks like on a Watch:

watch-plugin-1

You can also use Telerik Backend Services to send the interactive notifications discussed earlier in this article. Our Watch plugin even provides APIs for handling those notifications.

If you’d like to try it out for yourself, check out my colleague Rob Lauer’s step-by-step tutorial on building hybrid Apple Watch apps. And if you’re an Apple Watch user, feel free to share the apps you’ve found useful in the comments.

Header image courtesy of LWYang

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