Apple Watch apps: Best practices when designing for the wrist

Currently limited to actionable notifications (short and long looks), widgets (glances), and remote views (WatchKit apps), even though Apple Watch apps are bound to the iPhone, there's still boundless potential. I've tried several smartwatches and bands, seen most of what's on the market, and I've even been lucky enough to use the Apple Watch both back in September and recently again in March, where third-party apps were showcased. Those apps, the ones listed on the Apple Watch App Store apps (opens in new tab) page, benefited from time in the labs and testing on actual hardware. For those who didn't get that opportunity, after a lot of conversations with a lot of smart and experienced people, here's a list of things that are vital to keep in mind.

1. Keep it black

The Apple Watch's display is widely believed to be OLED. Unlike LCD, OLED is appreciably more energy efficient when displaying darker colors, especially black. Moreover, deep OLED blacks will better blend in with the watch's black bezels, making everything seem more open and expansive.

Apple's human interface guidelines (HIG) for the Apple Watch is emphasizing black, and you're going to want to follow it.

  • Apple Watch HIG{.nofollow}

2. Keep it high contrast

There's a reason Apple is using terminology like "looks" and "glances". When an interface is on your wrist, the amount of attention you give it changes. Since you're not pulling it from your pocket or purse, or hefting it up from off the table, since it's not taking as much time to engage, the time spent engaging drops. That means everything has to be incredibly readable, and that means it has to be high contrast. On black backgrounds, bright text will show up clearly and bright colors will pop.

When you're only looking or glancing over for a second or two, having to stop and squint to try and visually and mentally parse information won't work. Everything needs to be presented clearly so it can be processed and understood quickly.

3. Keep it discreet

When a device is more intimate, its interactions have to be more important: Otherwise, it risks turning notification into interruption. Likewise, when a device is more visible, its interactions have to be more discreet: Otherwise it risks turning information into embarrassment.

In other words, your short look should never betray what your spouse thinks about your boss keeping you late, which controversial hashtag you're tracking, or anything that could be contentious or inappropriate at a meeting or at a dinner party.

4. Keep it brief

The Apple Watch has a small screen, making it ideal for quick bits of information and interaction. That same size makes it less than ideal, however, for long-form information or prolonged interactions. Likewise the weight of holding it up for anything more than a few minutes will likely cause discomfort.

So, show the critical stuff first, let people tap in for more, and then people use Handoff for anything truly in-depth or long in duration, so they can immediately pick up and continue whatever they need to on a bigger, more powerful device.

5. Keep it consistent

Looks and glances are each appropriate for different types of information. Looks are for temporary notifications; glances are for persistent data presentations. If you need something temporary, go with a look. If you need something persistent, go with a glance.

If they go to a glance, they want to see something. Just like a notification shouldn't stay stuck on the screen, a widget shouldn't ever empty out or vanish.

6. Keep it simple

Interactions with WatchKit will be more reactive than active. We'll spend far more time engaging with looks than hunting around for third-party glances or apps. That means notifications will be the primary gateway for most software, and they'll need to be polished and perfected. Glances, by contrast, will only need to be considered when data truly needs to be available all the time, and WatchKit apps only when interactivity is needed beyond what a glance can provide.

You don't need to have all of them, you'll need to have the most appropriate one(s), and have them perform incredibly well.

Bonus: No force-hamburgers

Force touch is a way to bring up extra, contextually-sensitive options. It's not an analog for the "hamburger button" — a way to bury a basement-full of unrelated functions.

If you feel yourself force touching, and start smelling burgers, step away from the Apple Watch and head for the joint of your choice. Then come back and pare down the options to the essentials.

Bonus II: Rules are made to be broken

Best practices are just that — best, not only. Great designers, the ones who truly understand their mediums and their messages, can and will break rules all the time. This list is meant to help, not to constrict — to make think, not to stifle. Take what makes your app better, reject the rest.

Bottom line

Come this April, we'll be surprised and delighted by what we get to see and use on our wrists. WatchKit apps work in tandem with the iPhone, and the developers and designers who make iPhone apps have had years to hone their chops and their craft. Developers who aren't sure of what to do or how exactly it'll all work simply have to wait for the Apple Watch to hit the market, get one, and and then test and tweak their apps on it until they shine. Because when it comes to the Apple Watch, shipping great experiences is going to be far, far more important than shipping on launch day.

Originally published February 15, 2015.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • Rene. My big question to you about te watch is do you think this is a product apple will update annually like the iPhone or iPad? I ask because I really want one, but with "real" apps not coming out till the spring and battery life issues to iron out, this seems like the perfect "wait for gen 2" product. And this is cing from an Apple fan who paid $600 for an original iPhone, $1000 for an original iPad, and bought every single iPod ever made. I'm an early adopter...but the watch seems more 0.9beta than any of Apple's previous products. I'd be pretty annoyed if I bought gen 1, and gen 2 had independent wifi or Cellular.
  • Gen 2 probably won't have those things because the Apple watch (and most smartwatches) are meant to be an extension of your phone. Now say, you wanted integrated GPS. That would be something to wait for. But where are you going to have WiFi and you don't have your phone with you? And why pay for more cell service? Also, when would apple add a spot on the watch for a SIM card. That goes against their entire design sensibilities. "I'm da Blur boys!" - Me with 1200 ping. Fiber in Nashville? Save me based Google.
  • GPS doesn't use data, but it does drain the battery. I expect the Apple Watch will have it someday. Sent from the iMore App
  • I don't think Apple Watch 1 is any more or less "beta" than iPhone 1 or iPad 1. In fact, I think it's further along than either of those two products were when they launched. (Not much, but further!) You can always wait and get something better, but the cost is not having something now. Personally, I'm going to enjoy Apple Watch 1 for many, many months, and then hopefully enjoy Apple Watch 2 :)
  • I agree - the  Watch, feature-wise, seems stacked. Not perfect, but no gaping holes in the feature list IMO. We're not going to get huge leaps in battery life til Apple builds that battery wrist strap they patented. And third party apps (full-blown custom UIs, not the cookie cutter notifications and Glances) will probably start revving up at WWDC 2015, to be released in September or so. Second gen hardware will probably be a little thinner, a lot cheaper, and with more bands. Now, if they could just nail the messaging and deliver a compelling keynote about the darned thing, we'd be set.
  • I couldn't disagree more. Android Wear, though not great now, is an Apple fan's best friend. Manufacturers will race to be the first smartestch that untethers from the phone with wifi or 3G or even edge. Apple may not do it gen 2, but eventually they'll be the only smart watch that still requires an iPhone, and they'll have no choice but to add wireless connectivity. They'll find a way to do it while preserving battery life. They will cut the tether eventually, probably gen 3.
  • I guess the difference is, I don't see that as even feasible in the first gen. Sure, it'll come down the line, but not an immediate, obvious hole to plug like third party apps or 3G on the first iPhone. It's not that I can't think of any more features I'd like for the Apple Watch, it's just that I'm 95% satisfied with the current features, given the state of technology in 2015. It's a bit unusual, as Apple usually nails the message and is conservative on features. The  Watch is heavy on first-gen features but they haven't explained why a normal person would want one.
  • I'm sure a watch, or some other wearable, will eventually be "all-in" and actually usable for a day, I know Samsung's beast of a watch has at least taken a step in that direction, but its enormous and dits before lunch. The difference is, Apple doesn't engineer all of these parts, they might have a hand in some details, but the radios & batteries come from other manufacturers, like Qualcomm. They can only move so fast. Look at the past decade. Radios have become smaller, faster & more power efficient. If Apple has anything to do with this, it's only because of their pressure on these manufacturers to fill an order. For instance, they will submit a request to multiple manufacturers for a specific component to meet a certain list of requirements, then those manufacturers will bid on it, meeting or exceeding the requirements to stay competitive. If none of them can meet those requirements, Apple will revise their design or wait to implement certain features, such as built-in cellular or GPS. Samsung didn't wait, the battery life is horrid. Apple works at a different pace, for good reason, in my opinion.
  • Not sure what you've heard, but Apple engineers most of the parts in their products - they just don't manufacture them - and even then, they go further than most companies and buy the equipment for it and even develop the manufacturing processes to build them. You should do more homework on Apple, they research, develop and "engineer" in all the following areas; GPU, CPU, flash memory, bluetooth, displays, batteries, materials, etc. (By the way, Qualcomm doesn't manufacture either, they out-source as well - they are one of TSMC's biggest customers.)
  • Um... maybe you should do the same homework you're asking durfmobile to do. Apple doesn't engineer the modems, or or radio's... which are the parts in question in his comment; heck they don't even engineer the NFC chip they use, or RAM either. For example the 4G/LTE modem used by iPhone 6 and 6 Plus is the qualcomm MDM9235M (same modem used in some Samsung phones) - engineered by Qualcomm and manufactured by TSMC. The NFC is the NXP 7PN547V0B (originally released in 2012 and again used by many OEM's). All that to say, Apple does engineer many of it's parts but not all and usually never radio's at all... So to the point of the person you're responding to, they are correct in that Apple is bound (until they engineer their own chips for radios which they currently DO NOT) by the advancements by the manufacturers of the chips they use. PS. Don't ask someone to do their homework and be condescending if it's obvious you haven't done yours...
  • I agree with this list.... Surprisingly. Good writing sir. On a side note, what exactly about the Apple watch appeals to the people reading this comment.
    In design it looks too candyish for me, and while it's easy to change that, the overall shape and form just don't agree with me for some reason. Features seem to be in line with other current smartwatches. Possibly more storage since it seems like apps will be onboard. Battery life needs to be explained without jargon. A simple "2 days of medium usage" would have worked. Although, iOS compatability is probably the largest thing the Apple Watch has going for it. The fact that one can't pair a Moto360 or GWR is why one would get an Apple Watch if one wanted the type of smartwatch that is more than notifications. Last question, would anyone here use an Android wear watch with an iPhone if you could, and which one and why? "I'm da Blur boys!" - Me with 1200 ping. Fiber in Nashville? Save me based Google.
  • The Apple Watch appeals to me simply because I realised one day that pretty much everything I actually use my iPhone for, is already on the Watch (time, weather, messages, etc.). Also, I have been thinking of getting a pedometer anyway, so ... bonus. I disagree about the looks of the thing. You say the shape and form don't agree, but for a watch, they are all going to be either a circle or a square sitting on your wrist. The only real difference is the details (corners or rounded corners, etc.) and the fact that all smart watches are understandably very thick. I think the Apple Watch looks like a really cool, really nicely designed watch, that is unfortunately very thick and overweight. Visually, it should be about half the current thickness, and I think that over time this is pretty much the only real change we will see in the exterior design. It will get thinner as all Apple products do. It is the curse of Steve Jobs if you will.