4 Tips for Designing Apple Watch Apps

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The global wearable technology marketplace is growing at a staggering rate, estimated to increase from $7.1 billion in 2015 to $12.6 billion by 2018.

One of the hottest segments in that market is smartwatches. In the past year alone, smartwatch shipments have increased from 7.4 million units in 2014 to nearly 25 million units in 2015. Some analysts believe global smartwatch shipments will reach 101 million units by 2020.

While Google, Samsung, and others are pouring money into wearables, Apple continues to drive many market segments, including smartwatches. Although it’s difficult to accurately size and predict rapidly growing markets, IDC analyst Ryan Reith believes Apple Watch will ultimatelyaccount for 62% of the smartwatch market in 2015. Apple’s record of innovation, and their ability to create new markets, demands that developers take note of their product releases and market activities. Apple is positioned to lead the smartwatch market for the foreseeable future.

With those thoughts in mind, here are four tips for designing applications for the Apple Watch.

1. Simplify your app to focus on glances and notifications

The first thing to consider is that the Apple Watch isn’t a miniature iPhone; it’s a wearable device positioned to support short, lightweight interactions with users. While iPhone interactions are measured in minutes, smartwatch interactions are measured in seconds. Apple research concluded that the average time spent interacting with a smartwatch is two to five seconds—checking email, reviewing a schedule, reading an alert, etc. These short interactions are categorized as glances, notifications, and applications.

Glances are time-based interactions with scannable, timely, and contextually relevant information such as date, time, heart rate, current weather, and financial account balances. Glances aren’t a mandatory companion for every application, but are often presented as an entry into an app and a broader set of information.

Notifications are brief but meaningful information presented upon a user raising their wrist. Customized by size and actions, notifications can be local or remote, presenting the user the most common and relevant actions to use in a quick response.

Notifications can be categorized as short or long. Short notifications include basic information like the announcement of an incoming message. Long notifications provide more details about an incoming message and may allow the user to take simple actions, such as replying to an incoming call or iMessage.

Applications allow users to interact with information similar to the way they would interact with the same app on an iOS device. While this type of interaction is possible on an Apple Watch, glances and notifications are typically better uses. For now, smartwatches are best used as a companion device for short user interactions measured in seconds.

2. Choose the best navigation model for your app

Swiping and tapping are navigation capabilities built into the WatchKit SDK. Both are viable solutions to move from one information display to another. Swiping and tapping are associated with the layout of information either in a page-based or hierarchical navigation format, with swiping used to scroll between pages of unrelated information and tapping used to access layered information.

As a designer, your role is to design an intuitive navigation layout best suited to your app, bearing in mind that the two navigation types should not be mixed.

Page-based navigation is recommended when information between pages isn’t related. It lets the user swipe through pages horizontally. This navigation type is well suited for simple applications such as weather locations, time zones, etc.

Hierarchical navigation is a convenient and flexible navigational structure best suited for complex data and layered information. With hierarchical navigation, you access related information in increasing levels of detail by tapping to move from one display to another.

Regardless of which navigation you decide is best for your application, the best practice is to sketch the design as part of the decision process. This forces you to consider how displays work together and how users access information in your app with swipes and taps. Sketching your navigation also flags cautionary design considerations such as having too many pages in a paged-based navigation or similar issues where usability can be negatively affected due to complex navigational structures hindering an application’s use.

3. Pay attention to your app’s style and branding

By design, smartwatch screens are very small—the Apple Watch is not an exception to that rule. Given the small area available to display information, you need to avoid displaying too much information on one screen. Consider using visual groupings and left-aligned elements to maximize space and readability.

Typography is a very important design decision that tracks directly to usability. Apple created a font named San Francisco to specifically use with the Apple Watch to maximize readability. The font was purpose-built for small screens and high contrast displays. While Apple’s font is preferred for the Apple Watch, generic typography design principles still apply, such as choosing a font early in the design process, minimizing the use of multiple fonts, and using native fonts whenever possible.

Brand identities can be expressed through font, color, and image choice, but you should minimize the use of your logo and avoid filling backgrounds with your brand color. Since smartwatches inherently have small displays and are positioned around the notion of lightweight interactions based on glances and gesture notifications, best practices suggest limiting the use of your brand color to your app’s global tint.

4. Take the time to build and test prototypes

As with all software development initiatives, it’s a best practice to build and test prototypes as part of the design process. This helps your development team visualize the application in its final form and better understand the way users will interact with it when released into its marketplace. Using Invision or Marvel, you can create clickable prototypes before you begin development. This not only validates your design, it can reduce development costs and decrease the time it takes to bring an app to market.

When you prototype your app, be sure to involve end users in the testing and focus on single use cases. This helps you validate the use of the application and gain valuable feedback from target users who aren’t directly involved in your design, possibly giving you a fresh perspective of the application and its value in the marketplace.


Wearable technology, in general, and smartwatches, in particular, are in their infancy, with a lot of activity underway from both global technology powerhouses such as Google and Samsung to startup companies and new entrants of all scales looking to make a name for themselves and claim a stake in the burgeoning smartwatch marketplace. As with other technology markets, Apple is leading the way in smartwatches with its Apple Watch device. This creates a vibrant and promising developer environment.

Designers need to approach an Apple Watch development with several things in mind, chief among them being that the Apple Watch isn’t a small iPhone. Designing an app for the Apple Watch should be approached with its own design process, taking care to focus on Glances and Notifications, with careful use of swipe and tap navigation through page-based and hierarchical navigation to create an intuitive user experience.

Designers also need to take the time to prototype and test their design with target audiences, as well as pay close attention to the effects of brand fonts and colors that may affect the readability and usability of their design.

Ultimately, Apple Watch apps will be successful the same way other mobile apps have enjoyed success, by creating a valuable and intuitive user experience that attracts, welcomes, and serves the interests of end users. Given the infancy of the smartwatch marketplace and early release limitations of the Apple Watch, companies may find a best practice is to team with experienced smartwatch designers and developers, to speed their development and reduce the time to market.