I Want A Smartwatch That Can Do More
Smartwatches as they exist today do so little that I chose not to buy one. And I’m not the only person who feels this way. The Wirecutter says that “most people don’t need a smartwatch”.
I want a smartwatch that can do more, enough phone functionality that I can justify buying and using one.
Why Are Today’s Smartwatches Limited?
Before we can fix a problem, we need to understand why it arises.
Smartwatches are limited because of having too small a screen. You can’t do much in any given screen. You get little information at once and have to navigate to the next screen for more. This is already a problem with phones, but far worse on smartwatches.
The tiny screen leaves no room for on-screen buttons. Which are a significant improvement in usability, because they’re labeled. You know that a Delete button in a dialog box deletes. Smartwatches regress in this area. For example, the Apple Watch has a digital crown, which acts as a home button. You’d expect the home button to take you to the home screen, but it can also switch to another app. As if that’s not enough, it can Siri. Then there’s a button called Side button. Not to mention that the digital crown is also on the side, but is not called the Side button, which is confusing. In any case, the side button acts as a power button. And lets you pay using Apple Pay. And opens your Friends ring, whatever that is. It’s bad UX to overload each of these buttons with three different and unrelated functions this way. It’s so unintuitive that I had no clue how to use it when I tried one at an Apple store or asked to use a friend’s watch. I had to read a Dummies guide. Needless to say, users shouldn’t be made to feel like dummies. And if you make them feel that way, they won’t buy your product.
Let’s move on from UI to another important part of a computing device — text input. Today’s smartwatches have no room for a keyboard. But voice input is unreliable. This means input in any form is hard. This severely limits what the device can do.
All these limitations arise from having too tiny a screen. No amount of UX design can ease such a severe restriction.
How We’ll Ease These Restrictions
Let’s see how we can build a more functional smartwatch. We won’t use technology that’s not ready yet, like bendable displays. Or voice recognition, which doesn’t work reliably enough to replace a keyboard. Everything about this proposal is feasible today.
Since the main problem with today’s smartwatches comes from their tiny screen, we’ll make it bigger.
As a starting point, let’s take the Apple Watch, specifically the biggest 44mm one. We’ll keep its height . But we’ll increase the screen’s width to have an ultrawide 2.39:1 aspect ratio, up from a portrait 13:16 aspect ratio.
This makes it much bigger than the Apple Watch, 3x bigger in screen area! This is only 22% smaller than the original iPhone!
This immediately enables phone-level productivity: you can see far more information at once without needing to navigate back and forth excessively. We’ll have enough space for an onscreen keyboard you can type comfortably on, while still being able to see what you’re typing and the surrounding context. In addition to content, we’ll have space for multiple on-screen buttons. You’ll have phone-style productivity on your wrist, without the confusing smartwatch UX. The UX will be closer to that of a phone, just adapted to a landscape orientation.
To support such a wide screen, the strap will bifurcate as it approaches the watch, like a V, and the two parts will connect at different points on the body.
What Use Cases Can We Support With This Smartwatch?
The bigger screen lets you do many things that till now only phones could do:
- Make calls: The Apple Watch requires your iPhone to be nearby, and relays calls through it, which reduces quality. Or your carrier needs to support Wifi calling and you need to be on Wifi. People want calls to just work, without these ifs and buts. Our smartwatch will have a SIM card and support traditional phone calls and SMSs.
- Reading messages sent to you, whether WhatsApp, Slack, email or other services. Today’s smartwatches are not big enough to read these comfortably, except for one-line messages. Ours is.
- Scheduling a calendar event, optionally with one or two attendees and a title like “review marketing”. We won’t support complex event scheduling with a dozen attendees across three timezones, checking their schedule for other meetings, checking working hours across timezones, picking an available room in each office, setting up a video-conferencing link, writing a detailed agenda for the meeting, and marking some attendees as optional.
- Making a shopping list.
- Ordering from Amazon when you know exactly what you want, to an address registered in your account, using a card already in your account.
- Ordering food: Today’s smartwatch apps can track orders, but ours will be able to place a new order, too.
- Web browsing, with support for desktop websites. They’ll work but they won’t be optimal. But web sites designed for this form factor, or web sites in something like Safari’s Reader mode, will work excellently.
What use cases do we not plan to support?
- Researching a topic in depth, like what car to buy or planning a vacation. In fact, I find the desktop most comfortable for this, not a phone, let alone any smartwatch.
- Writing a long email.
- Creating a complex spreadsheet with multiple tabs, formulas, and so on.
- Anything a smartphone doesn’t support, like coding.
Different kinds of users will find our smartwatch useful. In particular:
- People who work in situations where a smartphone is too big. Maybe a car mechanic who can receive instructions while repairing a car. There isn’t space for a phone when he has crawled below a car. In general, when he’s repairing, he doesn’t have a free hand to hold a phone.
- People who are never far from a bigger screen. For example, people who spend much of their time at home or in office, and have a computer or tablet nearby. So we can split phone use cases in two, tackling the simpler ones on the smartwatch, and complex ones on a tablet or computer, which has more screen space than a phone and is generally better suited. If this works out, I won’t need a smartphone any longer !
When building any product, it’s important to recognise who are not our target users:
- People who are super happy with their current smartwatch.
- People who can afford only one device. For them, phones are the right kind of device to buy.
- People who engage in strenuous physical activity for hours a day, like a tennis coach. Our smartwatch may not be comfortable for him to wear.
- People who are fashion-conscious, for whom the look is the most important aspect of a watch. In fact, I think smartwatch design has gone in the wrong direction because too much focus has been placed on not looking odd or geeky. Better a geeky-looking device that’s broadly useful than a cool device that’s not broadly useful. And our smartwatch is not for everyone. If you think existing smartwatches are better for you, use them.
Smartwatches today are too limited to be broadly useful. We can make a bigger smartwatch that’s far more functional, and can justify its purchase.
Appendix: What Use Cases Smartwatches support today
As we talk about improving smartwatches, we should also recognise what they can do today. The following list is for Apple Watch, but other smartwatches can do similar things:
- Always-on display to show the time
- Maps and directions, with GPS and compass
- Fitness tracking, including reminding you to get up
- Fall detection resulting in an automatic call to emergency.
- Payment like Apple Pay
- Call an Uber.
- Listen to podcasts and streaming music
- Setting a timer, say to turn off the stove in 3m
- Setting a reminder like “remind me to play tennis at 5PM”
- Check weather
- Check your schedule for the day.
- Read news headlines
- Control smart home appliances
- Check your notes, like a shopping list
- Check your bank balance
- Read messages sent to you, whether SMS or email.
- Siri, for voice commands
I don’t know how well these work, or how often they’re used, though.
 If we increase it, it will extend beyond the edges of my wrist.
 This kind of thing happens often in tech, by the way — devices intrude into territory formerly served by an adjacent category of device, much like troops of warring states overrunning borders. For example, in the early 90s, everyone used desktops, and laptops were a novelty, only for some people, and even for them to be used in some situations like traveling. By 2010, laptops displaced desktops for the majority of users. Steve Jobs introduced tablets as a middle ground between smartphones and laptops. But over the years, phones became bigger, and laptops became lighter, thinner and with better battery life, so tablets were squeezed in from both sides.
The same dynamic can happen to phones if smartwatches can do more.