10/15/2014 10:03 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Five Design Imperatives That will Define--or Destroy--Smartwatches

With Android Wear and the Apple Watch both out in the open, it looks like Smartwatches are just about ready to hit the big time. But are they really refined enough to justify putting them on our wrists?

One thing's for certain: If smartwatches are ever to replace our current timepieces, they'll have to achieve a perfect balance between fashion and functionality. It might not seem like it, but nobody wants to have a smartphone on their wrist. That would be invasive, and frankly, it would get annoying. The entire experience has to be fundamentally different, or the entire idea runs the risk of complete failure. Here are five things that smartwatches absolutely must get right if they're ever going to catch on.

1. Starting from Scratch

Interface and user experience will be some of the most difficult obstacles for smart watches to overcome as they attempt to build a widespread market. From what we've seen so far, most of these smartwatch interfaces are really just downsized versions of smartphone interfaces. This is a problem; for smartwatches to really succeed, they'll have to break the mold and differentiate themselves from their pocket partners.


Features like RFID and NFC, for instance, could make the difference between glorified wrist-pager and vital everyday accessory. Imagine swiping your watch by a reader at the grocery store, and then simply walking out with your produce. There is tons of potential in smartwatches, but most has yet to be uncovered. If it's to change our lives, it'll have to take a brand new approach from what's come before.

2. Being Important--Without Being Annoying

If you thought the incessant buzzing of your smartphone was annoying, wait until it's making your hand vibrate every time a friend sends you a text message. The smartwatch might seem like a smaller, wrist-mounted smartphone, but having a computer strapped to your wrist is a completely different experience from having one that sits in your pocket.

One of the biggest struggles for wearable technology will be to deliver useful information to the user without becoming a total nuisance. This isn't just limited to notifications, either. Every interaction with wearable technology should be quick and snappy, to match with the limited UI that the product offers. Any more than that, and the design will really detract from the experience.

3. Overcoming the Battery Hurdle

This one might seem like a no-brainer, but there are lots of subtle nuances when it comes to smartwatch battery life. Everybody knows that in order to be successful, smartwatches will need to come with sufficient battery life. The question is: What's sufficient? Should it last as long as a normal watch--a feat which would seem near-impossible? Is it okay for the battery to last for only a day, as many smartphones do?

It seems for now that the minimum acceptable battery life of a smartwatch is from the time a person gets up, until the time they go to bed. But while the 17-20 hour range seems ideal, this is something that will have to be further improved through iteration.

4. Making UI Fashionable

One of the biggest caveats of wearable technology is that, well, it has to be warn. Unfortunately, when it comes to watches, a leather or even gold wristband does not make a fashionable product. The face has to look good too. What's interesting about smartwatches is that they boast interface as a fashion element, which puts the tech in kind of a tough spot. If the UI on the watch doesn't look good, the wearer might as well be wearing a calculator on their wrist. Functional? Sure. Fashionable? Absolutely not.


When it comes to designing apps for smartwatches, developers should hold themselves to rigorous standards. No longer is "clean" design enough - it should be actively fashionable, in addition to being user-friendly.

5. Keeping the End (User) in Mind

One of the hardest parts of designing a product comes with figuring out what exactly your users want. How long should a smartwatch notification last? What should it look like? When is it appropriate, and where do users draw the line between useful and annoying?

When a user interacts with a piece of technology as often as they'll be interacting with their smartwatches, it's important to note that the smallest tweaks can have some of the most profound effects. As developers and designers try to tweak their own approaches for creating smartwatch apps, it'll be important for them to conduct iterative testing with users, who can provide valuable input for the development process.