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4 fundamental lessons for smartwatch UX development

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Consider animations, responsiveness, convenience, and stringent testing to boost the effectiveness of your smartwatch UX development.

As smartwatches continue to dominate the wearables market, it’s important to bear in mind whether the user experience (UX) is optimized in tandem between the hardware and software stack. With touch and crown-based inputs being the most commonly used methods, along with a dizzying array of sensors and other similar components, developers need to remain on their toes, continually innovating.

That said, this doesn’t mean you have to settle for software stack bloat (the combination of operating system, drivers, libraries, application-level code, etc.) or “the big guys” in terms of operating systems, as discussed previously in our post on smartwatch app development for low-power and ultra-low power microcontrollers (MCU). Manufacturers like Zepp Health are already delivering sophisticated smartwatches using alternative tech stacks.

What are some other lessons that can be applied to modern smartwatch UX development? Let’s take a look at the hardware and software implications on UX in closer detail.

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No-nonsense animations

Depending on the available RAM and integrated processor performance capabilities, among other components, that fancy transition animation may end up souring the user experience. Frankly speaking, if you’re developing for a low-powered MCU, animations should be clean and straightforward, as minimal as possible so they don’t hog internal hardware storage and RAM, or consume so many CPU cycles that the frame rate suffers (as described in this blog).

Also, are complex animations really needed when the point of a smartwatch is to enable quick, hassle-free access to critical notifications, input user preferences for smart features in their home, or manage their day-to-day on their wrist? Just as displaying only essential information onscreen is important, so is keeping the feeling of using the software clean and fluid. This frees up hardware resources that can be more efficiently allocated towards processes that offer up a more meaningful user experience.

This isn’t to say that all animations should be eliminated. Fluid screen transitions, menu bumps, and small moments of delight on every watch face are critical to keep users interested and coming back to your product. You just need to find the right balance between compelling UX and pushing beyond the limits of your platform (we discuss specific techniques here).

Responsiveness and navigation come first for smartwatch UX development

On that note, does your UX feel snappy or sluggish? Are you finding it bogged down by menus galore and microscopic on-screen controls? Does the second hand on your analog watch face stutter across the numbers or glide smoothly around the dial?

Since smartwatch applications and operating systems are beneficial to the user when, well, they’re usable, responsiveness is also essential. Through prototyping and user validation, take the time to find out where users are getting hung up and stuck waiting, or having a hard time navigating the interface in question. Also pay attention to user reviews and complaints once your smartwatch is released, and plan for performance updates as well as feature tweaks. Then, make careful and calculated optimizations followed by testing to see if improvements to usability and responsiveness have been made.

See fast smartwatch performance with a Storyboard GUI running on an STM32L4R9 ultra-low power MCU

Convenience (and relevance)

If it takes more time to swipe between screens and scroll through menu options on a smartwatch, who wouldn’t simply grab their phone? For effective smartwatch UX, to be convenient is to be relevant – in other words, worth the user’s valuable time. This is especially important when developing for smartwatches that use low-powered microcontrollers that generally have a few more hardware and related constraints that demand thorough optimization (think of an NXP RT 500 or STMicroelectronics STM32L4R9 versus the Apple S1 or Snapdragon Wear 4100). One could argue that high-powered smartwatches have the upper hand here, but that’s not the case if you build and optimize the software around lower-powered hardware first.

Simplicity and a focus on sheer convenience – making the application a viable competitor on a more affordable and battery friendly piece of hardware – are actually more beneficial towards the user, all while potentially decreasing development costs and time to market.

Testing to triumph

If you don’t employ stringent testing processes – and retest with each UX tweak – you may miss out on taking your software in a compelling new direction. Perhaps a breakthrough could be uncovered that can address navigation bugs. Or, maybe the simple shifting of GUI elements will dramatically change how a user prefers to use the system. In addition, power efficiency is crucial if you want that low-powered MCU to deliver tangible benefits to the end user, helping them get more out of each charge.

Usability is not UX. UX is about the experience – how it feels to use smartwatch software, how well it gets along with hardware, and whether the combination is worth the user’s time in the first place. Develop with the core essentials in mind first, apply a clean and minimal aesthetic that is visually pleasing but prioritizes user convenience, and you’ll have something truly special on your hands – or wrist, rather.

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