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Watching smartwatches

April 26, 2016 13 comments

Smartwatches provide easy access to personal data in a wearable device. Modern devices sparking the latest wave of use include Pebble, Android Wear, Apple Watch. An important aspect of the popularity of these platforms is their open programming and app distribution platforms. For little or no cost, anyone with programming knowledge can develop and distribute an app. However, excitement about the platform and availability of a programming platform does not necessarily translate to useful and usable apps.

Two big hurdles exist that are particularly relevant for app designers: domains of use and continued use. First, it’s not yet clear what the domain for the smartwatch “killer app” will be—the apps that are so necessary and desired that people will pay for the technology necessary to use them.  Candidate areas for the killer app include health and fitness, highly accessible notifications for email and messaging, and social media. Second, an unanswered question is whether people will use them long term–there’s lots of attrition for even the most popular hardware.

We set out to understand these questions in my CS 3714 mobile software design class. An assignment asked that students perform an analytic evaluation of a smartwatch over the course of at least 5 days. Pebble, Android Wear, and Apple Watch smartwatches were available for checkout. Students were asked to identify at least three smartwatch apps to use prior to the 5-day period, then use the smartwatch and apps over the course of the 5 days for several hours each day. It was asked that at least one of the apps be a health- or fitness-related app, and at least one of the apps (perhaps the same one) was to have a companion app for the smartphone.

Students completed a form indicating whether they generally wore a watch (standard or smartwatch), which smartwatch they chose to wear for the assignment, how long they wore the smartwatch for the assignment, and which apps they used. The students were asked to craft a narrative to describe the experience with your selected hardware. The narrative covered display and interaction experiences as well as experiences with each of at least three different apps. It is expected that the narrative cover about 800-1000 words.

Students tended to complete this assignment with a higher completion rate than the other (programming) assignments for the class–68 out of 71 students submitted it. 24 students used the Pebble, 38 used an Android Wear watch, and 6 used the Apple Watch. Most used the smartwatch for longer than the requested 5 days; the median usage time was 7 days and the average was 8.9 days. Only 40% of students reported that they regularly wear any sort of watch, and only 10% reported having worn a smartwatch regularly.

Students tended to use more than the 3 apps that the assignment asked them to use. Most students used fitness apps that came with the smartwatch (e.g., Android Fit, Apple Activity). Others used run tracking apps, and a few tracked other diet or exercise. Map alerts and other notifications were popular, as were games. Surprisingly, only a few people reported using social media in a meaningful way (i.e., beyond receiving text messages); perhaps that is because of the short usage time.

Comments from student narratives reflected a general interest in the technology. They found the smartwatch “pleasant”, “nice and convenient”, and “very handy”.  Notifications seemed to be an advantage, with the smartwatch “a great way to read and dismiss notifications” (though others found notifications annoying or “glorified”). However, few people seemed poised to purchase or use the technology based on their experiences. The most common complaints were that the hardware was “ugly”, “awkward”, “incredibly silly”, and “not aesthetically pleasing”. Others found the technology hard to use, with comments like “my finger takes up half the screen”, “small buttons”, and “no way for users to type”. Lots of students admitted that they were “just not a watch person” or that they “disliked watches”, and there was nothing about the smartwatch that they wore to change their minds.

An important side effect of the smartwatch watching assignment is that students better understood the capabilities of smartwatches. In prior semesters when students did not have the experience of wearing a smartwatch, designs tended to be unrealistic or impossible to implement. Students in this semester seemed to have a better understanding of how a smartwatch would be used, and as such their homeworks and projects were targeted more appropriately for the smartwatch. There’s a danger that their experiences may stifle their creativity by highlighting what has been done, but that seemed outweighed by a realistic understanding of capabilities and scenarios of use.

There’s an interesting history for smartwatches, from the Dick Tracy vision to the poorly-received models from Seiko, IBM, and others through the 1980s and 1990s. The new wave of smartwatches seems to be booming, but it’s unclear whether that boom is here to stay. My research group has been exploring smartwatch use in the classroom as reported in a SIGCSE paper, demo, and poster in 2015.  And we put together an app set to look at reactions to smartwatches in an elementary school outreach experience.  A previous in-class activity comparing games across platforms (smartwatch, smartphone, and laptop/web). It seems likely that young people will help define whether and how smartwatches will be used (or whether the movement will fizzle, or appeal only to niche groups) in upcoming years.