Game of Watches: Designing for WatchOS and Android Wear

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Noémie Content Designer

29 Feb 2016  ·  9 min read


Love them or hate them, smartwatches and wearables are here to stay. Our designers compare the big players’ platforms: the big battle of WatchOS versus Android Wear.

Design is an extremely dynamic field. Only a very small number of elements and guidelines will stand the test of time. What looked cutting-edge and gorgeous on the first available smartphones, less than ten years ago, today is very obviously dated. However, these days technology evolves even faster. This is why, when designing for a relatively new category such as smartwatches, we like to think about the things that are most likely to change in the very near future. After all, in today’s world it’s silly not to think beyond the current generation of a device.

When taking a deep look into our crystal ball (also known as research), we found that there are a number of future features that we’re willing to bet on. Trends show that smartwatches will evolve to be standalone devices — meaning more of them will have direct access to mobile networks and thus their own SIM cards. Thinner designs that incorporate curved screens will become more popular as manufacturers hone their products and more players will enter this new segment. Well-known Swiss watch brands are already hopping on the smartwatch bandwagon, and more of their competitors might follow. An increase in battery life and screen resolutions is also likely.

There are evidently a number of challenges when designing for a smartwatch. It’s a new category of devices, which means that there are few guidelines or best practices — meaning there is a lot of room for creativity, but also many opportunities to mess things up. Apart from that, the small screen size poses its own set of challenges. But what our design team had been very interested in ever since the Apple Watch was announced, was how Android Wear and WatchOS would compare. How big are the differences? Does one have a better approach than the other? We dug in and found out.

Notifications

Notifications are one of the core features of a smartwatch – after all, in many cases, the goal is to determine whether you have to take your phone out of your pocket, dismiss the notification until later, or take a quick, easy action on the watch itself.

Notifications on WatchOS and Android Wear

Both Android Wear and WatchOS aim to make notifications as discreet as possible, and they try to find a sweet spot in terms of the information offered: the minimal amount needed to inform you and let you decide on your next action. The two platforms do have a different idea of where this sweet spot lies, exactly: Android Wear’s standard view offers more information than the equivalent on an Apple Watch, as you can see.

Apple’s approach makes it clearer which application is sending you a notification, but you’ll have to touch your device to figure out exactly what’s going on more often than on an Android device. On the flip side, a watch, unlike a phone, doesn’t offer much privacy – when a notification pops up, it’s on your wrist for everyone to see. Depending on the nature of your calendar appointments or messages, Apple’s approach might save you from a couple embarrassments…

When you act on the notifications, there’s also a difference: Android Wear lets developers select up to 3 possible actions, while WatchOS allows for a bit more flexibility with 4.

Everything at a glance

The second big chunk of activity on a smartwatch consists of glances or cards: the bits of information that a watch app can display on the tiny screen and that you can interact with.

Both platforms work hard to make this information timely and contextual, but the approaches here are quite different. Android Wear treats each app card the same way it treats an incoming notification: as a piece of information – a distinct entity. Cards can be template-based or completely custom, and all interactions the user can undertake happen directly within the card; the first view the user gets of a card can be considered a sneak preview of all the information it contains. You can of course access the underlying app, but you don’t necessarily have to.

Glances on WatchOS and Android Wear

WatchOS takes a different approach: its glances are always template-based, offering a specific, focused chunk of content, and they’re separated from notifications. A glance serves as a direct gateway to the watch app, where you’ll find all additional bits of information. This approach has its merits, but it does mean that as a designer, you’ll be restricted by the templates Apple offers. Android’s approach is less coherent than working with defined apps, but offers more flexibility when designing cards.

This difference also makes for a very different stream flow on the two operating systems, as you can see in the graph below. The benefit of Apple’s approach here is that it’s tidier, because it makes the difference between notifications and glances more obvious. Android Wear can be somewhat confusing to navigate at first because these two types of information are treated equally, even though they are presented in a contextual way.

The details

As good designers know, the smaller details and actions can be just as important as the underlying architecture for the user experience as a whole.

Two of the most common ways you’d use a smartwatch to communicate are to pick up phone calls and reply to messages, and there are, again, differences in how both OS’s handle them.

When you receive a call on your iOS or Android phone, you’ll be notified on your smartwatch, and you have the option of answering the call with the watch. Apple handles things better here, as far as we’re concerned: if you answer with your Apple Watch, that device is also the one handling the call. With Android Wear, your phone remains the one in charge; the call is simply routed through to your watch, which is less efficient.

Messages, on the other hand, are almost identical on both platforms – presumably because there aren’t that many practical solutions for messaging on such a tiny screen. In both cases, the focus lies on speech – while it may be awkward today to talk to your wrist in order to send a text message, it’s far more efficient than typing. Apart from dictation, both Android Wear and WatchOS allow you to create prefill messages, so that you can send things like “okay”, “almost there”, or “I’m leaving now” with a quick tap on the screen. You also get the important option of replying with an emoji – the only difference here is that Apple added animated emoji to the mix, whereas Android Wear’s are static.

Another important detail are of course the watch faces – after all, they’re the first thing you see every time you wake the watch. Both Apple and Android offer a default library to pick from, but on an Apple Watch, you can’t customise them and create your own – at least for now. There’s been some controversy about Apple removing apps giving you this freedom from the store; time will show if this is something they’re really planning on enforcing. Android Wear follows the footsteps of its older brother and lets you tweak your watch face to your heart’s content.

Last but not least, all current smartwatches also have hardware buttons. Here, Android Wear runs into the same issues as Android does on phones: fragmentation. Most smartwatches have only one button; some have two; and the exact function is device dependent. The button is most commonly used to lock and unlock the watch.

Apple has the advantage of manufacturing both device and software, and has created the “digital crown”. When you scroll the button fast, you can scroll through pages or zoom in and out on photos; clicking it brings you back to the home screen. The crown takes a lot of interaction away from the small screen of the watch, which is a definite plus. The second button on the Apple Watch is the communications button: tapping it brings up a “speed dial” screen for your favourite contacts, so that you can call or text them quickly.

A small detail to take into account when building watch apps: only Android Wear gives you the option to animate in code. Apple enforces the use of PNG sequences for everything.

Apps

As we said before, all smartwatches run apps, which means that both WatchOS and Android Wear have an app launcher on board. Because Apple is much more focused on these apps on their watches than Android Wear is, they took care in making sure the launcher is easy to reach – you just click the digital crown – and easy to use. On Android Wear, the app launcher takes a back seat; it’s hidden deep in the menu structure and isn’t all that accessible. However, this can be fixed by installing a custom launcher (something you obviously cannot do on an Apple Watch), and there will be a number of improvements baked into version 5.1.

Tim Cook

Of the preinstalled apps, the fitness app is one of the most important – the Apple Watch and a large amount of Android Watches are specifically marketed as great tools to follow up on your fitness efforts. This is why Android’s version is rather disappointing: it’s a nice-looking pedometer, and not much more. Of course, nothing stops you from installing a better option from the app store, but it’s a missed opportunity. The Apple Watch has a much more advanced Fitness app, with an easy-to-read graph detailing the time you spent moving, standing or exercising, and detail views showing things like your amount of steps, burned calories, and heart rate.

The Apple Watch also has a built-in camera app, something Android Wear chose not to include. You can choose the one with features you prefer in the Play Store. It’s a slightly odd choice, but considering the way certain camera apps for mobile phones have garnered cult followings, it’s not really that strange. Apple’s camera app has the most important basic features: a live preview, the option to see the last photo you took, a delayed action shutter and a trigger. It’s simple, and probably all anyone will need – it’s a watch, after all.

Two roads to the same destination

If you came here looking for a verdict on the better smartwatch OS, you’re not in luck. After all, in spite of all online wars on the subjects, many people agree that the choice between Android and iOS on mobile phones is a matter of personal preference, not inherent quality of the OS (there’s always a certain element of friendly rivalry going on here at November Five’s HQ – we’re not exactly immune to that feeling). Their respective watch counterparts are no different in this respect

So what’s the takeaway for developers and designers working on watch apps? First of all, that the differences between WatchOS and Android Wear are not as big as they once were between iOS and Android. There are, however, a number of quirks to take into account. Apple, as always, is somewhat stricter when it comes to design guidelines, but there’s plenty room for creativity on both systems.

So let’s design the apps that make a smartwatch worth buying!