OK, I’m going to confess, I’m a bit of a technology geek. Sometimes, that’s a bit embarrassing to admit, cos I’m a designer and designers are supposed to view technology as a tool, with reserved distain.
But that’s probably bollocks. If you’re a UI or UX designer working on software for phones, web, tablets, PCs, you’re embroiled in a daily soup of things you plug in, switch on and stare at all day.
And I’ve fallen for it. I genuinely love it all.
When I see videos of Cortana being told to remind me to pick up milk when I pass a supermarket or my photos app being able to categorise all my photos by people, places and things – and begin to think of the computation chutzpah that must have gone into electronically looking at each of those photos and figuring out what’s in them! – I will admit, I go all a bit moist.
Like any hopeless addict, I go through phases of obsession. It used to be wireless mice (eight of the tail-less blighters and counting. The last one was so nearly the right one, too!). Then it was hybrid laptops (loving Windows 8.1, btw). And now, it’s smartwatches. Let me take you on a little journey through my obsession…
It all started with a fitness dongle. I say ‘dongle’, because my first foray into the personal smart device world was with a Fitbit One, worn in a little pouch around my waist. It was a bit too Blackberry-in-a-quick-release-case-on-your-utility-belt-next-to-your-bluetooth-earpiece-in-a-portable-charger for me, so I started looking for something a bit more conventional. I totally loved the idea that this little device would live on me and accompany me on my journey through life, tracking my movements and letting me see how active (or not) I’ve been. I loved the idea of this data flowing through my phone up to the cloud and allowing some hardcore number-crunching to go on to compare me with other similar 35-year-olds. Useful, usable insight gleaned from data-drilling insight.
I’m also obsessed with technology watches. This is probably my oldest obsession, and dates back to a twelve-year-old me on holiday in America touring around cut-price Casio stores deciding whether to buy a piece of silver bling that recorded my voice for thirty seconds or could change the channels on the TV (fun fact: a wrist remote control is much FUN!).
It was about this time (a year or two ago) that Microsoft came out with their Band. I’d seen the Pebble and the Pebble copycats and decided they were a bit limiting. It was obviously very new technology and I’d wait just a bit (I know! How can I call myself a technology obsessive if I skip the first-gen! I’m older now. That’s my excuse). But the Microsoft Band was really on the money for me. I’m am/was a Windows Phone fanboi and (of course) no funky new wearable would work with my platform of choice. This crushing reality may also have had an impact on my purchase decision.
The Band was really quite incredible. It has on-board GPS (no phone needed when out running!), could last nearly two days, had a touchscreen (a groovy landscape one, to boot), had the Windows Phone virtual assistant Cortana built-in with voice support, had a tiny size-defying keyboard for amazingly accurately pecking out replies to messages on a two-inch qwerty space… I fell in love and purchased from the States – managed to dodge customs charges and felt as giddy when it arrived as I did when I bought the first iPhone.
Microsoft really knocked it out of the park with this one, but time and tide wait for no multinational technology company. After eight months of use on the end of my arm, something gave up inside and weird things started happening to the Band. So, off back to the homeland for a warranty repair.
While the cat was away, I managed to get hold of an Android Wear device. I’d been using an Android phone interchangeably with an iPhone 6 and Lumia 930 for a while and had settled on a Moto X for a few weeks. I wasn’t expecting much – Android had generally left me quite cold. The incoherence and chaos of Jelly Bean made the UXer in me cough up goblets of bile every time I saw it. Lollipop was a huge difference and we shouldn’t underestimate how important it will be to kick Android even further into the stratosphere.
But Wear was different. The smartwatch I was using was a first-gen LG G Watch and it just made sense almost immediately. Suddenly, Google’s data-convergence strategy – bringing hyper-relevant contextual information right to you when you need it – made so much more sense now it was at the end of my arm and super-glanceable. This little square screen strapped to my wrist is an extension of my phone’s screen – that’s a nuance that I think a lot of smartphone makers are struggling with right now. What is this thing for? Is it to push notifications to in a passive way that’ll draw the user into their main device if needed? Is it some kind of fitness-based alternative device (like the Microsoft Band) independent enough to be used on it’s own for a few things, but relatively limited to be used for much more?
Google have taken the approach that an Android Wear device is like a little extra square piece of real estate taken from your phone. Notifications are pushed to the device, but they are actionable there too. I can reply to a WhatsApp message. It has a little calculator. I can see my fitness goals right there. I found myself getting my Moto X out less and less. And the voice interaction shouldn’t be underestimated too – it’s the best I’ve seen on any smartwatch platform so far. Simply raise your wrist, repeat the brand-affirming phrase ‘OK Google’ and then tell it what the hell you want. ‘Show me a picture of a tree’, ‘will it rain tomorrow?’, ‘remind me to apologise to my wife when I get home’… anything. This fluidity of interaction – raise wrist > speak > drop wrist while it thinks, wait for tap-tap > raise wrist to look at results – is something you can slip so easily into your typical daily tasks that it becomes deeply natural. Google’s speech recognition has come of age, with barely any mistakes or misunderstandings. There’s some amazing technology going on right there. It’s literally the entire planet’s information at the end of my arm and accessible just by asking. Amazing. Moisture ensued.
Another thing that shouldn’t be underestimated is execution. When the device you’re using is so intimate – you’re wearing it your body for fuck’s sake – it needs to work flawlessly. This was one of the biggest problems I had with the Microsoft Band: on paper, having Cortana on your wrist is amazing (I still think it’s the most useful personal assistant of all three platforms), the speech recognition was a miss just one or two too many times. And the connection to the brains in the phone (and onward to the internet) was just a little too flaky. I realise we’re talking about some fairly temperamental wireless connections here – Bluetooth LE and 4.0, with cellular data – but Google seem to manage it far better with the Wear device and Android. Again (as I seem to spend my entire professional life advocating) execution is probably the most important part of any consumer product and with so many variables in play with wearable devices, execution becomes so much more important.
Let’s end on the subject of execution. I couldn’t write a post about smartwatches without mentioning the Apple Watch. If I was ten years younger, I wouldn’t be here talking about how much I love Android Wear right now… I’d be rocking a 42mm Space Grey with black sports band right now and telling you about how Apple are so amazing because they are just the very best at execution. But I can’t. Because their wearable costs three hundred fucking pounds. And the reviews are pretty sketchy. And it’s a first generation Apple product. And I’m kinda liking Lollipop just a little too much right now to go back to my iPhone 6. iOS is feeling its age. But it’s oddity count is a lot less than Android, even in its 5.0 incarnation. And my iPhone 6 can get through nearly a day and a half with serious use (compared to this Moto X, which seems to shit itself (in a power-retention sense) by about 3pm).
So the jury is still out. If you’d like to lend me an Apple Watch, I’ll happily update this little… wordy… thing… with some Apple-approved Words. And I’ll probably be gushing about how it all feels so natural and Apple have cracked execution just like they always do…
And then I’ll remember the TV ad I saw last night with Apple’s strapline ‘The Watch Is Here’ and the bile I saved for Jelly Bean will be urgently needed elsewhere…