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Innovation By Design

Why The Apple Watch Is Flopping

When Apple fails at UX design and fashion design, do we still call it good design?

The Apple Watch, despite years of hype before it was even announced, appears to be flopping after all.

It wasn’t a good sign when Apple announced shortly before the Watch release that they weren’t going to be breaking out sales numbers. Now, a new report from third-party analysts Slice Intelligence not only show that Apple Watch sales are down 90% since launch—a big deal, since it implies early adopters aren't regaling more cautious buyers with glowing word-of-mouth—but also that Fitbit is outselling Apple in the wearables space. Apple may have already crushed small time smartwatch companies like Pebble, but the Watch has failed to disrupt the larger wearable marketplace.

Imagine if months after the iPad release, we learned it still hadn’t outsold some model of Windows tablet. A couple of million units sold sounds okay, but hardly the sort of smash hit we've come to expect from Apple. A precipitous decline in sales after just a couple of months? Not a good sign.

Will the Apple Watch recover, and sell 100 million units in two years, like the iPad, or three years, like the iPhone? There’s still time—but not at these rates. (Which, to be fair, are projections based on email receipts hoovered up by Slice, not from Apple itself.) Even with generous rounding errors, the Watch has failed to become the status quo object in wearables. And for Apple, that’s a flop.

So how did this happen? The answer may sound like heresy to those who canonize—or even merely admire—Apple's designers. What if the Apple Watch, for all its its milled and woven metals, all its appearances on the catwalk, isn’t actually all that well-designed? So far, the Apple Watch doesn’t seem very useful, and it hasn’t proven that fashionable.

It Just Doesn’t Work That Well

Early reviews were filled with tentative criticism, and convoluted explanations about why you might want an Apple Watch in the first place. The New York Times needed "three long, often confusing and frustrating days" to learn how to use it. Others pointed to poor technical performance and a lack of meaningful apps. Many reviews contained the caveat, "it’s not for everyone…" One influential review by TechCrunch pointed to what became a rallying cry for the Apple Watch’s utility: the time saved by using a screen at a glance—as if teens and grandmas everywhere would relish the option to spend $500 to save the equivalent a few seconds each day. (Seconds that, more often than not, are consumed by a watch alert instructing its wearer to check their phone.)

Major developers complained to us before release that Apple had constrained Watch functions too tightly to create rich, meaningful experiences. Presumably to preserve the Watch’s limited battery life, apps ran on the iPhone, the sensors and Taptic Engine were off-limits, and many graphical elements had to be streamed to the Watch instead of being generated natively. Apple has since released a new SDK to remedy some of these limitations, which will certainly improve the app experience, however un-killer they all, so far, have been.

From a user-experience standpoint, it's unclear that Apple ever figured out how people were really supposed to interact with the Watch. Consider that it contains four different types of notifications: a "glance," a short look notification, a long look notification, and another style of notification that pops up only inside a digital watchface. Sometimes they'll have the information you need. Sometimes they'll prompt you to open an app on your iPhone. Never do they indicate that Apple figured out one perfect way to use a tool of their own invention. And despite having three different types of touch interface—basic touch-screen interaction, Force Touch, and the Digital Crown—the watch still leans heavily on Siri, Apple's voice recognition agent, who remains fairly dense and hard of hearing.

It’s Not That Fashionable

Where did your Apple Watch go, Drake?

What about yours, Karl Lagerfeld? Is it hiding under those cuffs?

Say it ain't so, Bey!

Though at least Beyoncé, who made headlines for wearing her gold-band Apple Watch Edition (backwards, by the way; in what, let’s all be honest, must be an under-the-table sponsorship we’ll read about in a memoir 40 years from now), still Instagrams in it every once in a while.

You can view this in two ways, and neither bodes well for the Watch. Waning celebrity support could mark a cooling cool factor. Not because there’s anything wrong with the Watch, but because Apple is not immune to fashion's whim—and fashion's whim is a lot faster than your two-year iPhone upgrade cycle. Maybe the Apple Watch had a moment of limelight, but now seems, if not tacky, at least pedestrian.

And let's ignore the challenge of auguring Yoncé's daily technology and fashion choices solely from images on a highly curated Instagram feed. So she doesn't wear the same watch every day; she's a fashionista who changes her look on a daily basis. When does she wear it?

A nice watch for a normal, non-celebrity fits somewhere between a wedding ring and your go-to black leather shoes. You’ll wear it a lot, but not all the time.

But the Apple Watch isn't just another piece of jewelry. If you don't wear a Rolex every day, it's not a big deal. If you don't wear an Apple Watch every day, how is it ever going to become an integral part of how you pay for things, identify yourself, and check your emails? For the Apple Watch to replace the functionality of our phones, even in part, it has to be worn all the time. And it's looking like—at least according to my highly scientific celebrity Instagram analysis, cross-indexed with the upturned noses of many of my otherwise perfectly gadget-prone friends—Apple Watch just doesn't fit into every context. (And we're talking about gifted $17,000+ version here, which at least brings the cachet of excess. The entry-level models may be more innocuous, but they're still smartwatches, and smartwatches are still Segways for your wrist.)

Apple Is Still Thinking In ID, Not UX

All of this culminates to the Apple Watch’s fundamental flaw: it's a myopic masterpiece of industrial design, with microchips under curved glass held firm by Velcro-elegant magnetic clasps, so focused on fit and finish that it forgot about the software experience. And it's the software experience that, ironically, could solve the disappointing UX, along with the stale problem of wearing the same old watch every day.

Look at the Apple Watch page and you’ll see the pornographic macros of the digital crown and woven metal band; yet ultimately, the Apple Watch hardware you purchase has just one look. Software barely shapes its aesthetic. Apple hasn’t even opened up digital watch faces to third party developers, and even if they do, they won't stop the watch hardware from looking like a dead screen that's too afraid to fire up its own battery, lest it die.

The Apple Watch is flopping because it’s very well executed, but not very well designed. In terms of utility, it’s hard to use, and not solving meaningful problems. In terms of fashion, it's a piece of technology that inherently falls short of timelessness, and yet doesn't keep up with fast fashion, either.

I’m not sure that the Apple Watch needs to rectify all of these problems to be a monster hit, but it certainly needs to solve one of them. Until then, the Apple Watch still "isn’t for everyone." And apparently not as many someones as had been expected.

See Fast Company's Noah Robischon and Mark Wilson discuss the Apple Watch failures: