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How Google Stealthily Prepared Users For A New Smartwatch UI

In order to add new functionality to Android Wear smartwatches, Google first had to take some of it away.

A traditional watch face is the logical homescreen for any smartwatch. After all, we’ve worn watches specifically to glance at the time for over a hundred years. But thus far, Apple and Google have mostly leveraged the smartwatch face as a means of self-expression to add stylistic variety rather than extra functionality–all the while hiding more functional features deeper in the OS.

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So when Google announced that Android Wear watches could support interactive watch faces–complete with their own app-driven complications (you know complications as those extra tickers with alarms, dates, and chronographs)–it just made sense. Working with Google, design studio UsTwo released an Android smartwatch face that only features the time in a tiny window in the center. Around it, the circular dial previews things like email, weather, and steps walked. And if you tap on any of these bits of information, you’ll realize that they’re actually buttons that can deliver you .

Brett Lider, design lead on the Android Wear platform, tells me that the team had been interested in these interactive watch faces since version 1.1, but they’re only now just introducing the feature in v1.3 because they were already using the tap gesture to do something else: pulling up Android Wear’s card stream–a collection of notifications and Google Now updates.

“What we looked at was, the principal of direct manipulation should apply [in watch faces], because users would reasonably want to start tapping on the information they’re seeing,” Lider says. “Initially with Android Wear, we had direct manipulation to get into the assistant space . . . what we did over several updates was, give the interactions back to the watch face.”

The team would slowly phase out tapping on the main screen by offering alternatives, only to reintroduce tapping as a new gesture when Google introduced their smart watchfaces. So in Android Wear 1.2, the team added two new gestures for users to reach the card stream: The swipe and the long press.

“Tapping on the watch face still worked, but it was a bit of a chess game,” Lider says. “We put some pieces on the board where swipe and long press would get you to the assistant space, so we could give tap to the watch face for utility.”

With these new options, they were trying to invisibly ween users from tapping. To reinforce the new habit, they also added an animation to support the transition: If you say “Okay Google,” the assistant flies in from the right edge of the screen to subconsciously cue you to swipe.

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Then in 1.3, the team cut the tap-to-assistant gesture altogether–the final step in erasing tapping from user memories–before repurposing the gesture for tapping the buttons on watch faces. The benefit of moving so slowly? As Lider puts it, “No one missed the old way.”

“I would say, we’re always looking toward the future, and sometimes, appropriately, it takes time to evolve things toward the future you envision,” Lider says. “As designers, we’re constantly agitating, and are frustrated with where we are today, because we see the future coming, and want to get there as soon as possible.”

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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