Android Wear 2.0 forces developers to rethink their smartwatch UX

With this month’s release of Android Wear 2.0, Google is reinvesting in its smartwatch platform that both predates and in many ways lags behind Apple Watch. The Wear ecosystem has yet to see a smash success piece of smartwatch hardware since the Moto 360 debuted in 2014. Google hopes that Android Wear’s new capabilities and new hardware launches from LG can buoy the platform into the future.

Watches without smartphones

Android Wear 2.0 introduces an interesting new question—what does a smartwatch-only user experience look like? Android Wear smartwatches are increasingly capable as standalone devices, with many models boasting their own Wi-Fi or even LTE connectivity options to extend beyond the range of a smartphone’s Bluetooth tether. This functionally means that users could theoretically use Android Wear devices as their first—or perhaps only—mobile device.

Whereas Apple Watch has some limited functions in the absence of a connected iPhone—some GPS tracking for workouts or downloaded music playback on connected Bluetooth headphones—some LTE–capable Android Wear smartwatches can order an Uber, send a text, or even make phone calls without a connected smartphone present. This means that third-party Android Wear app developers need to contend with the notion that their Wear app might be the only app some users have access to.

Optimizing for watch-only users has a halo effect of improving the experience for all Wear users, even those with their phones on them.

Of course, the selection for LTE–capable Wear smartwatches available today is a limited one, but this trend might accelerate as Android Wear OEMs try to differentiate their devices from Apple Watch. But developers need to think about the unique considerations for watch-only users, and ensure that their apps’ core functionality translates elegantly to the smartwatch form factor. This optimization will have the halo benefit of preventing even those users who do have their smartphone handy to need to pull their device out when their watch fails to complete their intended task.

The role of a smartwatch is becoming clear

Whereas the first-generation Apple Watch and Android Wear releases strove to do everything—email, games, photos, maps, and more—both platforms have begun narrowing their focus on only those core features that users have actually validated. Fitness, quick messaging, and communicating quick snippets of information are the perfect use of the wristwatch form factor. And with Android Wear 2.0, Google is giving Android Wear developers a new tool to deliver on that ideal experience.

Whereas first-generation smartwatches strove to do everything, Android Wear 2.0 narrows its focus to only do things that watches are best for.

Android Wear’s customizable home screens support a new array of third-party app complications, much like Apple introduced with watchOS 2. Now, third-party Android Wear apps can offer a data visualization or piece of up-to-the-moment app content right on the watch face, giving users perhaps the most valuable piece of information that their app provides.

Implementing complications is relatively easy for the best Android Wear 2.0 app developers, but its impact on the Wear user experience cannot be understated. This has the benefit of surfacing the most critical pieces of in-app content at a glance, without users even needing to interact with their watch to glean value. For apps that allow users to reference a quick bite of information upon first launch, this functionally reduces the amount of time it takes for a user to gain that knowledge from 10–30 seconds of locating and opening the app to zero.

Android Wear has always had potential, and Google intends to give Android OEMs and Android developers alike many reasons to invest in the platform. Now that its user-focused feature set has been streamlined, the navigation has been simplified, and new developer tools give third-party apps even more user access and power, perhaps the time for Android Wear has finally come.

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