App Development, Clutch Report

Early Challenges for Wearables Prompt Creative Problem Solving

September 30, 2015

by Sarah Anyan

Product Manager

The advent of wearable technology sparked curiosity about its relevance and potential from consumers, businesses, and development teams. As businesses hurried to harness the new technology's capabilities, these first movers encountered unique challenges throughout the development process.

Clutch spoke with experts from 15 businesses with experience designing and developing for a variety of wearable platforms. To gain insight into the development process, we posed questions aimed at identifying the challenges encountered and the steps taken to overcome them.

Wearable App Development Challenges Infographic


The interviews revealed that the most prominent challenge was the lack of information and research available on how, when, and for what consumers would use wearable technology.

  • 10 out of 15, or two-thirds, of the experts mentioned a shortage of information relating to how consumers would interact with wearables' interfaces.

The experts also revealed four additional development challenges:

  • 8 out of 15 emphasized the incompatibility between the perceived ideal uses for wearables and the technological capabilities of the platforms.
  • 8 out of 15 referenced the difficulties involved in designing and developing an application before the release of the wearable device.
  • 7 out of 15 claimed that the small screen space on most wearable platforms limited applications' features and functionalities for the user.
  • 4 out of 15 explained how the necessity of troubleshooting on a new platform lengthened the development process.

The experts not only shared project-specific examples of the challenges they confronted but also demonstrated the creative steps they took to overcome them.

Overall, the experts’ insights revealed two observations:

  1. The development challenges resulted in creative problem solving.
  2. The initial challenges derived from the early development conditions.

Challenge #1: Questioning How Consumers Will Interact With Wearables

The leading challenge for early developers was the lack of information available on how, when, and for what consumers would use wearable technology. What features and interactions were ideal on the new platforms, from the user experience and interface perspective? Ten of the 15 experts interviewed cited this challenge.

Throughout the development process for Stanfy's first project for the Apple Watch, information about how consumers would use wearables and their expectations about the technology's capabilities remained unclear, according to Andrew Garkavyi, CEO of Stanfy.

“Designing for the Apple Watch is not an easy task. Because user patterns are totally new, there is no known and established interaction model for the smartwatch user interfaces that works. We tried several designs and interactions models until we found the right fit.”
Andrew Garkavyi

Knowledge of specific use cases is important because it guides crucial decisions in the development process, such as which platform to use. For example, understanding both the desired application features and the problem the application aimed to solve played a big role in the decision to select Google Glass as the platform for a site survey solutions client, according to Levent Gurses, president of Movel.

“Familiarity with the users and the conditions under which the device and the app will be used can make a big difference in selecting the platform and/or the device.”
Levent Gurses

Designing a wearable application or device without identifying the use scenario often results in too much focus on the technology side of the development process and consequently neglects considerations for user friendliness.

“In order to succeed in the technology market, you have to pair technology with a specific use case to trigger the adoption of the technology. … You've really got to focus on who is going to get the most value out of your product today and then worry about becoming a platform alongside its growth.”
Al Baker, Co-founder and CEO, Reemo

Annika Seaberg, creative director at MentorMate agreed, emphasizing the importance of ensuring that the complex technical aspects of designing for wearables do not compromise user friendliness.

“Our challenge was placing all these functions in front of people in a way that made the setup not only easy and friendly but also fun and interesting. We wanted people to understand the value behind the product, more so than the complexity of the backend.”
Annika Seaberg


Overcoming the Challenge

Addressing the challenge of nebulous use cases and interactions ultimately yielded three insightful conclusions.

1. Designing for wearables demands embracing simplicity.

“Make sure you understand the use case. You really have to simplify what it is that you're going to do on the watch: understand what the boundary is so you don't overcomplicate the application and make it unusable.”
Jon Michaeli, Head of Marketing and Business Development, Medisafe

2. The most user friendly interactions on wearables are short and quick.

“What is obvious now, but wasn't obvious at the beginning, is that people use the app just for a couple seconds. If the interaction lasts for more than three to five seconds, they are more likely to take out their phone.”
Markiyan Matsekh, Product Manager for mobility and wearables, ELEKS

Sean Mehra, head of product at HealthTap, provided examples of some appropriate interactions.

“Smartwatches are not information consumption devices but rather quick, data point consumption devices. It's like, 'What's the weather? How are my stocks doing?' instead of, 'Let me go read my eBook right now.'”
Sean Mehra

3. Users do not want the wearable application to be an extension of its mobile counterpart.

“When you're working on a wearable app that extends from an existing mobile app, there is a temptation to simply re-implement everything in the existing app on the wearable. This temptation is really dangerous because how and when a person interacts with a watch or wearable is really different from how and when they use a phone. … When you’re working on a wearable, you have to start at the ground level and consider what parts of the mobile app experience make sense on the wearable.”
Charles Teague, Founder and CEO, Lose It!


Challenge #2: Platform Technicalities Limited Application Capabilities

Limitations inherent in the early wearables platforms restricted the functionality of the applications developed. Eight of 15 experts cited this challenge.

Bobby Gill, founder and CEO of Blue Label Labs, shared how the Apple Watch platform's poor tooling and documentation contributed to this challenge.

“We ran into a lot of issues that had nothing to do with actually building the app or the code but rather with poor tooling or documentation. … It's a great model. It works, but the tooling and everything around that is really primitive right now.”
Bobby Gill

Dmitriy Tarasov, founder and CEO of Tarasov Mobile, mirrored this sentiment when reflecting on his experience with the Samsung Gear platform.

“The only challenge we had with this project [first wearable application for Chaos Control] was the complexity of the Tizen platform. We’re talking about a technical challenge.”
Dmitriy Tarasov

Experts shared a number of anecdotes that highlight these platform technicalities.



First, a common problem centered on how to implement animations.

For example, Blue Label Labs hoped to make its Apple Watch application for BabyMed more user friendly by supplementing the fertility tracking features with animations.

“When we started the development process, we had this idea about having cool animations on the fertility tools. On the documentation, it looked like it would be doable, but when we actually got to implementing the animation, we found that there were a lot of limitations within the platform that prevented us from doing this animation. The support is not there on the platform to do it.”
Bobby Gill, Blue Label Labs

Stanfy ran into a similar problem when designing animations for the Apple Watch application, Waterbalance, a hydration-tracking tool. The challenge encouraged them to troubleshoot creatively.

“In order to have a good animation on Apple Watch, you have to transfer some of the computing to the phone and back. When you do that, you need to make sure the user is not annoyed by the fact that he or she is waiting for too long.”
Andrew Garkavyi, Stanfy


Taptic Feedback

Second, another platform shortcoming occurred when developers attempted to include taptic feedback on the Apple Watch.

Sickweather wanted to incorporate taptic feedback in its handwashing feature. The watch would tap the wearer's wrist at the end of a 20-second countdown. However, the first version of Watch OS did not support this notification feature, according to Graham Dodge, president and CEO of Sickweather.

The challenge forced Sickweather to develop a creative solution that relied on the watch application's relationship to its mobile counterpart.

“Now, when the timer starts, the watch app lets the phone know that the timer has started. Then, the phone sends a notification back to the watch when the timer ends. Troubleshooting this challenge took some restructuring in terms of how we were developing the app, from a technical perspective.”
Graham Dodge


No Native App Capabilities

Third, the lack of native application capabilities on wearables posed a challenge to user friendly design.

Markiyan Matsekh of ELEKS shared how native app capabilities would supplement wearables projects.

“For smartwatch apps, from the point of view of designing the app and experience, the perfect way to launch the app and interact would be with voice commands. For example, 'OK, Google; start my timer number 1234,' or 'Hey, Siri, start my Tesla car.' That would be perfect, but the platforms don't allow this type of interaction. You need to say, for example, 'Hey, Siri, start my Tesla app,' then wait for two or three seconds, and only then say, 'Now start my car.' … It's the same with Android. That's the big drawback of both platforms.”
Markiyan Matsekh

Sickweather encountered a similar obstacle, due to the need for the watch application to communicate with its mobile counterpart to perform certain functions, and ultimately developed a creative way to overcome it

“When our Sick Score was loading – when it was trying to talk to the iPhone – sometimes it would take longer than usual. It would say, 'Loading,' like a typical loading screen.”
Graham Dodge, Sickweather

To address the challenge, Sickweather incorporated a unique design to improve the user experience.

“We took advantage of that moment to change the word to 'Scanning.' This gives the user the sense that we are actually scanning all the illnesses around them, rather than taking too long to load. It gives a sense that the app is actually doing something productive. This slight change has had a really positive effect on the user experience.”
Graham Dodge, Sickweather

Sep Seyedi, CEO of Plastic Mobile, shared a similar challenge relating to the calling feature on its Apple Watch application for Canada-based real estate company,

“The other challenge, for Realtor, on this initial watch 1.0 release with Apple, was that you couldn't make outgoing calls from the watch. Being able to see your Realtor agents on the watch and then being able to call them is a pretty natural feature that we really wanted.”
Sep Seyedi

Plastic Mobile eventually embraced this limitation and designed the wearable application so that it notified the mobile application to call the Realtor automatically upon opening the app.


Poor Battery Life

Fourth, for Google Glass, the battery's short life and proclivity to heat up limited development capabilities.

“With Google Glass, the challenges are the heat of the battery and the limited camera capabilities. You cannot do things you would like to do because for nontrivial processing, Google Glass heats up and the battery dies in about an hour.”
Markiyan Matsekh, ELEKS


Challenge #3: Developing Applications Without the Wearable Device

The experts found themselves in a unique position as first movers, a situation that posed challenges relating to designing and developing an application before the release of the actual wearable device. Eight of 15 experts interviewed cited this challenge.

A crucial part of the development process entails testing a product before its release. In the case of wearables, the testing step requires using the new application on the corresponding wearable device to identify bugs and inconsistencies.

“Testing, as usual with all of our apps, was a very important part of the development process. With wearables, especially when there's a companion app, it's extra important not only to test the watch app itself, but also to see how it interacts with all the use cases that go between. … Doing this testing when the device is not even launched makes it even more challenging.”
Sep Seyedi, Plastic Mobile

Sean Mehra of HealthTap mirrored these sentiments.

“You can only simulate so much. When it actually comes to how it's going to look and feel on a tiny screen and not on your computer monitor or how hard or easy it's going to be to touch or tap certain buttons – usability stuff – you only can see these outcomes on the actual hardware.”
Sean Mehra

The ability to have the wearable on hand benefits the development process and is more likely to result in a positive user experience.

“The biggest challenge was around the visuals because when we were designing and developing the app itself, it was hard to picture how the screen would look, unless you're actually walking around with it strapped to your wrist.”
Bobby Gill, Blue Label Labs

Runtastic developed wearable software in tandem with its wearable device, the Orbit, and encountered similar challenges testing and refining its product in the absence of an established testing base.

“I think one of the biggest challenges occurs any time we launch a product that involves both a hardware and software component. It's much more complicated. … In reality, you're simultaneously working on two projects that are dependent on one another. There can be a lot of complexities involved when it comes to timing and troubleshooting.”
Stephanie Peterson, Vice President of Strategic Communications and Marketing, Runtastic


Challenge #4: Small Size of Wearables

The wearables' size limited the application features and functionalities developers could include. Seven of 15 experts interviewed cited this challenge.

The physical size and corresponding memory constraints forced development teams to hone in on a few core functionalities they wanted to offer users.

“The most difficult part is to decide what you want to do with this tiny screen. There are a lot of restrictions. It's not difficult to develop an application. … The most difficult part is to decide what you are going to offer your users.”
Dmitry Kostin, CEO, Touch Instinct

Sep Seyedi of Plastic Mobile provided an example of how the size of the Apple Watch's screen affected its project with PizzaPizza.

“For PizzaPizza, we used the strategy that we wanted to be able to do complete, end-to-end ordering. To do complete end-to-end ordering for pizza, you have to be able to have a shopping cart. Figuring out how you do a shopping cart with a screen that is less than an inch by an inch and an interaction that is a finger tapping is challenging. How do you do that without adding too much complexity for the user?”
Sep Seyedi

At HealthTap, the development team had to scale back its initial plans as well.

“Overall, [the wearable app] evolved because we had an initial vision for all the things our wearable app would do – we were dreaming large – but when it came to the actual device, you had to cut back on a lot of functionalities: simplify, simplify, simplify.”
Sean Mehra, HealthTap


Challenge #5: Troubleshooting Leads to Time-intensive Development Process

Due to the necessity and frequency of troubleshooting on the new platforms, the development process proved lengthy and time-intensive. Four of 15 experts interviewed cited this challenge.

“For smartwatch development, the biggest challenge is the development environment. It can be painful because most of your time is spent on deploying, debugging, and rolling out the app instead of actually building stuff.”
Markiyan Matsekh, ELEKS

Having to readjust design plans in the middle of the development process was one reason for the development delays.

“Because of the different platform restrictions that were not obvious from the beginning, we had to rethink our approach and the different features we wanted to include in the middle of the development process.”
Andrew Garkavyi, Stanfy

However, despite these initial delays, Levent Gurses of Movel predicts that wearable application development will become easier as the technology evolves.

“In many cases, the wearable app will have a somewhat limited set of features – or screens, if you will – which could shorten the development cycle. In other cases, since the industry is still fairly new and APIs [application programming interfaces] are still evolving, it may take a little longer to discover a problem or get an update from a manufacturer for a particular defect with the API.”
Levent Gurses

Concluding Observations

Development Challenges Prompted Creative Problem Solving

The hub surrounding wearable technology generated a surge of creativity from both consumer-centric businesses and application development teams as they began experimenting with these platforms, which include smartwatches, wristbands, glass, and apparel.

As first movers, these businesses encountered challenges inherent in new technology. Designing around these challenges required creative thinking and resulted in products with unique, innovative use cases for consumers.                                                                                

Initial Challenges Derive From Development Conditions

Experts revealed that the lack of information and research available on how, when, and for what consumers would use wearable technology posed the leading development challenge.

As the technology and platform capabilities improve in the future and as more consumers embrace and buy wearables, this challenge will become easier to address. The early wearable applications already began to provide valuable lessons and insight into the ideal use cases, which will be beneficial as new and updated platforms enter the wearables scene.

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