Clutch spoke with Bobby Gill, founder and CEO of Blue Label Labs, as part of a series of interviews about wearable technology.
Could you describe your company and your role there?
Blue Label Labs is a mobile app design and development shop based in New York. We are about 30 people, spread across the globe, and as the name implies, we design and build apps. We do a lot of client service work, where we build iPhone, Android, and Windows phone apps, across a lot of different verticals, from social networking, to utilities, to health, to payments and reservations. As of today, we’ve shipped about 80 apps in total.
In addition to our client work, we build our own apps. Each year, we develop and market an app of our own, just to keep ourselves sharp.
I am the CEO and Co-founder of the company. I founded it with my partner, Jordan Gurrieri, in 2009, and we’ve been building apps since about 2010. My role is CEO, but I also manage the engineering and technical architecture decisions for the company.
When did Blue Label Labs begin designing applications for wearables?
Probably in March of this year .
Could you describe the wearable application you developed for BabyMed?
Mobile Application Features
BabyMed is a mobile app that we built a couple of years ago and continue to build. It’s pregnancy and fertility tools for expecting mothers. The app itself gives you a variety of utilities, like a fertility calendar and a pregnancy calendar that let you calculate your due date and ovulation dates.
Wearable Application Features
For the wearable application, we looked at the mobile version of the app and said, ‘What are the key one to two scenarios that we can extract that would be good as a wearable app?’ We focused the watch app around two very basic scenarios.
Fertility Tracker - One feature aims to give the wearer a very quick way to view their current fertility. With the BabyMed watch app, when you open the app, it tells you what cycle you’re on and how fertile you are. It does this with an animation of a flower that’s in different states, depending on the fertility of the wearer.
Pregnancy Tracker - The second scenario is an all-around pregnancy tracker. If you are pregnant, the watch app allows you to see what milestone you’re on and how long until the next milestone, simply by looking down at the watch. It gives you ‘pregnancy-at-a-glance,’ we like to say. It is a very quick and easy way to see how far along your pregnancy is and what the next stage will be.
The mobile version of the BabyMed app has a lot of bells and whistles. It gives you five different ways to view your pregnancy, including as a calendar, countdown, or calculator. The wearable app is very much a tiny subset of the functionality of the full mobile app. The reason is that with a wearable, you’re dealing with very small screen space, in a totally different context than somebody on a phone. So a lot of the stuff that is in the mobile app really doesn’t make sense to appear on the watch.
We are also limited by the platform itself. WatchKit is still very new and there isn’t a ton of stuff that you can do with it. We had to look around in the app to see what scenarios we could realistically build in Apple Watch’s first generation.
Source: Blue Label Labs
The wearable app is built for the Apple Watch, and the mobile app is an iPhone-only app. The BabyMed people wanted to do something with wearables. They said, ‘This is an exciting space.’ We said, ‘We’ve got an iPhone app. How can we extend it to Apple Watch very easily?’ We just went from there. We haven’t done anything on Android for this particular app, so there would be no reason to go make an Android wearable app.
Could you describe the process of developing the wearable application?
Brainstorming Session - The first thing we did was brainstorm for a couple of weeks – the co-founder, one of the program mangers, the client, and me. We threw out all the different things that would be cool to do on the Apple Watch when it comes to fertility and pregnancy. We had a list of ten scenarios that we rank-ordered in priority, in terms of what we thought would be the coolest thing and what would be the most important to the client.
Familiarization With Platform - From there, we had to go and read up on all the documentation about WatchKit. At this point, the Apple Watch hadn’t been released, so we had to figure out which features could actually be built with the current capabilities of the wearable platform. That trimmed the list of ten down to around maybe three or four. There was a lot of stuff that we wanted to do, that we thought would be cool, but we just couldn’t do everything right now.
Development in Phases - From that list of three or four, it was very easy to determine which functionalities we were going to develop. We decided to phase them in. In the first phase, we built the fertility tools into the WatchKit app. Phase two focuses on building the pregnancy tools.
Testing and Updates - What we could do with the platform dictated what we built. There were a lot of challenges relating to platform capabilities, because, for the longest time, the watches weren’t out, so we had to sit there and read the forums, read the documentation, and try to piece it together.
After the watch came out, we made little changes to the app, in terms of the size of the animations. We bought three Apple Watches that we distributed to our team, and we walked around with the app, thinking about how it looked and worked. The biggest change related to the visuals because when we were designing and developing the app, it was hard to picture how the screen would look, without actually walking around with it strapped to your wrist. So, a lot of the visual stuff took some refining.
Duration and Timeline
We submitted phase two of the app at the beginning of August, and the pregnancy and fertility tools became available in Apple's AppStore on August 26. We ran into some tooling issues with phase two, which caused the delay.
We didn’t have many cost constraints, even with the extended timeline. There have been a lot of delays, a lot of starting and stopping. We’d work for an hour one day, and then we’d have to wait and figure out the answer to something, and maybe come back to it a week later. But, from a budgetary perspective, it’s been okay. The problem was just how long it took to get it done.
What challenges did you face during the project’s rollout, and what steps did you take to overcome these challenges?
There were a lot of technical challenges, primarily because this is the first version of the Apple Watch, and a lot of the tools that Apple provided didn’t really work well with building an app for the watch.
Tooling and Documentation - 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 on Apple’s part.
One example is, for the longest time, with Xcode, which is what we use to write the code for the watch app, the proper settings were not exposed to allow us to distribute the app via TestFlight, Apple’s internal data distribution platform. Everything on the surface looked like it should work, and we were all wondering why it wasn’t working. It took a long time of sitting there, banging our head against the wall, and trying to get this thing figured out, just because the tooling wasn’t there. It’s still an issue right now. It’s still very painful to build and distribute these apps, especially when compared to a regular mobile app.
Road bumps are expected though, given that Apple just introduced this brand new thing. I think they’ll get it figured out in the next one or two versions. WatchKit 2.0 is coming out in the fall. But, in the meantime, it’s painful for all the people who are trying to build with the first generation thing.
Distribution of Time - We don’t spend time working on our own problems but rather spend it wrestling with the tools. That was the major pain point in building the wearable app. Building the app itself was actually really easy. It’s a great model. It works, but the tooling and everything around that is really primitive right now.
In what ways did your initial conceptualization of the application change throughout the development process?
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 tried to implement the animation, we found that there were a lot of limitations within the platform that prevented us from doing this animation. The support was not on the platform to do it.
We had to regroup, probably three weeks into the development process, to figure out how to revise the animations. We couldn’t do the animations we wanted, so what do we do instead? We had to go back to the designer and the drawing board and come up with a new visual that would work on the watch. This affected our phase two. Then, we adjusted our designs for the pregnancy tools to take into account what we learned from the first phase.
Could you share any statistics, metrics, or feedback that might demonstrate how BabyMed is performing?
It’s still pretty early for us to have that data. Not too many people have the watch, and we haven’t received feedback on the app yet.
What lessons did you learn from this experience, and what areas would you like to improve upon or do differently in the future?
Budget More Time - One thing I’ve learned is that the next time there’s a new platform or a new type of device, we need to budget a lot more time for building our first version. We looked at this first app, and what we wanted to do looked very simple. It looked like it would not take very long at all. We didn’t anticipate the issues with the tooling and documentation that made it drag out a lot longer than we thought it would.
The next time there is a new wearable device to build for, we’re definitely going to pad our time estimates because there are a lot of things that can go wrong. For our whole team, it’s been a big learning experience. It’s really painful to develop on a brand new platform.
What advice would you share with another organization that is seeking to develop a wearable application?
I would say be very modest in your goals for the first wearable app. Doing something basic is probably a better choice than trying to bite off too much. Even doing a small basic app will provide a lot of knowledge that can help you when you want to go and do something more ambitious.
Future of Wearable Technology
What role do you see wearable technology playing in the next 6-12 months?
I see wearable technology continuing to gain popularity. The Apple Watch is a good first. It has a lot of bugs and rough edges, but it’s actually a pretty good product. I think with the second version coming in September, it’s only going to get better. I think in the next six to 12 months you’re going to see a pretty big ramp-up in the number of sales and people adopting and using it. In the short-to-medium term, I think there’s a lot of upside when it comes to wearables, especially on the Apple platform.