Apple Watch Apps: Don’t Start Building Yet, But …

The Apple Watch is just days away from hitting a handful of select wrists, and some developers are understandably gung-ho about the app-making opportunities. The rest of us—including in the association space—should probably take a wait-and-see strategy, but even if you're not making smartwatch apps, the early apps provide important lessons.

There’s a pretty good chance your association isn’t working on an Apple Watch app right now.

Given the limited use cases, the lack of evidence that it’s going to be a blockbuster hit on the scale of the iPhone or Android, and the utter newness of the technology, developing for the platform is probably best suited for tech giants and hobbyists. Let Evernote figure out the best way to take wrist-based technology to the next level.

There’s still plenty to learn from those out in front, willing to take the arrows of innovation and share their war stories.

On the other hand, there’s still plenty to learn from those out in front, willing to take the arrows of innovation and share their war stories. There are enough people trying right now—reportedly, Apple received 1,000 watch app submissions from developers in just a few days—to know that developers see an audience.

But these apps have largely been designed in a void, with no access to the device that would eventually be running the software, nor with knowledge of what the audience wants. We don’t know if people will like these apps, hate them, or—worst of all—simply not care.

(The latter case was a death knell for Google Glass, which saw developer interest quickly fade when it was clear the functionality and uptake were both limited.)

When Less Is Everything

One company that actually did get a chance to develop on the device itself is the social network Instagram. And the lessons that the company took from the process, which developers recently shared with Wired, are pretty translatable to anyone with an inkling of interest in building for a new platform:

  1. Simple is better. Rather than trying to shove the entire Instagram experience into a screen a quarter of the size of the average iPhone 5, Instagram’s developers decided to cut out as much as they could, limiting the functionality to allowing users to see photos from users they follow and send simple responses. As developer Ian Silber put it: “What if you could know right when someone posts—and not just know that they’ve posted, but be able to see it?”
  2. Know your limitations. Apple’s decision to tie its watch so closely to the iPhone means that the Instagram app can’t do very much by design, something that can be frustrating but also helps to set effective parameters. “Any code that you run—there is a slight delay before it reaches the screen,” fellow developer Arnaud Coomans told Wired. “You have to take that into account.”
  3. Your app will evolve. While an app that shows only a handful of notifications might seem like a drag for some who expect their devices to do everything except slice bread, remember that this is just a starting point—and user interactions will help allow for extended parameters down the road, along with brand new apps. “It’s similar to when the iPhone first came out. Now, there are companies, like Instagram, that exist just because of the phone. That might be the case with the watch too,” Silber added. “We’ll see what happens.”

Thinking (Slightly) Bigger

Instagram’s simple approach isn’t the only one. A handful of app-makers are trying some more ambitious things—such as the developers of the role-playing game Runeblade, who have decided that “Twitter-sized entertainment” could be the next big thing:

(Hey, it worked for Tamagotchi!)

And there are plenty who see some big-picture potential—well, as long as Apple eventually extends the programming functionality. Some developers are chomping at the bit to have access to real-time body data, which marketers see as potentially making advertising more targeted than ever.

“The device will know a lot about you and, by tapping into your wireless body network, can serve ads that are more engaging,” Appetizer Mobile’s Jordan Edelson told CNBC last week.

But Apple’s own guidelines for watch developers—which, probably for the best, would rule out some of the more out-there ideas—suggest that simplicity is pretty much the way to go.

“A WatchKit app complements its containing iOS app; it does not replace it,” the human interface guidelines state. “If you measure interactions with your iOS app in minutes, you can expect interactions with your WatchKit app to be measured in seconds. So keep interactions brief and interfaces simple.”

A Simple Lesson

Again, your organization probably isn’t focused on this unless your members are app makers. (The Application Developers Alliance clearly is—it released a white paper a couple of months ago discussing the potential for wearables that included Apple Watch, along with many similar technologies.)

But you can still learn something from the early experiments in watch apps. As scales change and user needs evolve, you have to think hard about what you decide to develop and implement. Associations are complex, and they want to do a lot  for their members with available technology.

Sometimes, it’s the stuff you leave out—the edges you sand off the stone—that can make the difference for the people you’re trying to reach. Once you sand down that stone, you might have a perfect building block on your hands.

Ironically, a prior Apple launch is the perfect example of this point in action.

In January 2007, Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone to the world in a dramatic display that blew a lot of minds. But what’s often forgotten is that Jobs initially discouraged the creation of native third-party apps for the device, out of concern that it would ruin the experience that his company had worked hard to create.

Eventually, based on user feedback, Jobs changed his mind, and Apple opened up the App Store—now perhaps the most important part of its business.

So start simple, then build from there. You might be surprised at what you create.

Instagram's simple take on its Apple Watch app is a software development model to follow. (Instagram)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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