Apple Watch Apps: Developing on the Edge of the Unknown

Meeting technical challenges in the face of the unknown can be difficult. Sometimes a developer’s best guess is the only thing they have to go on – but, as with most things, experience is everything.

Consider the Apple Watch. This watch has the potential to change (yet again) how people are operating within their world. Having the right apps to go along with user behaviors is key. But, how do developers face the challenge of developing Apple Watch apps to deploy on a device that is not even on the market yet?

I talked with my lead app developers recently because I was curious. What are the difficulties they’ve faced in designing Apple Watch apps? With several successful apps under our belt including the award-winning Diptic photography app, my developers know their stuff. The Apple Watch, however, is new terrain. Or is it?

Challenges with Developing Apple Watch Apps

Beta Software

This is clearly the biggest challenge. We’re building an app for a product that doesn’t yet exist, so we can’t test on the device or try out features in real world scenarios.   It’s sort of like trying to design wings for a flying bike that no one has seen before, with instructions for how to build wheels for a scooter. Anyway, you get the idea.

Because its beta, we’re building against a moving target and dealing with a huge gap in reference material. We know the product’s going to evolve from the current APIs and documentation, so we have to anticipate where we think it’s going to go and be flexible.

Limitations

While the iPhone UI concept of Auto-Layout allows for flexible and fluid layout designs, the Apple Watch UI is more like table-based HTML layouts. It’s much simpler and more straightforward than the iPhone UI, but also less flexible.

Compared to the iPhone, the Apple Watch SDK is limited as far as what sensors are accessible. This is sure to improve by the next WWDC, but it was surprising.

For example, geo-location data cannot be directly accessed via the Apple Watch app. It requires extra effort to get this data from the ‘parent’ iPhone app and it’s not near as reliable. This, too, is sure to change.

The Good News

In some ways, it’s actually fun that ‘best practices’ haven’t been perfected yet. It forces you to stretch your thinking about how to overcome an issue rather than relying on prepared instructions.

It was difficult to imagine the context of how the Apple Watch will be used without having the actual device in our hands. However, we found ways to simulate the actual screen sizes on an iPhone which showed us just how much smaller the Apple Watch screen actually is.

For app developers that want to share data between their iPhone and Apple Watch apps (likely, all of them), Apple has built very robust APIs that allow the Watch app to request data from the corresponding iPhone app, which is very handy and will make for a seamless user experience.

Additionally, Apple has been clear that they want things that take a minute on the iPhone to take a few seconds on the Watch, so the way you present information has to be clear and concise. This UI simplicity strips away a lot of the “extra” and really makes you focus on the core interaction you want users to have.

While it has its challenges, designing Apple Watch apps can be fun and for now, allows developers to stretch their abilities. No doubt it will all become easier once the Apple Watch is on all of our wrists. I will order mine as soon as Apple lets me. Until then, I look forward to seeing Uptop’s apps alongside other great apps for the Watch.