Beyond the Apple Watch: 4 Features Show Direction of UX

Apple has a long history of UX innovation. With each new product launch, the beloved brand releases an avalanche of new ideas and interactive patterns into the design world.

Some simply fail. Others, like Cover Flow or the click wheel, have a short lifespan. But there always seem to be one or two that are so intuitive, so simple, that they become standard almost overnight. Swipe dots and the original intuitive gesture, pinch-and-zoom, are such examples.

Apple is often at its innovative best when creating something entirely new. This was proven again at Apple’s recent Special Event, which really only hit top gear after “One more thing..” —when the Apple Watch made its much-anticipated debut. Amidst the swirl of custom bands and biometrics, I sat down with Technical Director at Ready Set Rocket, Gareth Price, and Senior Developer Dylan Gluck, to see which of the new batch of UX features really caught their attention.

Where Is UX Design Headed?

While there may not be any truly timeless reveals in the bunch (sorry, Digital Crown), there were a few standouts that help illuminate where UX is headed …

Circles & Clusters vs. Squares & Grids

The use of a radial interface was pioneered in 2012 with the social network Path (remember that one?). Path had a unique sharing interface: holding down a share button would cause
the navigation items under it to fan out around your finger’s touch point.

Point1-Illustration1; Apple Watch

One advantage of using circles in a touch interface is the ability to have more points adjacent to your finger at the same distance when touching the screen. With squares, the path to the next item would be variable and there would be a smaller limit to the number of items you could fit around a touch point.

On smaller displays, circles can be scaled easily to reflect popularity or usage and can be organically tessellated to fit more items on the screen. It is difficult to tesselate circles, but libraries such as D3.js are available that contain these algorithms for web developers wanting to replicate the pattern.

Point1-Illustration2; Apple Watch

We expect that this circular UI pattern will pop up more in the future for small displays and touch interfaces, giving interaction designers more flexibility to reflect natural movement in their digital experiences.

In-line Interface Customization

The Apple Watch allows customization of widgets from within the interface itself. This was hinted at during the keynote, but it’s not clear yet exactly how this will work. However, it marks a departure from larger iOS devices where the majority of configuration is performed via settings screens and inline customization is a minor feature used for re-ordering and sorting of icons.

In-line interface customization allows users to remain within one mode for interaction and configuration, making interfaces feel more natural and complete. The drawbacks are that complex configuration becomes more difficult, and configuration must be translated to an interface action that makes sense for each variable (rather than a settings screen/content management back-end where all variables are reduced to standard operating system inputs).

For products where interaction designers need to create a feeling of ease-of-use and have a limited range of configurability, we should consider ways of eradicating the “Settings Screen” in favor of in-line configuration.

As systems become more complex but also more abstracted, expect inline configuration to become a more common interaction pattern.

Single-hand Control

Pardon the pun, but the Digital Crown got the royal treatment in the Apple Watch rollout. The hype may have been a bit overblown for what amounts to a glorified click wheel, but it is indicative of a larger trend: As the form factors of our devices continue to change, it is a major UX advantage for each interface to be navigable with one hand.

Point3-Illustration1; apple watch

What we find most interesting is that Apple was clearly thinking about this not just on the watch (where it’s obviously required) but also in the iPhone 6 interface. The new Reachability feature provides access to all of the top-of-the-screen elements that might otherwise require a second hand, and iOS8’s new thumb-friendly recording interface for Messages shows that same Path-like consideration for our favorite digits and their natural range of motion.

Point3-Illustration2, apple watch

Clearly, Apple has decided that making our devices accessible with one hand is crucial to winning the wearable, shape-shifting device future we’re heading into. As we explore the possibilities that our ever-growing screens can offer, designers must keep in mind accessibility for hands that stay the same size.

Predictive Responses

Modern business models show that making things quicker often yields positive results. Take the Seamless app for example: Anyone can look up reviews on Yelp and call a restaurant, but Seamless provides value to the customer by making purchases as easy as one click. As interaction designers, we should always be looking for ways to abstract this principle to other functionality that would positively impact our everyday life.

As part of this recent release, Apple has introduced a suite of new features intended to make our life easier, including a more robust system of Contextual Responses within the new Apple Watch OS, which will provide “quick” responses for iMessages based on the context of the ongoing conversation. This is a brilliant idea, and we wonder if it can go farther, beyond simple text processing to providing information to the user based on what we think they might like.

Imagine this: It’s Tuesday morning, and you just woke up. Based on your iCal, Apple knows you have a meeting at 9 a.m. but most days you get to work at 10 a.m. Usually you get a coffee on your way to work at the little french café, and Apple knows this by passively monitoring your GPS positions over time. So how can Apple make your life easier? What if your Apple Watch could take this data and calculate the best time to leave based on your average walking speed, anticipating a coffee stop and how long it usually takes you to get to your office?

This concept isn’t new. Predictive Analytics has been under development, somewhat publicly, for the past few years, and has been implemented with mixed success in everything from the Google Now app to Netflix’s recommendation engine.

Point4-Illustration1; apple watch

Implementing predictive analytics in your own designs can be as simple as considering how to refer users to the next step in a process, or as complex as detailed behavioral analysis algorithms. Tools such as KISSmetrics and Google Universal Analytics can be employed as a basic data store to monitor usage. As the field grows, interaction designers should keep an eye out for new off-the-shelf platforms for implementing detailed predictive analytics in their own applications.

Apple’s Latest Release Reinforces the Focus on User-centered Design

While none of the above may be perfect just yet, we believe there’s plenty of ideas in this latest release to illuminate the big meta-trend in UX design: An ever-increasing focus on user-centric design across screen sizes and form factors.

As designers, it’s our job to constantly be looking for ways to make people’s lives better, and as usual Apple’s leading the way. Let the next round of evolution begin.

coleBy Cole Sletten, Associate Creative Director, Ready Set Rocket

Long recognized for his leadership skills, strong understanding of visual concepting, and thoughtful design approach, Sletten oversees digital creative projects from concept through completion on key agency accounts. Sletten also ensures creative consistency and integrity of the complete customer journey throughout integrated marketing campaign executions.

Sletten has been a driving force behind several major creative projects at Ready Set Rocket, including work for Univision, NBA and Ann Taylor.