The Best Health, Better Apps, and Outstanding Communication: My watchOS 3 Pitch

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 15 min read
The Best Health, Better Apps, and Outstanding Communication: My watchOS 3 Pitch

Apple first pitched the Apple Watch in September 2014, and they had 3 pillars that the device stood on: timekeeping, communication, and fitness. In my opinion, timekeeping should not be on that list, communication was the right idea but their specifics were off base, and fitness was a home run. Because their messaging was off and the Apple Watch itself was a more 1.0-like product than we hoped for, the press for Apple Watch has been mixed ever since that September 2014 event.

Apple tried to clarify the message again in March 2015, but they once again focused on those 3 pillars and it felt like they were rehashing their old message. Since then Apple has released watchOS 2 and has continued to market the Apple Watch using those same pillars.

As we move into the spring of 2016, we’re gearing up for an Apple event in a few weeks and the WWDC16 rumors are sure to start coming any day now. Surely Apple is working on the next version of watchOS that they’re prepping to launch this fall along with their iOS and OS X updates. Apple now has real life data on how people use their Watches and have more than enough think pieces to read about what the Watch does well and what they need to fix[1]. I have to imagine there are some big changes coming to the Apple Watch this year, so I wanted to make my pitch for what 3 areas Apple should focus on to make the Apple Watch better for existing owners and entice those who have’t bought in yet.

Double Down on Health

I think that Apple Watch has done an amazing job at being the premier health-focused wearable on the market in the past 12 months. Not only is the Apple Watch the best step counter out there, it’s also a very reliable heart rate monitor, sleep tracker, and many more things due to the power of the watchOS 2 API set. The things that are happening on Apple Watch are light years ahead of what any other single device is doing. Android Wear, Fitbit, and Jawbone are all counting steps, but Apple Watch is being used by top hospitals to make health something easier to achieve.

And while some of the things medical institutions are doing with Apple Watch are a nice start, that’s a byproduct of Apple making a product that people want to use everyday. And while stories of the Mayo Clinic using the Apple Watch are nice PR for Apple, that not something they’re going to advertise and sell millions more of these in 2016. Therefore, I think the number one thing Apple hits home with watchOS 3 is fitness tracking. I think they already do it better than the rest, but this is the year for them to show they’re head and shoulders ahead of the rest of the pack.

The 3 Ring System is Good, Keep Them

I raved about their system recently, and you should read that article if you are not familiar with the system. Essentially, this method of activity tracking gives you 3 goals everyday: calories burned, active minutes, and hours standing. It feels satisfying to fill your rings and the Watch will alert you when you do and give you a nice thumbs up for your effort. Do this enough days in a row and you’ll start getting badges. These badges don’t do much, but hey, it feels good when you see you just hit a new milestone.

I’d like to see Apple expand the functionality of these rings just a bit, though. As it stands now, the only ring that can be adjusted for your needs is the red ring (calories burned). You can set a daily goal and then at the start of the new week, your Watch will give you a new suggested goal based on how you did the week before. If your goal was 400 calories last week and you beat it everyday, it might suggest 450 for the next week. If you didn’t make it every time, maybe it will take it easier on your and suggest 360 calories.

This ability to set personal goals and make progress over time does not extend to the green or blue rings though. You are always expected to get 30 minutes of activity and stand for 12 hours. I can understand the stand goal being static, but I would like to have a dynamic activity goal as well.

For example, I walk about 15 minutes to and from work everyday. Because I tend to walk at a brisk pace, I get about 15 minutes of activity credit in the morning, and 15 more at night. I don’t need to do any extra activity at all and I can achieve my goal. Personally, I would like to set that goal to 45 or 60 minutes, because that would encourage me to get out there and move more. I know that the red ring is accomplishing a similar thing by making me move more, but it’s just annoying that the green ring is something I don’t have to even think about to fill Monday through Friday.

Those rings look good too, and have the potential to be an iconic image of health. Apple should take every opportunity they have to show these rings in their marketing materials and stress to people that this is a more complete way to track one’s activity than just seeing how many steps they took that day.

The Workout App is a Good Start, but Needs to Grow Up

The Workout app on the Apple Watch feels like a very 1.0 release in many ways. From one angle this is good: Workouts has very basic functionality, but the functionality that is there works well. This is one part of the Watch where it seems like Apple was suitably conservative with what they were trying to do. It left us with an app that has us begging for more, not questioning its very existence.

On the other hand, Workouts is very incomplete compared to what other workout apps on the market offer these days. Some key features are missing, and it doesn’t feel like tracking your workouts does much good for you in the long run.

Right off the bat there are two things I want Apple to do with Workouts:

One: Give me media playback controls in the app. People tend to work out with music or podcasts playing in their headphones, and they’re almost certainly going to want to skip forward or pause at some point. Right now you have to press the crown once to go to the app selector, again to bring up the watch face, and then swipe up to get the controls. Then you have to double press the crown to go back to the Workout app.

The fix seems simple, and would be to enable a swipe up from within the Workout app to bring up media controls. Swiping up does nothing right now, so it could be added without impacting anything in the existing app. Boom, done.

Two: If you do leave the Workouts app mid exercise, the watch face will have a little icon in the top showing that you are in the middle of a workout. You would think that tapping the icon would bring you back to Workouts, but it doesn’t. Instead, you have to find the app in your app drawer and launch it from there[2]. It’s a simple fix that again, doesn’t take away any old functionality.

But the more important thing Apple needs to work on is making your workouts more meaningful. As of now, you don’t really get to see anything after a workout is complete. I feel like I’m logging something that I’ll never see again. iOS 9.3 fixes this a bit by adding a new tab to the Activity app on the iPhone that shows you a list of your workouts, but it’s still pretty sparse.

This is okay, but it pales in comparison to what you can do with other exercise services like Runkeeper or Nike+. Those services allow you to set long term goals like “I want to run 100 miles this year” or “I want to exercise 3 days a week.” Once you set a goal, they will keep you updated as to how you are doing towards achieving that goal and what you need to do to get there. By comparison, Apple Watch’s workout tracking feels very claustrophobic, as yo can set a goal for an individual workout, but nothing beyond today.

It would also be nice to have a more social aspect to Workouts. I don’t want to tweet every time I go for a run, but I would like to feel like I am working out with other people. As an example, RunKeeper had an event called “Tropical Yeti Run” this weekend that I participated in. The objective was to run/walk for at least 20 minutes and 15 seconds. I was more motivated to get out there because I knew there were other people doing the same thing.

There are always perks for completing these as well. This time it was for 25% off a yearly subscription to their pro service, but it can be all sorts of things. Some events are treated as races and you’ll find out a few days later how your time stacked up against other people who did a similar workout to you and are in similar age/gender/weight to you.

I’m not suggesting any of this is exactly what Apple should do, but they should do something to make Workouts more “sticky.” The badges they have now don’t really cut it.

Give More Power to Third Party Workout Apps

Apple may think that a lot of what I just asked for in Workouts are power user features and are not something they have any interest in pursuing. If that’s the case, I think they’re wrong, but I think they could go a bit further in giving extra capabilities to apps that can track workouts. I am a happy Runkeeper user and use that to track my workouts instead of Workouts most of the time. However, I think their Apple Watch app is not as good as Workouts.

The thing is that Runkeeper is limited by watchOS in what they can do as a third party app. Workouts has a nice feature where the app will never time out and go to the watch face. The beauty of watchOS is that apps will close themselves after a few seconds of inactivity and go to the watch face because that’s what you want most of the time. But Workouts is smart and overrides that decision, assuming that you want to see your workout status every time you lift your wrist until you say the workout is done. Runkeeper does not have this feature[3], so I have to constantly open the app mid-stride when I’m running to see how I’m doing.

I also found it needlessly tricky to give Runkeeper access to my heart rate data while I’m doing a workout. I eventually had to go into the Runkeeper iPhone app and turn on the functionality from there. Apple, please let apps like this ask for and be granted access to heart rate right from the Watch interface, not by digging out my phone and finding it tucked in a setting menu somewhere.

Give Me Some Feedback

Finally, I think Apple could do more to have your Watch give you feedback on your activity. The daily cheers for filling my rings are nice, and updating my red ring goals every week make me feel like I’m making progress, but I still think the feedback is pretty minimal.

The first thing I’d like to see is the ability to set health goals. Generic goals like losing weight or working out more often would be nice, simple goals that you could and Apple Watch would update you on your progress. It would cheer you on if you’re doing well, and help you course correct if you’re getting off track. Again, nothing that only power users would use, but give us a little more than we have now.

Think About Apps Differently

The area that’s causing the most grief for Apple Watch users today are the apps on the Watch. We all pretty much agree that the clock, fitness tracking, and notifications work quite well, but everything about the apps running on the Watch are where things get a little dicey.

The number one complaint is that apps are just too slow. The whole pitch of smart watches is that they make it easier to do certain things, and therefore lets you keep your phone in your pocket more of the time. However, because the apps are so slow to launch on the Apple Watch, people have taken to using their phone to do things that the Apple Watch can do, but is just too slow to do in a reasonable amount of time.

The other major criticism of Watch apps is that they are too hard to find when you need them. The honeycomb grid launcher is nobody’s favorite launcher, and requires too much memory and finesse to launch what you want.

Those two things combine to often times make using apps on the Apple Watch more trouble than they’re worth. It’s a real shame too, because the things that Watch apps can do are amazing! iTranslate lets you speak into your Watch and it will speak back what you said in the language of your choice. Imagine how useful that could be to someone on vacation overseas! Tweetbot’s app lets you perform a lot of basic Twitter actions right from your wrist. The Day One app lets you record notes from your Watch, so you can dictate journal entries on the fly. These apps can do so much, it’s a shame we don’t use them as often as we would like.

Think of Watch Apps as Extensions

Let’s talk about the Pebble for a second. A few apps on the Pebble have this cool feature where they launch on the watch when a certain action is taken on your phone. Runkeeper is a great example of this, so as soon as I start a workout from the Runkeeper app on my iPhone, the Runkeeper app on the Pebble with automatically launch and display my current workout stats.

This is a brilliant idea because it shows an understanding about how people use their phones and their smart watches together. They know that when I start a workout on my phone, I’ll almost certainly put the phone in my pocket, and then want to see that information on my watch for the remainder of the workout. As soon as the workout is over, the Runkeeper app on the Pebble closes and goes back to my standard watch face.

Runkeeper has an Apple Watch app, and I would love if the exact same behavior could be ported over, but more apps beyond the workout space could do this too.

  • Maps kind of does this already. If you set directions from the phone, you’ll automatically see the directions come up on your Watch.
  • If you’re in the Music app on your phone, bring up the playback controls on your Watch.
  • Ferrite could put some basic controls on the Watch such as mute, pause/resume, and other controls you may need when recording audio.
  • iTranslate could act as a second microphone/speaker when I’m translating.

The big advantage of this idea is that it makes the Apple Watch feel faster. If I see the app I’m using already up and loaded when I raise my wrist, it is going to encourage me to use it.

It does’t make sense for every app, and it certainly leads to some battery life concerns since the Watch would be doing more opening/closing of apps than it does now, but I think it could be a great addition to the Apple Watch. We all know the first iteration of the Apple Watch is underpowered when it comes to its CPU, and this would be a way to make the device feel faster without updating the hardware.

Third Party Watch Faces are a Must

Apple has some really nice watch faces built into the current version of watchOS. I personally really like the information density of the Modular face, and I like the looks of the Utility face. There are about a dozen watch faces built by Apple, and all of them have their fans. But Apple needs, NEEDS to make third party watch faces a reality.

I made this mockup for a watch face I called Modular+ last fall:

It’s a very “busy” watch face, and is unlikely to be something we see from Apple, but I would genuinely like to use it sometimes because it has room for 10 complications in addition to the time. The current version of Modular on the Apple Watch has room for 5 complications and is currently the most you can have on any watch face.

But what if I wanted to get a little crazier? What if I am a productivity nut and I live in OmniFocus all day? The most important thing to me is being able to see my tasks and mark them complete. As it stands now, OmniFocus can make a complication (and they have) that I put on my watch face, but it’s quite limited in what it can show and requires me to actually launch the full app to act on my tasks. Wouldn’t it be nice if OmniFocus could make their own watch face that gave me direct access to my task list and didn’t make me hop in and out of the Watch app to interact with it?

I can imagine a ton of other app makers who’s users could benefit from a highly focused watch face. MyFitnessPal could make a watch face that lets people log and view their daily stats. Snapchat could show you your recent snaps, Facebook could show you all your perpetually unread notifications, Dark Sky could show you a custom face based on the weather, Fantastical could show your upcoming schedule, and so on. There are a million possibilities and while many of these would be of no interest to you, there almost certainly is one of two that you could think of that would make sense for how you use the Apple Watch.

And that’s all not to mention the designers who would jump at the opportunity to design something truly unique. Take a look at some of these Android Wear watch faces that already exist:

Think about some of the amazing UI designers we have making iOS apps right now and imagine them designing watch faces. Luxury watch makers could get in on the game as well. Apple has already partnered with Hermès on a hardware variant of the Apple Watch, why not parter with a few more and offer exclusive watch faces sold on the Watch’s app store? It’s an enticing idea, and one that I think Apple will go down eventually. The only question is if it will be this year or a little further down the road.

Communication Needs to be Better

At it’s core the Apple Watch is a notification delivery system, and for a lot of us, the most common notification we see is a message. It could be an SMS, iMessage, Facebook chat, Twitter mention, or snap from Snapchat, but whatever it is, you want to reply as easily and as fast as possible. The current version of watchOS is okay at this, but they need to be great.

And off course, it goes without saying that the Watch’s “Digital Touch” is not the answer.

Better Notification Interaction

Apple has built in some pretty powerful tools into responding to Messages. I can reply with emoji, a pre-canned message, dictate a message, or send a voice recording. This all happens from within the notification and I never have to go into the slow-to-load Messages app. This power is not shared by all messaging apps, however, and I think Apple should fix this in watchOS 3.

Just like my previous suggestions of launching apps in the background or making them your watch face, this could help with the Apple Watch’s speed problem. I want Apple to give developers of messaging apps the same capabilities that Apple allots themselves for Messages. It’s a little crazy that These are the options I get when someone mentions me on Twitter:

Other apps give a few more options, but they all require you to open the full app to do them. Unless Apple can make opening apps instantaneous, this needs to be improved.

Work Directly with Social Networks

I know it’s Apple’s way to create a platform and let developers do the work to bring their apps. But in this case, it might behoove Apple to reach out to the major social networks to see what they see as limits and what they can do to make sure the Apple Watch is not a second thought for these companies.

As much as old people like me don’t “get” Snapchat, it’s huge, and if they could have an extension of their app that makes the Apple Watch compelling…well that’s just great for Apple.


There is plenty more that Apple can do to make the Apple Watch experience better[4], but I think their messaging should focus on the 3 areas we dove into: outstanding fitness features, a new way of thinking about apps, and powerful communication tools. I have faith in Apple to make good decisions, but I know I would be over the moon if they hit even a few of these suggestions.

  1. I have owned an Apple Watch since the day it was released on April 24, 2015 and have worn it every single day since then. I love my Apple Watch and think it is the best smart watch on the market. But loving something means understanding its flaws, and the Apple Watch is not lacking in that area.  ↩
  2. Or find the breath to say “Hey Siri, open Workouts”.  ↩
  3. Or if it does, it keeps closing on me.  ↩
  4. Some way besides Siri to interact with the Watch when I don’t have a hand free (using my nose is not ideal) and separating your Apple Watch backups from the phone backup so you can restore your phone without losing all your fitness data and Watch settings would each be a good start.  ↩