watchOS 3 Proposal: Fixing the Side Button

The Apple Watch is great, but it has some major flaws that Apple needs to address to make it even better. Today I wanted to explore how Apple could fix the side button on the Apple Watch. You know, that button that you double-tap to activate Apple Pay but have never used to bring up the Friends circle since the first week you bought the Watch.

The Problem

The Apple Watch has 2 physical buttons on it; the Digital Crown and the “side button”. Considering there are so few inputs on this product, you would think that you’d use both of them pretty regularly. Unfortunately that is not the case with the side button. I don’t use it, and based on what I’ve heard from other people, they don’t use it either. Clearly Digital Touch is not as big a deal as Apple was expecting it to be last year, so that button goes unused 99.9% of the time.

The Solution: An auxiliary button

What if the side button was treated as an “auxiliary button” who’s function would change based on what app you have open on your iPhone? It would;t matter what screen you were on in the watch, this would trigger something on your phone to happen.

Let me elaborate.

I got the idea when I was running this weekend and I wanted to skip ahead in the podcast I was listening to. Because I had the Strava app pulled up on my Apple Watch, I had to press the Digital Crown to go to the app grid, press it again to go to the watch face, swipe up to bring up the media controls, and then press the forward button. That’s a lot to do when you’re in the middle of a run. I thought “what if I could map the side button to the “skip forward 45 seconds” function in Pocket Casts? Then I’d be able to tap the button even though I was in Strava and skip forward.

Then I got thinking about other apps that would benefit from an auxiliary button that you could tap from your watch and trigger a common task on the phone.

Music: play/pause or skip the current track

MacID: lock/unlock my Mac

Maps: read the next navigation direction to me

Camera: remote shutter control

Clock: start a stopwatch

Day One: Log this location in a new journal entry

Striva/Runkeeper: start/stop/pause a workout

Hours: start/stop tracking time on the current activity

Ferrite: start/stop recording

Workflow: trigger a specific workflow

IFTTT Do: trigger an action

Those are some I was able to think of just by looking at my home screens, but I’m sure more apps would benefit from something like this. Additionally, it would be very nice if developers could make this a setting that users could customize. Maybe I want to the button to skip ahead in Pocket Casts, but someone else wants it to be a play/pause button. Pocket Cats could then let us choose and we’d all be happy.

Limitations

This idea does have some limitations that keep it from being perfect. First, this adds complexity to the Apple Watch experience. The Apple Watch is pretty easy to use, but there are people who think that it’s a little confusing to figure out. Taking a hardware button and turning it into something that does something different all the time does make things a little less obvious. For example, what if you forgot what app you have running on your phone? Then you would press the button and not know what it was going to do.

This would have to be worked out in the fine details of how the feature was implemented, but I have to imagine that giving the button a use at all is a step up from where we’re at now with it.

The second limitation is that not all apps make sense to use this feature. This is more intended for apps that you have running with the screen off (music, podcast, exercise, etc.) or apps that you want to do something when you are not holding your phone (camera app, in particular). Twitter and Facebook probably don’t have a good use for this feature, but then again neither of these apps are much use on the Apple Watch as it stands.

Despite these limitations, I think Apple would be very wise to adopt something like this in a future version of the Apple Watch software.