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Apple’s Watch and Jony’s Compelling Beginning

There are a whole lot of constraints that go into designing something. Here are the few I could think of in a couple of minutes:

  • what people already understand about their interactions with things
  • what people will discover about their interactions with things
  • what people want to do
  • what people need to do
  • what people understand their wants and needs
  • what people understand about their wants and needs
  • how people want to be perceived by other people
  • which things that people need or want to do you want to help with
  • which people you want to help
  • what is happening around the people who will be doing the things
  • what you can make
  • what you can afford
  • what you’re willing to pay
  • what materials exist

Some of those seem to be more internal than others, but there’s more of a continuum between “external” and “internal” than a switch. In fact “us” and “them” are really part of the same system, so it’s probably better to divide them into constraints focussing on people and constraints focussing on industry, process and company politics.

Each of Apple’s new device categories moves the designs further from limitations of the internal constraints toward the people-centric limitations. Of course they’re not alone in choosing the problems they solve in the industry, but their path is a particular example to consider. They’re not exclusively considering the people-focussed constraints with the watch, there still are clear manufacturing/process constraints: battery life, radio efficiency are obvious examples.

There are conflicts between some of the people-focussed constraints. You might have a good idea for how a watch UI should work, but it has to be tempered by what people will expect to do which makes new user interface designs an evolutionary process. So you have to take people from what they know to what they can now do.

That’s a slow game, that Apple appear to have been playing very quickly of late.

  • 1984: WIMP GUI, but don’t worry there’s still a typewriter too.

There’s a big gap here, in which the technical constraints made the world adapt to the computer, rather than the computer adapt to the world. Compare desks from the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, and indeed the coming and going of the diskette box and the mousemat.

  • 2007: touchscreen, but we’ve made things look like the old WIMP GUI from the 1980s a bit, and there’s still a bit of a virtual typewriter thing going on.

  • 2010: maybe this whole touchscreen thing can be used back where we were previously using the WIMP thing.

  • 2013: we can make this touchscreen thing better if we remove some bits that were left over from the WIMP thing.

  • 2014: we need to do a new thing to make the watch work, but there’s a load of stuff you’ll recognise from (i) watches, (ii) the touchscreen thing.

Now that particular path through the tangle of design constraints is far from unique. Compare the iPad to the DynaBook and you’ll find that Alan Kay solved many of the same problems, but only for people who are willing to overlook the fact that what he proposed couldn’t be built. Compare the iPhone to the pocket calculator, and you find that it was possible to portable computing many decades earlier but with reduced functionality. Apple’s products are somewhere in between these two extremes: balancing what can be done now and what could possibly be desired.

For me, the “compelling beginning” is a point along Apple’s (partly deliberate, and partly accidental) continuum, rather than a particular watershed. They’re at a point where they can introduce products that are sufficiently removed from computeriness that people are even willing to discuss them as fashion objects. Yes, it’s still evidently the same grey-and-black glass square that the last few years of devices have been. Yes, it’s still got a shrunk-down springboard list of apps like the earlier devices did.

The Apple Watch (and contemporary equivalents) are not amazing because the bear dances well, they’re amazing because the bear dances at all. The possibility of thinking about a computer as an aesthetic object, one that solves your problems and expresses your identity, rather than a box that does computer things and comes in a small range of colours, is new. The ability to consider a computer more as an object in its environment than as a collection of technical and political constraints changes how they interact with us and us with them. That is why it’s compelling.

And of course the current watch borrows cues from the phone that came before it, to increase familiarity. Future ones, and other things that come after it, will be able to jettison those affordances as expectations and comfort change. That is why it’s a beginning.