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Watch Out: Turning Wearable Devices into a Public Display

By: , Posted on: April 16, 2015

There's not an app for that

With the imminent arrival of the Apple Watch, There’s Not an App for That authors, Matt Jones and Simon Robinson, talk about design opportunities for the new breed of smartwatches. They are presenting their work – with  Jen Pearson –  at CHI 2015 in Korea, this coming week.

Sitting in a meeting recently, one of us noticed that a co-worker was glancing at her watch. “Was I boring her?”, we thought, anxiously. Indeed, for many of us, the subtle – or less subtle – twist of a wrist by someone we are chatting with can leave us feeling less important that we thought, or hoped, we were.

With the imminent arrival of the Apple Watch and the increasing attachment of early adopters to other wearables, what will the social etiquette be?  How will your friend, lover or work colleague react as you sneak a look; to check a tweet; see who’s heart beat you can feel; or, to find out what your next appointment is? Less blatant than looking at your phone screen, surely, but maybe less honest too?

While it might be rude to look at your watch when you are with others, many of us do look at other people’s devices – both watches and phones – to check the time. We might even ask someone if they can, “give us the time, please”, if we’re not wearing a watch of our own, or our mobile is out of power. Watches, then – very intimate devices – are routinely, momentarily, public displays.

Read more from Matt Jones – There’s Not an App for that: Mobile UX Design For Life

In our CHI 2015 paper, we – along with co-author Jen Pearson – look at the possibilities of imaginatively using a smart watch to display content for those not wearing it. What if your friend’s smartwatch could show you information, useful to you and not just to them? Perhaps their watch might display a WhatsApp message that has been sent to you; or, maybe it scrolls through  a slideshow of photos of you and the wearer at a recent party, prompting a conversation.

In a series of studies, fully reported in the paper, first we wanted to test the viability of the approach. Would a watch wearer notice glances from a bystander, and how socially acceptable might it be to look at someone else’s watch? Our work suggests that if you glance at your watch, your partner will notice it more often than you will notice them looking at yours. We also found indications that people felt it ruder to look at their own watch than looking at someone else’s.

But just how visible are people’s watches? If most wrists are covered or obscured from view, our ideas would not work. After observing 300 watch wearers in four European countries, in restaurants, airports, bars, cafes and city streets, we found that 88% of the time the watch face was either fully or partially visible, as the image shows below.


The paper goes on to present a detailed “design space” that watch app developers can use to work through potential content displays for device wearer and glancer use. If you’re interested in creating innovative watch-based services, take a look at the range of possibilities we suggest in the article. The image, below, shows just two of the dimensions: the content representation and persistence.


The next time you are in a café or restaurant, look around and see how many people are staring down at the seductive pools of digital content on their phones, instead of engaging more fully with the people and places around them.

With the imminent arrival of the Apple Watch and the increasing attachment of early adopters to other wearables, what will the social etiquette be?

The CHI paper looks at turning a private device – the watch – into a public one. In our new book, we consider ways of designing mobiles of all sorts – from conventional smartphones to wearables – into devices that stimulate and enrich social interaction when people are together.  We believe it’s time to break the trance that current mobile design induces, so that users can wake and look at each other again.

There’s Not an App for That: Mobile User Experience Design For Life by Gary Marsden, Simon Robinson and Matt Jones is available for purchase on the Elsevier Store. You can save up to 30% on your own copy – just use discount code “STC215” at checkout!

About the Author

mattMatt Jones (@MobSwan) is a professor and Head of Department of Computer Science, Swansea University. His research work focuses on human-centered computing with particular emphasis on mobile and ubiquitous computing and resource-constrained communities in regions such as India and South Africa. His work in these contexts has been recognized by an IBM Faculty Award and, from 2014, by a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award.

Matt has had many active collaborations and interactions with industry, NGO and Governmental stakeholders including Microsoft Research, Nokia Research and IBM Research. In his spare time he tries to live life face-on with his energetic family, and enjoys nothing more than an exhilarating early morning cycle ride to the glorious beaches of the Gower.

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