Sunday, April 13, 2014

My Week with the Pebble Smartwatch: A UX Designer's Top 5 Takeaways

I remember first hearing about the Pebble Smartwatch early last year and my first reaction was getting super nostalgic over the bright orange Motorola Pebl phone I had during the Motorola RAZR era. Once my orange flip phone memories subsided, I got excited at the idea of wearable tech, not realizing that this was the start of a trend, which would create quite the buzz for many months to come.

Recently, a fellow techy friend of mine, whom had acquired a Pebble watch via its Kickstarter campaign, was actually thinking of selling it (yes, already) and let me borrow it for a few weeks. Being a lover of gadgets I was super excited to get my hands on the latest, sought-after piece of hardware and give it a spin.

Without further ado, here are my 5 takeaways from my time with the Pebble Smartwatch:

NOTE: This was on Pebble OS 1.0. OS 2.0 has since come out, but, sadly, I have not yet experienced this upgrade. Most of my experiences are OS agnostic, however.

#5. Quick Charge and Setup

My friend, bless him, gave me the Pebble without a drop of charge in it. Plugging it into the wall (with the provided double-duty USB cable – for both computer connectivity and wall chargeability), the watch was good to go in 2 hours. (Related: I learned the longest I’m able to wait to play with a new gadget once I have it in my hands is 2 hours.) Yes, I could have started using the watch sooner, but I wanted to use it more than 8 inches from the wall in a comfortable, couch-sitting position.

Setting up the watch to sync to my iPhone 5 was as easy as downloading the free app from the iTunes app store, turning on Bluetooth, and going through the normal Bluetooth pairing process. Since the Pebble continuously emits a Bluetooth signal, the pairing is done strictly on the phone.

#4. Finding the right clock face is like finding a needle in a haystack

Now, I’m all for open source communities and platforms, but weeding through the plethora of clock faces – sift through the 34 pages of them on to see what I mean – is exhausting. A simple taxonomy process would be enough to make this process much, much simpler.

The faces themselves aren’t bad – but they aren’t great, either. The watch uses e-paper display (similar to those Amazon Kindle things people have nowadays). Living in a multicolor world and looking at the watch alongside my iPhone makes every pixel on the Pebble seem gigantic. Now, I’m not expecting retina display on this puppy, but my Kindle does a way better job with e-paper display. The nostalgic feeling of looking at Windows 3.1 was pretty fun for a bit, but looking between iPhone 5 and the Pebble Smartwatch made me sad.

Eventually, I landed on a face that spells out the time in a way you would tell someone if they asked you for the time. This is awesome. I don’t need to read an analog or digital watch anymore! But, again, I sort of settled on this one rather than found one that was amazing.

#3. Apps – for better or worse

Being a heavy user of my iPhone for all things music, the ability to control my music by something outside of my pocket is pretty amazing. Yes, my earbuds have the ability to pause, skip, restart a song, volume control if needed, but let’s be honest sometimes my thumb can’t click three times in a row in rapid succession. Having a little screen that tells me the name, album, and artist of the song playing on my iPhone is one of the main reasons why the Pebble attracted me in the first place.

The four-button, non-touch interface limits the amount of other apps that are available. Attempting to use other apps (including a calculator – yikes; the classic arcade game Asteroids – really?) proved to be immediately frustrating and were quickly abandoned. But, look, I can see which song is currently on my phone! I’m happy again!

#2. Block out the extraneous noise

Let me start by saying that I’m a big proponent for push notifications. There are certain apps that I count on letting ME know when I need to interact with them instead of the other way around. Without any sort of ability to quickly and temporarily disable/enable a select few from notifying me (I’m looking at you, e-mail), while still keeping some on (never leave me, text messages) I’m trapped in an all-or-nothing world.

Say hello to the Pebble Smartwatch where you can customize which notifications you see. Namely, you can put your iPhone in Do Not Disturb mode (a favorite mode of mine while at work or hanging with friends) and get JUST text messages to your wrist. This is worth the price of admission, people. To be able to quiet the extraneous noise from other apps and focus only on the ones that truly matter without having to turn on and off a bunch of notifications is a magical, magical thing.

The only downside to these notifications is that the watch is limited to the six most recent, so if you have texts, emails, and phone calls coming in then it’s a combination of the six. Things may get lost in the shuffle. This is a reason why I limited my Pebble notifications to just text messages. Clean. Simple. And hush those others… for now.

#1. Some social norms never go out of style

Finally, the fundamental thing I experienced while wearing the watch is this: looking at one’s watch is still a social norm for “I’m bored” or “Oh, look at the time, I’ve got something else/different/better to do.”

In a world of smartphones, it has become more acceptable to pull your phone out of your pocket, check the time, quickly scan notifications, and pop it back into your pocket than it is to look at your watch for an extended period of time. Especially now that smartwatches are few and far between, people find you especially rude if you keep looking at your wrist while standing in a group of chatting friends. Yes, looking at your phone in the same scenario is also rude, but it has become more acceptable than staring longingly at your wrist.


The smartwatch trend is definitely off to a solid start. With the introduction of smartphones, it seems less and less people are wearing watches. I still like the quick access to the time and having other features and notifications easily accessible is definitely attractive. I look forward to see how things progress and what other players (an Apple iWatch, perhaps?) join the fray.