Changing the Apple Watch interaction paradigm

The digital crown is one of the defining features of the Apple Watch; however, it's underutilized as just a scroll wheel for the screen and picker controls. The limited functionality of the digital crown has made to the touch screen the primary way users interact with the device.

But, I would love it if the digital crown was the main interaction paradigm of the Apple Watch, so the device could function more like a real watch. Ideally, I wish I could use the device without touching the screen at all.

However, it would require remapping the hardware buttons, introducing the Focus Engine (or something similar) to WatchKit, and giving developers full access to the click functionality of the digital crown.

Current hardware button functionality

Before remapping the hardware buttons, what do they currently do?

"Friends" button:

  • 1 click from anywhere to open the friends dial
  • 2 clicks to open Apple Pay
  • 1 long click to bring up the power off menu

Digital crown:

  • 1 click to go to the apps screen or watch face (depending on where you are)
  • 2 clicks to switch back to the previous app
  • 1 long click to initiate Siri
  • turning the crown can
    • time travel on the watch face
    • scroll a screen
    • scroll a picker

An end to the "friends" button

Before getting to the digital crown, lets talk about the "friends" button.

A dedicated button for contacting friends made sense when the Apple Watch was initially featuring an "entirely new ways to stay in touch," but I don't think the Apple Watch as a communication device has caught on. The current Apple Watch product homepage is about notifications, daily activity and remote access to iPhone apps with your voice.

If the device isn't going to be where communications are initiated, maybe the "friends" button should become a home button that mirrors the iPhone home button.

Remapped "home" button

  • 1 click to go to the apps screen or watch face (depending on where you are)
  • 2 clicks from anywhere to go to Apple Pay
  • 1 long click from anywhere to open Siri

The friends dial would be moved to a Contacts app, and the power off functionality would be moved to the current power reserve glance or to the Settings app.

The friends button also currently powers on the watch when it's in the off state, and The new "home" button could still do that.

Programmable digital crown

While it may seem a little wild-west to give developers full control over the scrolling and clicking functionality of the digital crown, there could be some sensible defaults when it comes to interactions.

Digital crown defaults:

  • turning of the crown can
    • scroll through focusable elements on the screen
    • scroll an active picker
    • scroll the whole screen (if there are no focusable items)
  • one click
    • activate the primary action on currently focused element
    • deactivate currently active picker and advance to the next focusable element (if it's another picker, activate it)
  • two clicks
    • mirror the current swipe action (secondary action)
    • advance to the next page in a paged-style interface
  • long click
    • should mirror force touch in most cases

Think about digital crown being to the Apple Watch as the remote is to the Apple TV. One exception is on the TV you can scroll up, down, left, and right, where on the watch you would only be able to scroll up and down (obviously) or through items in a collection view in a serpentine manner. However, it would require most interface elements on the watch to be focusable.

Example of use in menu and collection interfaces

For menus and apps which are mostly collection views or table views (like Mail, Messages, and Photos), currently, when you turn the crown the watch only scrolls the view. If items and elements were focusable, the watch would scroll the focus of the individual elements instead of just the view.

Clicking the crown would be the equivalent of tapping the currently focused item.

Long press in most of these apps would do what force touch currently does. For example, in Messages, long press while viewing a list of conversations in Messages could prompt to compose a new message.

And to handle the swiping gesture on a message, two clicks would bring up the info and delete buttons for the focused message.

Example of use in paged-style interfaces

Apps like Weather, Activity, Workout and the watch face customizer feature paging prominently. Two clicks of the crown would page through to the next screen, and the one click handler still be available for the primary action on the currently focused element.

For example, in the Weather app one click would change the display from temperature to precipitation and two clicks to page to the next the city.

In an app like Workout that is a paged collections of pickers, when the app is brought to screen, the first picker is focused and scrolling would change that picker. One click would set the picker and advance to the next focusable element.

Also, scrolling a picker then clicking through to the next picker could make entering the form in the Workout on-boarding much easier and faster.

Example of use in specialized interfaces

The app that makes me wish developers had control over the digital crown is the Stop Watch app.

I wish the Apple Watch functioned like a traditional stop watch.

  • One click starts and stops the watch
  • two clicks, while in the start state, sets a lap
  • two clicks, while in the stop state, clear the watch

And to bring up the stop watch face changer, defer to the default interaction: long press to mirror force touch.

It seems obvious, and the crown is even prominent in the app icon because that's the most natural way to interact with a stop watch. It's iconic to that task.

Another great example would be the Music app. The digital crown could mirror the functionality of the EarPods remote: one click for play/pause, two clicks for forward, three for back.

Is it possible and worth it?

Would it be possible to change the mapping of hardware buttons on a product nearly a year old and disrupt the muscle memory of millions of people? If the changes more closely mirror an iPhone and give users and developers flexibility and ease of use, I think it wouldn't be an issue this early in the game.

Though I would be concerned that the the slowness of the first generation hardware probably would prevent the implementation of something like the Focus Engine in WatchKit, which this whole idea hinges on.

Lastly, would Apple even want to keep the digital crown around? With their focus on slimming all of their products down, the digital crown might be on the chopping block in a generation or two due to the size of it.

Still, I would enjoy fulling interacting with the Apple Watch like a watch instead of a small iPhone.