Is the Apple Watch (and it’s like) the next frontier in e-commerce?

While the mobile phone is emerging as the primary platform for web access (superseding the desktop), it’s complex impact on e-commerce is only just being understood. Yet even as this evolves, the next frontier could be just beginning to emerge and should it gain real traction it will surely present a further layer of complexity.

I was given an Apple Watch for Christmas (2015) and after wearing it for a few weeks now I’ve had a chance to better understand where it fits in. I think it helps to deal with some of the criticisms first.

Aside from battery life which I’ve found to be good (28 hrs with low to moderate usage), the biggest criticism levelled at it seems to be it’s dependence on the iPhone. Apple appear to be working on this issue with Watch OS2 insofar as it now accommodates standalone third party apps.

The idea that the watch should be able to perform tasks independently of the iPhone is compelling but it’s important to remember that the watch doesn’t have any serious input mechanisms and because of that it will probably never be a mobile phone replacement. To that end there is little point in berating the Apple Watch for not being something that it never will be.

The Apple Watch was designed and intended to serve a complimentary but different role to the iPhone, this is something that’s easier to understand after using one for a while.

Apple have said that the Watch is intended to enable people to decouple from their phones and help them engage with the world around them without loosing connection. There is some sense to this.

When using a phone to check a text, email or alert the action takes seconds especially if alerts appear on the lock screen. BUT, so often upon completion of this minor task users then go on to do something else and it’s this secondary task that takes up more time, at which point the user has become detached from their surroundings to a considerably greater degree. The watch does not allow for this because it’s functionality is limited.

As a result users glance at incoming alerts (as they would the time) and then carry on with the whatever they were doing – unless the alert is something that requires immediate attention.

If uptake of smartwatches is strong enough, I think this could come to represent an as yet underestimated shift in user behaviour.


Apple Watch usability

Apple watch usability centres around two technical innovations:

  • The Digital Crown for click and scroll
  • The Forced Touch for additional features.

There is also the usual touch sensitivity but it’s not multi touch – the screen is too small for that. Additionally because the watch is a companion device to the phone much of the configuration is executed via the Watch app on the phone.

Voice can also be used but there are some limitations to this:

  1. The watch needs to be connected to an iPhone
  2. Siri needs to be activated on both the phone and the watch.
  3. The wearer needs to abandon all sense of self respect if they are to use this functionality in public or even in private.


The watch face

Probably to a greater degree than the iPhone the home screen is ground zero for the Apple Watch usability. However it could be said that there are two home screens, one for the apps and one for the watch face; arguably the watch face is the primary home screen on the Apple Watch since this is the default screen that opens from sleep when the digital crown is pressed.


The watch faces can be changed but the image above shows what is called the ‘modular’ face. Most watch faces feature many of the same customisation options, these are called “Complications”.

The watch face home screen contains much of the quick view data that you might normally pull your phone out for, this is displayed via the “Complications”. The Complications are displayed in two sizes (depending on the watch face) and they can include:

  • time
  • date and day
  • local temperature (this is not from a watch sensor)
  • next diary appointments
  • time in another location

All of these items except the time can be changed for other snippets of information. It’s also possible to include Complications from third party apps that make use of watch face Complications as part of their functionality.

In this way the watch is making the best possible use of the home screen to immediately deliver, at a glance, information that the wearer might find useful in their day to day routine.

Viewing alerts (email, text and reminders being the main ones) requires a simple pull down from the top of the screen as you would on an iPhone to view notifications. Users are notified that alerts have come in by a small red dot at the top of the screen which helps if they missed the taptic or sonic reminder when the alert first arrived.


An e-commerce example

It seems feasible that the larger area “Complication” represented by the day/date view in the image above, could be used in an e-commerce context.

For example, a retailer with an app developed for the watch could use the large area Complication view to deliver alerts for out of stock products that have recently come back in stock. The customer journey would involve the iPhone app for an initial browsing session, if the item was out of stock the user could set an alert via the phone app but receive the alert on the watch. Upon receiving the alert and assuming that the user is logged into their retailer account, they could then purchase the item on the watch possibly using Apple Pay or maybe PayPal as the payment gateway.

From a retailer perspective this has a few advantages:

  1. It delivers a timely alert in an environment where the user is already accustomed to receiving similar bites of information.
  2. It requires that the user be logged into their account, this makes it easier for the retailer to gather data on the customer
  3. It reduces the chances of a lost sale arising from out of stock items
  4. For some shoppers it may appeal to the inner geek.



There is no browser so it’s unlikely that it will be possible in the near future to view web pages on a watch, also one has to wonder what these might look like and indeed how practical this would be. The omission of a browser certainly makes sense for now.

Users can add credit or debit cards to their watch so they can pay for items via Apple Pay. For people still using older version iPhones that do not support Apple Pay this may be a boon since the watch does not rely on the phone for Apple Pay functionality (aside from adding the card via the Apple Watch app on the phone).

The idea that Apple Watch can be used for consuming media is ludicrous, the screen is too small for that. While some app developers have produced media consumption apps for the watch (Google News) this is uncomfortable not just because of screen size but because the wearer’s arm is likely to begin to ache very soon after holding the watch in an unsupported reading position for any length of time. Skimming emails or text message maybe the longest text related content it is practical to consume on the watch.


Developing for the watch (building on micro-moments)

All functionality and usability for app development needs to be thought out and revolve around the idea of alerts as bites of usable data that can help the wearer take actions or make plans. I think it is this reality that will come to influence how the watch will be used and how it could change habits.

Already with mobile phones user behaviour has shortened into what Google refers to as ‘micro-moments‘. The smart watch has the potential to be the next frontier for these micro-moments. As such and because of the nature of the information it delivers, the watch would be likely to sit nearer the end of the user’s consideration journey.

Location tracking may come to be an important part of the development toolkit. While the watch can recognise and independently  connect to WiFi networks that have been pre configured via the phone, when out and about the watch will always still primarily rely on the phone for a data connection. The sports app on the Apple Watch uses the phone for distance tracking so it seems feasible that it could also use the phone for location tracking. This has possible implications for delivering location based alerts – traffic and transport updates being one obvious opportunity for the time conscious commuter.

In later versions of the watch, if built in universal sim cards can be made small enough even the dependence on the mobile phone for location and data may become obsolete giving the watch far greater independence and utility, but because of the screen size and the limited input mechanisms is seems likely that useful output will continue to revolve around small bite of data and alerts.



In is current format the Apple Watch seems well set up to deliver useful information that can be absorbed in the same amount of time it takes to check the time. Even email and text message are reduced to the kind of attention afforded to incoming messages on pagers back in the 1980s.

While it can perform other tasks, most notably related to health, these interactions are still comparatively short and require little input.

Since wearing an Apple Watch the amount of time I spend looking at my phone has certainly reduced because most of the primary reasons that compelled me to pick it up are now catered for in a single glance at the watch when I come to look at the time. It’s this micro-moment that developers will need to take advantage of in order for the watch to deliver on it’s potential.


Post script (14th Jan 2016)

This article from emarketer on user preferences between mobile apps and mobile browsing identifies absence of push alerts as a reason why users don’t like mobile browsers and the presence of push alerts as a reason why users do like mobile apps. In other words, such alerts / notifications are a feature which users generally like and, as mentioned above, is a central feature of the Apple Watch’s usability.

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