Here’s no news: a watch – any watch – must be designed and styled in an attractive and comfortable way to make me want to wear it. If a watch looks like a five-year-old wrote it, or if its convenience amounts to wrapping barbed wire around my wrist, no amount of functionality will convince me to wear it.
It seems odd that we’re still talking about it, even though it’s been more than eight years since the “modern” smartwatch revolution, and there are still only a few models I’d like to wear on a regular basis. Why does it take so long for tech companies to figure out how to consistently create desirable smartwatches?
Where did things go wrong?
If smartwatch design wasn’t so tragic in most cases, it would be a lot of fun. In our 2014 review of the LG G Watch, which represented a festering wearable device, our then-Mobile editor wrote:
“The vast majority of smartwatches are horribly ugly, boxy devices with boring rubber straps. That may sound superficial, but when it comes to wearable devices, looks matter. And it matters a lot.”
With slight modifications, those phrases may still ring true today, and it’s just not good enough. LG wasn’t the only one making eyes bleed. The original Pebble was toy-like and uncomfortable to wear, Samsung‘s Galaxy Gear and Gear 2 lacked style, and the Sony Smartwatch 2 had more angles than the rogue.
Amazingly, seven years after the LG G Watch appeared, companies like Mobvoi, Fitbit, and dozens of cheap no-name brands on Amazon are still producing boxy, ugly, boring devices and expecting us to attach them to our bodies without too many questions. Smartwatch design has become lazy at a time when it should be thriving.
It’s all the same.
The design meetings for many smartwatches today go something like this:
- Choose a round or square case.
- Choose a leather strap for “stylish” or a silicone strap for “sporty.”
- Add titanium/sapphire crystal/other material for the “luxury” version.
- Job done – early lunch!
What happens when the design team leaves for an afternoon nap, we end up with a smartwatch that looks very similar. Meet the OnePlus Watch, Amazfit GTR 2, Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2, Huawei Watch GT2 Pro, Honor MagicWatch 2, Garmin VivoActive 4S and Polar Ignite in a dark alley and you can hardly tell them apart. It’s even worse if you’re a woman or someone with a small wrist. The “choice” is almost non-existent, and unless you want something shiny or pink, it narrows it down even more.
Most of the models mentioned above are good, maybe even great smartwatches, but if the design of the watch is virtually inconsiderate, where is my motivation to wear it every day? You can see the watch, and whether you like it or not, it says something about you and your taste. Just like I don’t want to wear the exact same clothes as everyone else, or drive the exact same car, I don’t want to wear the exact same watch.
The frustrating thing is that none of this is new information, and the smartwatch world is no longer justified by the fact that it is just starting out or constrained by technological limitations. All they do is perform familiar actions and hope no one notices it.
Without emotion, it won’t work.
Clocks that look the same are boring. There are more than enough tech companies and watch brands making smartwatches today, so there should be more variety, imagination and love in the design. It’s not so much about the shape of the case as it is about the subtleties that make the watch visually appealing or eye-catching.
It could be the design or the placement of the buttons. It could be the attachment of the strap to the lugs or how the lugs fit into the case. It could even be the appearance of the strap or its clasp, the dials available, the type of beveling or polishing of the case, and more. There is a whole industry making watches that are not “smart,” and there is no shortage of incredible design there.
Simply put, watches must have personality and character to attract and mesmerize. Those who design them must think carefully about their design and, preferably, put some emotion into them. Thus, there is a good chance that you will feel something in this watch. Just because it’s a technological thing and it has a screen instead of a dial doesn’t mean it should be treated like a cheap fridge.
Do all watches work correctly?
There are smartwatches that prove it is possible. The latest and perhaps best example is the Casio G-Shock GSW-H1000. It’s a Wear OS-based smartwatch with a touchscreen, but it looks, feels and wears almost exactly like any other G-Shock watch. This is a smartwatch created by a company that, for fans of the brand, is great at watchmaking. No angles have been cut, and no concessions have been made to appeal to a wider audience. More importantly, this is a G-Shock watch before a smartwatch.
TAG Heuer, Hublot, Montblanc and Movado create smartwatches using the brand’s watch heritage – from the screws used in the case to the shape and design of the crown – so that the result feels like an integral part of the line. Alpina and Frederique Constant don’t use touchscreens, but incorporate connected technology into watches that don’t differ much from traditional and well-recognized models. Many Fossil designer brands are also not left out: Skagen and Diesel, in particular, are constantly releasing watches with unique designs.
These aren’t just seasoned watch brands. The Withings ScanWatch is a beautifully designed watch with lots of high-tech features. Garmin’s varied Marq models are an effective blend of established watch design and technology with a judicious use of luxury materials. Finally, there’s the Apple Watch, which wears better than almost any other smartwatch you can buy today, and its look can be instantly changed by fitting one of the hundreds of straps available for it and applying one of the tastefully selected dials fitted as standard.
Not an easy task, but well worth it
Not every smartwatch has to be unique, not every design has to be a work of art, and not everyone cares if the thing on their wrist evokes an emotional connection. Technology should come first in a smartwatch, and of course it’s imperative that the device reaches a wide audience. Getting the right combination is a challenge. Just ask Citizen, which has failed to make its generally decent CZ Smart smartwatch “Citizen-like” enough.
But that challenge doesn’t mean giving up effort and settling for a boring, established design. Smartwatches should attract attention with their appeal, always feel comfortable and be influenced by what works in a traditional watch. They shouldn’t be so faceless that they can’t be distinguished from others.
As the decade since the Pebble Smartwatch approaches, smartwatch makers need to think more about design and less about how to install yet another sensor to track your health and call it a reason to buy. An interesting new software platform for wearable devices looms on the horizon, so let’s not waste it by installing another dull, faceless piece of hardware.
In the not-too-distant future, I’d like to be able to pick and recommend at least one new smartwatch for daily wear because it satisfies my desire for good design and serious technology – the kind you want to look at, not just look at because a notice came. Is that too much to ask?