App Development
IT & Services

watchOS 2 Complications: saving or complicating the future of Apple Watch?

Mutual Mobile
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October 13, 2015


At their September 9 Special Event, Apple announced the availability of watchOS 2, the newest operating system designed specifically for Apple Watch. This move allows third-party developers to more effectively create native apps for Apple Watch, namely by developing app-specific complications.

watchOS 2 is designed to create a more robust and engaging experience for users of the Apple Watch, hopefully increasing Apple Watch adoption. New purchases of the Apple Watch are important to the company’s bottom line, especially as its stock price has been under scrutiny.

Apple Watch has a major issue, however: most users don’t use apps. Instead, they passively interact with notifications and what’s visible on their watch face.

The proposed solution? New complications through watchOS 2.

What are complications, anyway?

Apple describes complications as “small elements that appear on the watch face and provide quick access to frequently used data.” For example, time, temperature, and calendar features consistently shown on a watchface are considered complications. Their main purpose is to offer relevant information with a simple glance at the watch.

Complications are important because they’re the most frequently viewed data on a smartwatch, and can serve as a gateway for deeper engagement with a smartwatch app. In other words, if you see compelling content from an app’s complication, you can then tap into that complication to further engage with the native app. This idea is critical for brands looking for higher returns from their smartwatch apps, and is one of the main benefits presented to brands and developers with watchOS 2.

Despite the promise, opening up complications to developers hasn’t yet made an immediate impact on overall Apple Watch adoption, namely because it doesn’t alter how users interact with the hardware itself.

Will complications help Apple Watch turn the corner?

There’s no doubt that watchOS 2 is a big turning point for the Apple Watch, but there’s still a way to go before brands make a mad dash to create native smartwatch apps.

Much of this has to do with the very thing that watchOS 2 is trying to solve – making complications more accessible to more apps.

Here’s why complications haven’t yet become all the rage:

  • By design, most apps don’t have complications: In today’s world, the majority of Apple Watch apps don’t have built-in complications. This is because apps designed with watchOS 1.0 required notifications to provide real-time information – there was simply no other way to present immediate updates, making complications for these apps impossible. And since complications haven’t gone mainstream, brands and developers struggle to find innovative uses and solutions.
  • Complications must fit within Apple’s limited watchface template: Further complicating the issue is the limited real estate available on an Apple Watch. As Apple notes in its Development Library, “The size and placement of complications is determined by watchOS and is based on available space on the selected watch face.” In other words, there’s not a lot of room for complications to function on such a small screen.
  • Most complications don’t provide enough utility to be featured: An app must provide a complication so useful that a user will remove one of their default complications, such as their calendar or the weather, to always appear on their watchface. This need for absolute utility makes it difficult for complications to be a true point of engagement for most existing Apple Watch applications.
  • Developers just aren’t excited about watchOS 2 (yet): Because of the reasons listed above, developers aren’t yet chomping at the bit to develop new complications or apps for for Apple Watch. Even more, developers’ time is at a premium thanks to competing projects, including new features like 3D Touch on iOS and the possibilities of tvOS.

What should I do with complications when building an app for Apple Watch?

In all objectivity, a well-designed complication can and will lead to further adoption of your app. In fact, the best complications may never push your user further into an app, since it provides quality information with a quick glance.

With opportunity on the horizon, here are a few things to consider around complications when looking to create a new Apple Watch app:

  • Don’t create a complication just to check a “features box:” Keep in mind that your smartwatch app doesn’t need a complication for it to be useful and relevant. Before you start scoping out a potential watch complication, determine if the complication will actually offer value and be used by your target audience.
  • Consider your app’s notification strategy: You don’t need to add a complication to your app if you’re providing relevant push notifications. Depending on your content, creating a series of useful notifications can effectively create more app engagement than leveraging a constant presence via a complication.
  • Ensure your complication fits within existing template parameters: Apple provides definitive sizes and characteristics for complications, known as “complication families,” with the recommendation of ensuring your app supports all available families. To create a complication with your app, the content provided must not only fit within the template, but convey all the relevant data within that restricted space.
  • Have an objective conversation around your app’s utility: If you expect users to replace their most useful complications for your app, it needs to provide unequivocal value. And while it’s easy to think that your app’s content is the best thing since sliced bread, have an honest discussion around whether it truly merits a complication or not.
  • Consult with your development team or mobile agency: With all of the talk and speculation around watchOS 2 and how it can impact your brand experience and bottom line, share your distinct plans and questions with a team of experts to provide a professional point of view. Doing so can save time and investment dollars in the app development process.

WatchOS 2 and the Future of Apple Watch

Apple Watch is in an interesting spot right now, even with the release of watchOS 2. Most Apple Watch users continue to ignore the majority of apps installed on their smartwatch and there’s a current lack of enthusiasm in the development community to create something truly revolutionary.

This isn’t to say brands shouldn’t invest in building apps for Apple Watch – the case is quite the opposite. Instead of focusing on the promise behind third-party complications, brands should focus on creating an app that provides utility and fits the overall purpose of the Apple Watch: a great notification tool that provides timely updates with a quick glance of the wrist.

Although watchOS 2 is a big step in the right direction, the market is still waiting for a suite of killer complications and apps to help Apple Watch reach its maximum potential.