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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Is the Apple Watch intuitive?

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

My hairy arm.

When the Apple Watch first arrived, there was a word that I noticed kept popping up: Intuitive. Was the interface intuitive?1 Could you just start using it and figure out how it worked? This was an entirely new kind of Apple product. Had the company brought its trademark design skills to bear and figured out how this new class of device should function?

When you’re first learning how to use the Apple Watch, you make guesses based on your prior experience. With iPhones, with real watches, maybe even with other computers and home-electronic devices. If your guesses are wrong, if you have trouble figuring out how to get around, that doesn’t feel intuitive.

I used my Apple Watch for days while grousing about not being able to quickly switch between the watch face and my most recently used app, before someone pointed out that you can double-tap on the Digital Crown to do just that.

That feature was there, but I hadn’t intuited it. Fair enough.

Putting new users at ease is definitely one measure of intuitive design. If someone needs to read a manual and do a lot of training in order to use a product, that’s not intuitive. And the Apple Watch, by not replicating the iPhone interface, does have more of a learning curve.2

But I’d argue that there’s a second layer to determining whether a product is truly intuitive, and that’s internal consistency. Using a product is like learning a language—over time, you begin to understand the vocabulary. With the Apple Watch that vocabulary takes the form of the buttons, the Digital Crown, how the screen wakes up and goes to sleep, how swipes and taps work, all that sort of thing.

After a few weeks with the Apple Watch, I feel like I’ve learned its language. And I’ve had a few moments that suggest to me that the Apple Watch offers an internal consistency that leads me to delightfully intuitive responses.

In my second week with the Apple Watch, I was using the Now Playing glance and wanted to make my audio volume louder. Without thinking, I turned the Digital Crown, and it worked.

A few weeks later, I was scrolling through my notifications and I realized that a whole bunch of them had piled up. You can clear notifications by swiping them to the left and then tapping the X/Clear button. But who wants to do that on every single notification in a stack that might be 5 or 10 items high?

I thought to myself, There’s got to be a better way. And (intuitively) I Force Pressed on the notification list, just to see what would happen. Sure enough, up popped a Clear All button.

Are these interface touches obvious? No, they’re not. And I’d wager a lot of people haven’t even realized that they exist. But I was able to figure them out, on my very first attempt, because I’d come to understand the vocabulary of the Apple Watch, with its Force Presses and the spinnable, clickable Digital Crown.

So is the Apple Watch intuitive? For new users, I’d say partially—it’s got some family resemblance to the iPhone, but it’s a new class of device and there’s a little bit of a learning curve. But after a few weeks with the device, you come to understand it. And once you come to understand it, you discover it’s full of little touches that are, dare I say it, remarkably intuitive.

  1. Here’s some interesting reading on intuitive interfaces from Jef Raskin, via Dr. Drang. 
  2. In TidBITS, Adam Engst wrote, “If anyone claims the Apple Watch interface is intuitive, slap them. It’s utterly unfamiliar, and it will take… weeks before it becomes second nature.” Adam and I are probably not going to get in a slap fight, because he’s right about this first definition of intuitive. The Apple Watch is not an iPhone, and it takes some getting used to. 

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