The Apple Watch and the human behavioral role of discreetness

Monday’s Apple Live event incited a slew of mixed impressions about the Apple Watch, which will be bringing us even closer to The Era of Robot come this April. While the tech world debates the device’s cost, capabilities and digital interactions, I find myself more curious about the human interactions in the context of using this technology in real life. I’m particularly wondering about the role of discreetness.

The metaphor of people with “phones glued to their hands” is distinctly different from the wearable nature of a smart watch. Have you ever noticed how people tend to demonstrate secretive body language when using their smart phones — especially for personal matters? Interactions generally take place with heads down, phones held close to the body, and screens tilted towards the user. “Hidden” placements of phones is so common it’s a cliche, like “texting under the dinner table.” Unlike a smart watch, a smart phone is frequently placed on a lap, grasped in a fist, turned screen-down, tucked in a pocket, stored away in a purse, or left out of sight completely.

Whether it’s calling an Uber car, checking into your hotel or answering a text, the watch will allow you to interact with the digital world at a glance, in a less outwardly antisocial way than you now do with your phone.

The New York Times

How might the attached, exposed nature of a smart watch — which for the Apple Watch is centralized around personal content and functionality — make users feel about the constant, open presence inherent in what’s essentially our personal cell phones adapted as extensions of our physical selves? Will this elevate self-awareness of what’s broadcasted on one’s wrist? Will this hurt real-life social interactions? Will this open innovative opportunities?

Push notifications at your wrist…

From a healthcare and pharma perspective, I immediately see value in having push notifications delivered to a device attached to the body. Information delivery systems generally don’t fail due to failed transmission of the message, but rather to the recipient’s idle placement of their phone or active choice to ignore it. With a smart watch, I see increased potential in habit-changing and adherence based apps more effectively reaching its users.

At the same time, I wonder how the exposed nature of a smart watch might affect the content design. Habit-changing and adherence goals are often private matters, particularly within medicine. An MS patient might not want an injection reminder overtly popping up on their wrist in front of others — especially when the medication and its app are aimed to help minimize the prevalence of the disease in one’s daily life. Will self-consciousness be worth taking into content strategy consideration? Are there contexts in which being discreet will be a necessary design principle?

Personal communication and cognition….

“Ungluing” our phones from our hands can be a conscious or subconscious decision. It happens all the time because we’re constantly switching our focus to prioritize something more important at hand. (Literally). In social situations, we’re prioritizing people in front of us. How will the constant “glued” state and exposed nature of receiving personal communication affect our social behavior? While any given text message, call or chat bubble does not require an immediate response, it will require an instant reaction. I wonder what cognitively will happen in these moments when the attention is divided between in-person and through-the-wrist social interactions.


After reading through the Apple Watch site’s section highlighting personal connections & communication, I found the next “Live a better day” point ironic: is the ongoing connection and constant interruption of data at one’s wrist really something that will help us live better?

More specifically, I wonder how the role of discreetness will impact these moments in social contexts. What will John do when Tinder notifications and texts from Molly and Sue keep outwardly lighting up on his wrist as he holds the menu atop the candlelit table of his dinner date? Will professors ban smart watches from classrooms? What will Jane tell dad when he catches a glance of the sexts that just popped up? How many of the 34 emails Susie received during a work meeting yielded glances down at her wrist? Did people notice? Did they capture her facial expressions briefly revealed at each glance?

Sure, there are gestures to ignore incoming content. But the interruption still intrudes upon the social situation because a reaction is still evoked. A split-second glance will be followed by cognitive information processing. Will the human microinteractions generated by these moments hurt real-world social interactions?

The wearable extension of ourselves…

As a UX designer in healthcare innovation, the ResearchKit is what I see as the most exciting and promising aspect of the Apple Watch. I personally believe that smart watches have very specific and limited functionality that legitimately adds value beyond the health & fitness apps we use on phones and larger devices. It’s why I’m less enthralled with HealthKit for the Apple Watch (as much as I’m probably not supposed to admit that). ResearchKit truly harnesses the wearable power of collecting data that can be significantly informative and progressive in the medical field.

I also envision possibly groundbreaking solutions to emergency situations. A means to immediate help is that much more accessible when attached to ourselves, and that much more informative when powered by great web software. Furthermore, the unique role of discreetness can be capitalized on in a very beneficial way. Imagine defense-based mechanism apps that secretly could be triggered to activate and assist in emergency situations like amber alerts, kidnappings, and sexual assault — situations in which overtly trying to communicate for help could be harmful, insufficient in data, or might not be accessible at all.

Final thoughts…

Releasing software is like releasing experiments on human beings. As the technology sphere critiques the Apple Watch’s cost, features, UI and physical design, I hope the conversation of human behavior is further engaged with as well. When it comes to wearables, we need to expand the schemas we use for evaluating general software and interfaces: we need to put greater emphasis on investigating how human behavioral qualities, like discreetness, might play more substantial roles.

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