Project Management Institute

Watch out

Apple's latest device presents cutting-edge opportunities for project teams


Its screen may be small, but the Apple Watch has big project potential—if the wearable computer follows the breakout-hit path of other devices sold by the world’s largest technology company. Accordingly, app developers are sizing up the new technology to determine whether, and when, it makes sense for project teams to try to build a winning product for Apple’s smallest screen yet.

Sponsors who green-lighted app projects before the smartwatch’s April 2015 release date discovered that project managers and designers had to make early decisions without user data and an established development framework. “When we were designing and building, we had no idea what it would be like to interact with Apple Watch. We had simulators and guidance from Apple, but a lot of it was gut feel,” says Sriram Chakravarthy, CTO, Avaamo, Los Altos, California, USA. Avaamo’s app, which offers a mobile-messaging service for businesses, debuted alongside the Apple Watch itself. “We had to take an approach that was driven more by use cases than actual user experience,” Mr. Chakravarthy says. That meant imagining how customers might benefit from a quick look at an Avaamo app, such as while driving or jogging, and then devising notifications tailored to those interactions.

The testing phase revealed design problems that likely would have been avoided had the product already been released. But because the watch’s small interface requires a simple design, “it’s really quick to iterate. You can make changes and see them immediately,” says Ryan Alexiev, creative director, Avaamo, Los Altos, California, USA.

Other organizations have taken a more cautious approach to Apple Watch projects. Affinity-Live CEO Geoff McQueen, whose company makes professional services automation software, including customer relationship management software, used the device for a month after it went on sale before green-lighting a project. “We wanted to add meaningful value, not just jump on the bandwagon,” says Mr. McQueen, based in San Francisco, California, USA. Once he understood how his organization could take advantage of two of the watch’s sweet spots—notifications and time-based functionality—a team got to work on an app allowing workers to track the hours spent on various projects.

For a watch app to be a hit, teams must understand how users interact with the product. “You’ve got to figure out how not to be spammy by learning what things are useful and when. That’s where to focus,” says Drew Davidson, vice president of design at digital experience design agency ÄKTA, Chicago, Illinois, USA.

Because the watch’s small interface requires a simple design, “it’s really quick to iterate. You can make changes and see them immediately.”

—Ryan Alexiev, Avaamo, Los Altos, California, USA

Other app project challenges have stemmed from the device’s changing capabilities and restrictions. When the watch hit the market, third-party apps were required to function as extensions of iPhone apps rather than operating independently on the watch. Apple also restricted how notifications and interactions occurred. But as with the iPhone and iPad, the company is easing restrictions over time. In June, Apple released an updated developer kit allowing project leaders to design apps that run natively on the watch.

These changes give sponsors confidence that watch projects can pay off. For Francisco Inchauste, UX principal, Universal Mind, Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA, the decision to develop a watch version of the company’s popular iPhone alarm-clock app was made in part to show the app’s Apple-loyalist users, “We’re cutting-edge, we’re invested in the platform and offering continued value with the app’s purchase.”

By launching projects for the watch, project managers aren’t just betting on Apple’s pedigree. They’re also investing in the wearables industry, which for years has been pegged for breakout growth and may finally be ready to take off. In time, the utility of wearable devices could extend beyond notifications and health-related apps to, for example, control devices that dim lights or set a home alarm remotely. Mr. Inchauste believes it makes sense for project teams to undertake Apple Watch apps now so they’ll be better positioned to create second-generation apps as the device and wearable space evolves.

Low costs are also driving app creation. “Relative to an overall mobile strategy budget, building a companion app for the Apple Watch is just not very expensive,” says Stephanie Trunzo, COO, PointSource, Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, USA. She commissioned a single developer to create a test app for the watch, and the project was complete in a month; a typical smartphone app project at PointSource occupies multiple developers for at least three months. That low cost, combined with the relative dearth of watch app competition in Apple’s App Store, “means the ROI is pretty high right now,” Ms. Trunzo says. —Steve Hendershot


“When we were designing and building, we had no idea what it would be like to interact with Apple Watch.”

—Sriram Chakravarthy, Avaamo, Los Altos, California, USA

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