Is it Time for a Smartwatch App?

Ben Rogers, Senior Strategist

"Underwhelming" is how many are describing their initial impression of the Apple Watch — and the Internet has been quick to document its many current limitations. After spending ten solid days with the watch, we can't necessarily disagree with those sentiments.

It's raw. Many of the features are more novelty than utility and consumer adoption won't get to the point of motivating significant brand or financial impact for a while.

However, while it's easy to see shortcomings, opportunity is sitting just below the surface. And, the speed at which wearable technology is advancing indicates the ceiling of this device — and the smartwatch category as a whole — is quite high.

Apple Watch

But, is that potential enough for you to make an investment right now? What questions do you need answered before taking the next step towards development of a smartwatch app for your brand?

We have created a 6-question framework to help facilitate that discussion and better equip you with the answers you need to arrive at your own decision.

  1. Do you have a smartphone app?
    Current smartwatch technology mandates that the device be paired to a smartphone to use its full functionality. And, with a handful of exceptions, smartwatch apps are generally viewed as a logical extension of an existing app.

    Put more simply, while not technically a requirement, smartwatch users are going to expect you to have a smartphone app.

    If you don't have a smartphone app you should spend some time revisiting the reasons behind why not. Perhaps you opted for wider access via a responsive website. Maybe your users didn't have a meaningful need for an app from your brand at the time. Or, it could just be that you haven't had time to roll it out yet.

    If your brand does have an app, reflect on its current state. Is the app wildly successful or was it a pet project to get on the app store and is now rarely used? Talk to your customers about the features they find most helpful and what could be done to improve the app. These insights should directly inform which features and functionality might make sense to streamline into a smartwatch app.

    Ask yourself if these factors still ring true. If so, it's likely many of these same factors should inform your decision-making around a potential smartwatch app. If things have changed, this could be an opportunity to spin up apps for both the phone and watch.
  2. Do you know your audience?
    Knowing your audience may be less about demographics and more about behavior. Because, when the conversation turns to smartwatch apps, discussion of early adopters isn't far behind.

    A completely different approach is needed for the audience who adopts trends quickly than those who generally wait. Did your users react well to your first smartphone app? Does a lot of your website traffic come from mobile? It also could be the case that the functionality and efficiency your app brings to the watch is so beneficial that your brand actually aids in the adoption process of its users.

    If you find your core users falling into this group, you may have more leeway to push a smartwatch app than a brand whose users tend to wait and see when it comes to new technology.
  3. Where is the competition?
    Being first isn't everything, but it is something. For example, acting first can be a great way to increase brand awareness or reinforce a perception of category leadership.

    Are the Starbucks or Target smartwatch apps revolutionary? No, the technology and timeline is too new, and the apps are largely recycling and refining features of their existing apps. But, these early players are in the marketplace and providing a service, which could significantly impact preference downstream for users who have had positive experiences with their apps, be it because of familiarity, ease of use, or simple availability.

    Complete an audit of your competitors, both direct and aspiring. The landscape of this activity will act as a barometer to measure where your brand is and where you could be.

    If your category is on the bleeding edge, readily adopting new technology as a conduit for innovation and customer focus, you may need to catch up or at least put a plan together to keep pace. If your competitors are taking the 'wait and see' approach, this may be a perfect opportunity to blaze the trail.
  4. Will your app fill a void?
    Critical to the success of any initiative, there needs to be a fit for the product or service your brand is providing.

    That's why, when strategizing the purpose of the app, it's important to start by looking for voids. Voids can appear in multiple places and could be instrumental in making the decision to pursue watch app development.
    • The Industry Void - are brands established in this channel, simply existing is a step in the direction and could be a small win in gaining awareness
    • The Technology Void - do current apps take advantage of the watch's technology, exploiting this technology could create recognition and credibility
    • The Feature Void - is there a feature of your smartphone app that would translate and/or evolve really well to the watch
    • The Goal Void - identify the main goals your customer has, is there an opportunity for an app to help the completion of this goal
    One potential way to fill multiple voids — and thereby create real value for your customers — is to think of your potential smartwatch as a companion app. The idea of companion apps is not new; they're simply apps that complement or accentuate an experience on another device.

    And, with more consumers than ever using multiple devices at once, this approach favors the smartwatch in a way that could create real staying power.
  5. Do you have the technology?
    An unavoidable, but often overlooked, potential snag in the development of any app is the implication functionality on internal infrastructure. Features or solutions for your app that seems simple could potentially uproot entire processes and workflows within the organization if not properly planned for.

    This could mean an unexpectedly increasing the scope, demonstrably extended timelines or, worst of all, an inability to bring value to your customers through the app.

    Before venturing out of the planning phase for your app, elicit buy-in from all business and technology stakeholders. Take the time to learn what technology you already have, how it could bring your vision to bear, and where you'll need to plan on making investments.

    Having key information in these areas will help shape the path of the app and will ultimately lead to a more timely, cost-effective, user-focused deliverable.

    It may sound like common sense, but making it a priority to communicate early and often with every aspect of the company will streamline the development process and help you bring your customers the app they want from your brand.
  6. Are you comfortable with risk?
    When Steve Jobs and Apple went all-in on the iPad in 2010 everyone was a skeptic. No one thought a device half as small as a computer and double the size of your phone had a place. 5 years later tablets own a significant share of the marketplace and are ubiquitous in most settings.

    A similar debate is occurring around the smartwatch, and, perhaps not coincidentally, Apple is spurring it, despite being a (relative) latecomer to the market.

    In scenarios like this, brands invariably have to take inventory and do a risk/reward analysis.

    Is your brand adverse to risk-taking, comfortable with it, or somewhere in between? Are you equipped to support the demand that could come from the app gaining traction and taking off? How would the organization handle a potentially substantial investment that could have a limited shelf life?

    There is always risk involved with developing for a new technology so weigh the potential outcomes and be prepared for both booms and busts if you decide to move forward.

The smartwatch has come a long way since its inception just over three years ago. While the Apple Watch is Apple's first take on the device, Android Wear is close to releasing iteration two, and Pebble is on the verge of its third highly successful release. The technology has not yet hit a sweet spot, but we are witnessing evolution, which bodes well for investors.

In the last ten years, Apple hasn't been known for investing in new ideas haphazardly, sometimes to the point where industry and customers question why they're waiting — see conversation around the next generation of the Apple TV.

So, when news broke that they were working on the creation of a smartwatch, it wasn't just a device announcement, it was an endorsement on the future of the form factor from the lone industry-leading holdout. And, as a result, most of the uncertainty surrounding the future of these devices has begun to quickly dissipate.

In short, the arrow is most definitely pointing up.

For brands considering making the early push, the final decision won't be easy — and there isn't a magic bullet for making a go/no go call. It will take time and involve careful consideration of a plethora of factors. But, if you equip yourself and take the time to ask the right questions — some of which we've touched on here — we're confident you'll find the right solution for your brand.




Ben Rogers

Ben Rogers Senior Strategist