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Jun. 17, 2024

Watch Branding: Private label watches

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6 Types of Useful Smartwatch Interactions


Smartwatches are for more than just receiving notifications and tracking steps. They afford at least 6 different types of interactions that users find useful.

The number of users who wear smartwatches is on the rise. As of , Pew Research Center estimated that 1 in 5 Americans had a smartwatch or fitness tracker of some kind.

Users prefer brief and simple interactions on smartwatches, largely because of the tiny screens. Users do not expect to access complex information on the watch, so designers must be extremely judicious about what they try to fit into a smartwatch application (if it&#;s worth building one at all).

Smartwatch Interaction Types

In a 5-day diary study, we asked participants to send us examples of things they do with their watches (Apple Watch, Samsung Galaxy Watch, and Pixel Watch). We collected over 200 examples of individual interactions from 11 different participants. Across all the interactions submitted, we encountered 6 main types:

  1. Receiving: Asking for the user's attention to present information
  2. Referencing: Checking information that is constantly available
  3. Recording: Capturing data as it is generated in the world
  4. Controlling: Manipulating an ongoing process or separate technology
  5. Communicating: Connecting with other people via calls or messages
  6. Guiding: Providing in-the-moment direction during an activity

Below, we explain each interaction type with examples and recommendations.

Receiving Interactions

Receiving interactions occur when the watch asks for users&#; attention &#; most often in the form of notifications. Receiving interactions are by far the most common interaction type &#; a finding that aligns with third-party research. The receiving-interaction category includes some of the most positive and negative interactions reported.

People prefer receiving information on a smartwatch more than on a smartphone for two reasons:

  • Unobtrusive. A notification on the smartwatch generally comes silently (many people keep their watch in silent mode to avoid bothering other people). It is also more socially acceptable to quickly check something that appears on the watch than to pull out a .
  • Hard to miss. A smartwatch is attached to the body and generally vibrates when a notification is received. People in our study frequently commented that they would have missed all kinds of information if they had relied solely on their phones.

Types of Receiving Interactions


Updates are notifications that keep users in the loop about events happening outside of their control. Although users may have initiated or authorized the updates at one time, updates are not triggered by current user actions. In our study, examples of updates included notifications about the number of views of a product on eBay, likes on an Instagram post, and matches with another person on Tinder.


Reminders are notifications that are scheduled by users. Many users rely heavily on reminders for events like a due date for a school assignment, a medication that needs to be taken, or an alarm to wake them up from a nap. They don&#;t always trust that they will notice the reminder on the , but they are confident they&#;ll notice it on the watch.


Feedback is information about a user&#;s recent behaviors (e.g., activity levels or screen time). Feedback is often sent at predetermined intervals &#; like the beginning of a day or week. Feedback often reveals the user&#;s progress toward a goal, such as the number of steps taken in a day. While sometimes it can be demotivating instead of motivating, feedback is generally considered valuable because it is highly personalized and relevant.


Suggestions propose an action in response to triggers such as time of day, recent physical activity, or current geographical location. For example, the watch may suggest recording a physical activity such as a walk.

Suggestions are extremely powerful when the timing and context are right because they will seem personalized, responsive, and aware of the user&#;s current needs and activities. However, they are practically useless if their timing is off. Thus, when the suggestion to record a workout appeared during the workout, its perception was positive, but when it appeared after the workout or during a different activity, it was useless.

Suggestions often prompted recording or guiding interactions (see below).


Promotions are almost always negative. Users do not want promotional content on their watches &#; particularly when it is generic, seems random, and has no personal relevance. Examples from the study included special offers by Uber Eats and flash deals from Costco.

Attributes of Successful Receiving Interactions

Receiving interactions are most helpful when they are:

Informative. When notifications do not have enough useful information, they are annoying because the user must go to the to find out everything they want to know.

Glanceable. The most relevant information needs to be easy to read and digest in 2&#;3 seconds.

Personalized. When notifications are generic or promotional, they are seen as intrusive and annoying on the watch. However, those that contain personally relevant information are seen as helpful.

Timely. When notifications arrive at the optimal moment, they can be incredibly valuable. When they come at the wrong moment, they are generally annoying and useless.

Information received on the watch has enormous potential to be helpful and valuable but must be chosen carefully. Users seem to think about the smartwatch as a filter: they are less likely to tolerate irrelevant information coming to the watch than to any other device. It&#;s like the difference between a salesperson trying to stop you on a busy street (a promotional ) and a salesperson approaching you while you are at a restaurant (a promotional notification on the smartwatch). Both are annoying, but the second feels much more intrusive.

Because the smartwatch is a personal companion, people assume that notifications received on the watch will be relevant; they are very annoyed when they are not. One participant commented, I got this notification while I was working and it literally distracted my thought [...] and I felt, &#;okay, if I've received a message, it might be important.&#; And then I realized it was not a message that was helpful at that moment of time.

Receiving interactions can also become annoying when they come regularly (such as the reminder to stand when the watch senses you&#;ve been sitting too long). Some participants commented that they knew they could disable certain regular notifications, but they simply hadn&#;t done so. The interaction cost of disabling notifications was too high, so the frequent notifications continued bothering the user and hurting their perception of the sender. Making it easy for users to stop notifications that they don&#;t want.

In many cases, receiving interactions precede another type of interaction, such as controlling or recording interactions. For example, receiving a text message might trigger a response, or seeing what&#;s on the security camera might prompt you to unlock a door.

Referencing Interactions

Referencing interactions occur when users check the information available for reference on the smartwatch. Practically, everything that can be referenced on the smartwatch is also available on the smartphone, but the watch serves as a convenient and accessible medium for quickly checking information. In some cases, referencing interactions are prompted by receiving interactions.

Attributes of Successful Referencing Interactions

Referencing interactions are most helpful when they are:

Simple. Since people often just glance at their watches to see the status of something, they do not expect to think deeply. Prioritizing information critical for decision making and highlighting it prominently is more helpful than providing lots of nuanced details &#; save the details for the .

Visual. Information can often be processed more quickly and efficiently when it is represented visually rather than as numbers or words. Visuals help people quickly gauge the current status of something in relation to a goal, for example.

Accessible. Smartwatches are not well-suited for deep information architectures. Users do not want to go looking for information they&#;d like to reference, so they appreciate it when it lives close to the surface within flat information hierarchies. It&#;s even better when it is available as a widget that can be added to the home screen.

Personal. Although the smartwatch can track many kinds of data, users are interested in only what&#;s personally meaningful to them. For example, allowing users to create custom goals and check their progress toward them is one of the most meaningful referencing interactions.

Recording Interactions

Recording interactions occur when users choose to track specific events or actions, such as exercising, drinking water, or meditating.

Most of what gets recorded with a smartwatch in this way would have occurred whether the user owned a smartwatch or not. However, it&#;s likely that watch-wearing users choose to perform certain trackable behaviors more frequently because they can track them and because the watch prompts them. Many behaviors tracked with smartwatches are well-being behaviors that are beneficial for one&#;s physical or mental health.

Recording interactions describe only the nonautomatic tracking of data (e.g., tracking each individual workout). Users must explicitly perform the recording. Recording interactions do not include constantly tracked data such as heart rate, although users did need to grant the watch permission to track this data initially. Constantly tracked data is simply referenced as needed (see referencing interactions).

Data recorded on smartwatches can be rich or simple, depending on the activity being tracked. For example, the data associated with tracking a workout is a lot richer than that corresponding to tracking water intake.

Recording rich data is helpful for making in-the-moment decisions during the activity, such as adjusting one&#;s running pace. It can also provide a detailed review of the activity once finished &#;for example, recording a night&#;s sleep can be used to understand sleep quality in the morning.

Recording simple data is most helpful for understanding behaviors over time. For example, a smartwatch is a convenient way to record calories consumed at each meal. Each recording interaction involves inputting a number that says little about overall health, but the aggregated data over time can be very informative.

Attributes of Successful Recording Interactions 

Recording interactions are most helpful when they are:

Contextually prompted. Users are delighted when the watch recognizes that they are performing a particular behavior. Even when it is difficult for the watch to confidently determine what the user is doing, it can still prompt users to record a behavior if it seems they might have forgotten to do so (see the suggestion type of receiving interaction above).

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Accurate (or at least perceived as such). Users are often skeptical about how accurately the watch tracks their activities. While the watch may provide data that is not accessible in any other way, most users take it with a grain of salt. One of the biggest downfalls of recording interactions is when the data captured feels too inaccurate, and the user loses trust in it &#; sometimes because the user has the wrong mental model of how the recording works.

For example, while trying to record her blood-oxygen levels, one user commented, I've had scores saying that I'm at like 82%, which is basically dead, so not super accurate. I don't really like this [functionality]. [&#;] I feel like it's more annoying than anything else because it isn't accurate.

Informative. Users often record data so they can use it to make real-time decisions. They should be able to easily reference the real-time rich data being recorded during an activity.

Easy to initiate (and subsequently access). Sometimes users need to initiate a recording interaction at a moment&#;s notice. They cannot wait for the watch to detect what is happening, nor can they waste time searching for the button to initiate the recording. Allowing users to add widgets to their watch face or use intelligent assistants to initiate a recording interaction makes these interactions as useful as possible.

Regarding the ease of tracking water intake, one user commented, All I have to do is swipe screen to the left and it comes right up. It's very easy to use. [...] I like that I can keep track of that very easily with two simple [gestures:] one swipe and a tap.

Additionally, users cannot be bothered to navigate the watch interface to find the real-time data that is being recorded during an activity. This information must live close to the surface while the activity is ongoing.

Controlling Interactions

Controlling interactions are used to start, stop, alter, or otherwise take control of an ongoing process or of another technology &#; for example, skipping a song, locking a door, disabling a camera, or setting an alarm. Controlling interactions included some of the most positive smartwatch functions captured in our diary study.

Users often seem to think of their watch as a remote control that allows them to easily make things happen from anywhere &#; in many cases, avoiding the need to locate or unlock their . This isn&#;t surprising given what we know about device inertia, which is the tendency to complete a task on a suboptimal device because users don&#;t want to spend the effort to find and switch to a device better suited to the task. The tradeoff between accomplishing tasks on mobile phones and computers is not new, but this study revealed a third level of device inertia: watch vs. .

Controlling interactions are valuable because they:

  1. Don&#;t require users to have their phones handy
  2. Offer quicker, more convenient actions than the
  3. Allow users to take actions while doing something else

Participants frequently commented positively on controlling interactions: [I love that I can] turn down the temperature super easily without even having to pull out my and [unlock it] and go to the app. I could literally just scroll down. So, it's definitely super convenient. Majority of the time, I don't have my on me as I'm working, so this definitely comes in handy.

Attributes of Successful Controlling Interactions

Controlling interactions are most helpful when they are:

Prioritized. The interface needs to prioritize frequently performed functions and remove less common ones. For example, the Spotify smartwatch app prioritizes common actions such as skipping and pausing/playing a song rather than less common ones such as fast-forwarding or viewing the lyrics, which are available in the mobile app.

Synchronized. One frustration with controlling interactions is when the smartwatch application isn&#;t synced with other devices &#; for example, if the user takes an action on the , but that action doesn&#;t immediately show up on the watch, or if the user begins a process on the watch but must go to the to sync information.

Accessible. Participants made it clear that controlling interactions were particularly useful when their hands were busy. [Controlling my music] is helpful when I am busy with both my hands, like, you know, cleaning, cooking, whatever it may be. [...] This one I find very, very, very helpful. It&#;s particularly helpful when an application opens automatically and remains available right on the watch face when the user raises their wrist, to provide easy access to important controls while they may have full hands or be occupied with another activity.

Communicating Interactions

Communicating interactions include anything involved in communicating with another person. Communication notifications are among the most important things received on the watch. As one large-scale study by Sahami and his coauthors concluded, &#;[smartwatch] notifications are perceived as important if they notify about communication with other persons, inform about other persons&#; actions, or about events.&#;

One of the most valuable things that the smartwatch affords is comprehensive awareness of all incoming communications. Smartwatch users seem to rely on the assumption that, if they are wearing their watch, they will not miss incoming communications. Our study participants made it clear that they did not always have their phones nearby and, thus, missed many incoming communications in the moment. However, the watch allowed them to be away from the but still respond to, or at least be aware of, all incoming communications so they would not miss something important.

Types of Communicating Interactions

The word &#;messages&#; below refers to text messages from native message applications, third-party messaging applications, and emails.

Receiving Messages

Users hate missing incoming communications. They consider checking communications on the watch more discreet and polite than pulling out a smartphone. The watch makes the user aware that a message has arrived and gives enough information for them to decide whether to respond. They can also decide whether that response is simple enough to be sent from the watch or whether they need to pull out their phones.

This is one reason why incoming messages should display as much content as possible. As soon as the watch vibrates, users expect to be able to see most, if not all, of the message they have just received. However, it can be challenging for users to go back through multiple messages in one conversation on the watch; if that type of interaction is needed, they will most likely use the .

Unfortunately, incoming notifications &#; particularly stylized emails from businesses &#; often waste valuable space with irrelevant information.

To optimize message notifications for smartwatches:

  1. The Sender should be a short, meaningful name that users will recognize.
  2. Subject lines should be frontloaded with meaningful information.
  3. The first words in the (which will display below the subject line) should have a strong information scent, indicating the value of the message.

Sending Messages

Typing on the smartwatch is possible, but very inconvenient and difficult. Users avoid it whenever possible by either not responding to a message, dictating what they want to say rather than typing it, or responding on the .

The interaction cost of moving to the means that, in many cases, users will choose to respond to a message later or not at all. However, when they do decide that a message received on the watch merits an immediate response, they will almost always attempt to dictate rather than type. Dictation is convenient but becomes extremely frustrating when it introduces mistakes, because correcting text on the watch is cumbersome and error-prone. Dictation is even more likely to cause typos when the user has an accent or is in a noisy environment.

Some participants in our study expressed the value of premade response suggestions that can be sent with one tap, but these are obviously not suited to every case. Participants did not seem to condemn the smartwatch for being a difficult input method, but they were all familiar with the challenges it presents.


Taking a call on the watch can be very convenient if the is not nearby or if the user&#;s hands are busy. In many ways, calling on the watch is equivalent to the speaker functionality on the , but even more convenient because the user&#;s hands remain free. However, sometimes users hesitate to take a call on the watch because they are in a public place and do not want to disturb others.

Guiding Interactions

Guiding interactions provide users with in-the-moment direction during an activity. Examples include workout routines, breathing exercises during meditation, navigation directions, and even a metronome. The user initiates these interactions, and they generally provide guidance for the whole duration of the activity.

Attributes of Successful Guiding Interactions

Guiding interactions are most helpful when they are:

Independent. Once initiated, the guidance on the watch should be self-sufficient and not require the use of another device or any additional interaction from the user. Setting the aside and following the independent, reliable directions coming from the wrist makes the watch a useful tool for providing guidance.

Haptic. Most guiding interactions should utilize haptic feedback to help the user notice what comes next. This is particularly important for two reasons: (1) users often keep their watches on silent mode, and (2) they are often focused on performing some other behavior and, thus, less likely to notice things change on the watch.

Focused. Because users are likely to be occupied by some task while guidance is provided, the interface should focus the user&#;s attention on the next step. Providing an overview of all steps or a comprehensive view of information is more confusing than showcasing what comes next.

Guiding interactions can drain the watch battery relatively quickly because they use so many features of the device at once, but this is unlikely to be problematic for most users.

Less Useful Types of Interactions

Interactions other than the 6 types described in this article do exist on smartwatches; however, participants in our study showed no interest in them. Some of those interactions include:

Consuming: The act of passively taking in content on a device &#; for example, watching a video or movie, looking at photos, reading an article, and so on. These types of interactions are extremely common on both desktop and mobile, but not on tiny smartwatch screens.

Creating: The act of combining inputs to craft or build something original &#; for example, writing a document, creating a visual, or mixing music. It is hard enough to write simple text messages on the watch that users will not attempt much more than that.

Browsing: The act of casually looking through information with no goal in mind &#; for example, window shopping. People don&#;t go to the watch  to look around; they use it to get things done.

Searching: Seeking out specific information on the watch is cumbersome for two reasons: (1) it&#;s difficult to accurately input the information required to return useful results (i.e., typing or dictating, as mentioned earlier), and (2) the screen is too small to meaningfully display many search results. Whether popular hiking trails or favorite songs, users tend to search on the , not the watch.

Unfortunately, many applications built for smartwatches center around these types of less useful interactions. While these apps will receive some downloads because some users might hope to do things more conveniently on the watch, we predict that they will ultimately struggle and see quick usage dropoff because the watch is too small for these behaviors.


Smartwatches have progressed beyond simple step counters &#; they can facilitate rich communication, control devices around us, and keep us on track in life. The 6 interaction types described in this article reflect progress in wearable-tech design and underscore the importance of making designs well-timed, personally relevant, and extremely simple. Smartwatches have the potential to make many tasks easier, but, just like any other channel, they still have limits.


Marta E. Cecchinato, Anna L. Cox, and Jon Bird. . Always On(line)? User Experience of Smartwatches and their Role within Multi-Device Ecologies. Proceedings of the CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (), -. DOI:

Alireza Sahami Shirazi, Niels Henze, Tilman Dingler, Martin Pielot, Dominik Weber, and Albrecht Schmidt. . Large-scale assessment of mobile notifications. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (), -. DOI:

Steven Schirra and Frank R. Bentley. . "It&#;s kind of like an extra screen for my " Understanding Everyday Uses of Consumer Smart Watches. Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (), -. DOI:

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