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Smartwatch Etiquette: We’re Making It Up as We Go

Rob Pegoraro
Tech Columnist
Yahoo Tech
July 29, 2014

Smartwatch Etiquette: We’re Making It Up as We Go

Rob Pegoraro
Tech Columnist
Yahoo Tech
July 29, 2014
Smartwatch
Smartwatch

(Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech)

First the smartphone killed off the watch. Now the phone may be the watch’s savior: The new smartwatches are accessories to phones. But a smartwatch is different from a standard watch in many ways. Using one will take you into unexplored areas of human-computer interaction.

For example, will using an Internet-connected, touchscreen timepiece in public become yet another way for you to become one of those gadget-besotted people that you yourself used to hate?

I’ve been thinking about that since coming home from Google’s I/O conference with one of the two Android Wear watches announced there: the $229 LG G Watch.

Like the pre-Android Wear Samsung Galaxy Gear watch I tested last year, these Google-powered smartwatches promise to cut down on your phone time by letting you read notifications on your wrist and then respond to some of them by tapping or talking.

No one I know is arguing that we should spend more time staring into our phones, so perhaps glancing at a watch represents an upgrade. It certainly doesn’t shout, “I’m bored!” in the blatant way that extracting a phone from a pocket or a purse does.

But these devices are distracting and intrusive in their own ways. Not only are they in your direct view all the time, but for them to be effective at telling the time, their screens cannot ever be off. 

There are times when you really don’t want that. Last night, as I was singing our toddler’s goodnight song (“Hush Little Baby,” of course), the watch illuminated to inform me of new email. By which I mean spam. Thanks, watch.

And in Android Wear’s design, notifications don’t go away until you dismiss them. I’ve spent a lot of time swiping away at the LG, and that’s after going into the Android Wear app’s settings on my phone to customize the notifications I get. 

(Hint: You can mute some apps on your phone so they never send a notification to the watch, but you may also need to dive into your Google Now settings to limit what bubbles up in that app.)

At hand, but hands-free
On the other hand, the watches make it possible to control or use your smartphone when direct use would be unwise.

(Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech)

On a bike, this seems like a good idea. As Wired’s Mat Honan observed in a report about his experience wearing Google Glass, cycling and smartphone use don’t mix. An external display for your phone that doesn’t require unlocking can let you follow directions with less distraction.

On foot, maybe not. The ease of checking a watch for updates might increase the risk of distractedly walking into a telephone pole or a streetlamp. 

And what about in a car? I will confess that I’ve used these watches to read and send text messages from behind the wheel — while waiting at stoplights, I swear — and to follow Google Maps’ navigation. 

I would never take those actions on a phone when I was at the wheel. With a smartwatch, however, you’re only a few voice commands and a tap of the always-on, always-unlocked screen from vehicular texting. Say, “OK, Google,” to get the watch’s attention; say, “Send a text message to So-and-so”; select the right set of digits from the list on the screen, speak the message; and hope that Google’s voice recognition doesn’t mangle your spoken input into something unintentionally hilarious.

Smartwatch use may be less obvious from outside the car than smartphone use, but you should not let that go to your head, advises Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Rader noted, “Distracted driving is clearly a big problem. But it has always been a big problem. We just keep inventing new things like smartwatches and smartphones to distract ourselves with.”

Slim it down
The best hope for non-obnoxious smartphone use is the smartwatch makers jettisoning features that might look great in a PowerPoint deck but only distract or annoy actual wearers. Last year’s Samsung watch included a camera and a speaker, while this year’s crop of Android Wear devices includes neither. 

If Apple lives up to the rumors and ships an iPhone-connected “iWatch” designed with its customary habit of saying “no” to things, we may soon have a smartwatch you can wear in polite company. 

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.