Consumers now have a plethora of choices in the wearable smartwatch market and one of the most striking differences between the various products is in the design/shape of the actual physical hardware. Most smartwatches are round (e.g. Samsung Gear, Tag Heuer Connected, etc), while a minority are square/rectangular (e.g. the Apple Watch, Pebble 2).

Having browsed almost 50 smartwatch reviews in the past few days, it is clear that the design of smartwatches divides people. For example, one reviewer of the Apple Watch Series 2 states, "The new Apple Watch remains, in my eyes, the best-looking smartwatch currently available". Others, on the other hand, hate it.

Having also read all the comments posted by readers in those reviews, it seems to me that many people like the look of a round smartwatch because they're used to watches being round. Those who don't like the round look often cite the 'flat tyre' issue (an area of dead/empty pixel space) that has plagued many round smartwatches. This is not an issue for square/rectangular watches.

Obviously, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but what I'm interested in is more than skin deep.

In particular, what research exists (now that smartwatches have been around for a while) into the actual user experience of the various designs?

I imagine any such research would answer questions like:

  1. Is a round smartwatch illogical, or is it just as functional? In other words, smartwatches are supposed to be able to display text, data, images, video, etc and other such devices (phones, tablets, laptops, computers, monitors, TVs, etc) are not round.
  2. Does having a round smartwatch enhance the user experience simply because a really well designed model may be seen as a beautiful timepiece? For example, a round smartwatch can be designed to look more like a Rolex, Omega, etc.
  3. Is a square/rectangular smartwatch more versatile because it has the space to display round, square or rectangular watch faces? That is, an overall larger display area (or more 'useable' screen real estate).
  4. Does the shape of a smartwatch affect other physical traits important to the user experience (e.g. buttons, dials, crowns, etc)? In other words, smartwatches are supposed to be 'smart' and may require more/better ways to manage human input.
  5. Is one design more likely than the other to be chunkier in order to include the same level of features? And therefore less comfortable to wear.
  6. Is one shape more conducive to longer battery life by virtue of the size of battery it can contain? Obviously, the longer the charge and/or the faster it charges has an impact on user experience.

Please note:

  • I am not interested in opinions by reviewers (I've read plenty). I am interested in research that identifies the advantages/disadvantages of various physical designs and how these impact user experience.
  • Research about software/operating systems is not relevant (unless there is an argument that the physical design impacts the flexibility of such software).

  • While my question is about smartwatches, I anticipate there may be research about fitness trackers (or other wearables) that could also be applicable to smartwatches.

  • 1
    This is a research on Round Touchscreen Wristwatch Interaction, that might be interesting for the question: wiki.cc.gatech.edu/ccg/_media/pubs/mobilehci08.pdf – Alvaro Oct 24 '16 at 9:17
  • @Alvaro Thanks for this. Quite an interesting read and surprisingly from early 2008, before the commercialisation of smartwatches. This gives me hope that more research exists, not only because it's now over eight years later, but because quite a few companies did a lot of R&D in the 1990s on the concept. – Monomeeth Oct 25 '16 at 2:17
  • I came across a very good case study which was done by HFI for Apple Watch, you might be interested in looking at that @ humanfactors.com/whitepapers/apple_watch_case_study.asp – Deekshit-CUA Oct 27 '16 at 12:26
  • I've always wondered why we can't have a portrait oriented screen on the inside of our wrist, inside something like a tennis player's sweat band. It's far easier to rotate our arms this way for extended periods of time, and permits a much larger screen area, in a shape we're familiar with. – Confused Oct 30 '16 at 5:20
  • @Deekshit-CUA Thanks for the link. I've downloaded the case study and have also downloaded some of the white papers. Thanks for sharing! – Monomeeth Nov 2 '16 at 10:45

I did some research on wearable technologies recently. Though it's not a topic covered by mainstream UI/UX journals and blogs, there are plenty of research material available google scholar. I am listing a few which were worth going through for my research:

  1. Wearable Trackers
  2. Wrist worn wearables & usability
  3. Design as Co-domestication*
  4. Technology & Timepieces

All these are proper research papers on the subject (and not articles or blog posts) and would require a lot of reading to get what you want, but it's totally worth it. For some of these articles, you might require login/access (I was provided with papers directly)

Wearable technology is comparatively new. The design of a physical unit affects the interaction in more ways than I can possibly imagine. I'll keep an eye on this thread to discover more on this topic over time :)

  • Thanks for your answer and the links. I've been able to access all these (except the Designing the Intersection of Technology and Timepieces thesis). You are right that it's been worth reading through these. I will be contacting the author of the last one to try and obtain a copy. Thank you again! – Monomeeth Nov 2 '16 at 10:59

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