Repeat this simple mantra if you want to make killer Apple Watch apps

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Joe Cieplinski, a designer with Bombing Brain Interactive, shares his knowledge about design at AltConf 2015.
Joe Cieplinski, a designer with Bombing Brain Interactive, shares his knowledge about design at AltConf 2015.
Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

SAN FRANCISCO — The key to crafting great Apple Watch apps can be summed up with a simple mantra: “Make the user happy.”

That’s designer Joe Cieplinski’s approach to all design, really, but the precept is even more important than ever for developers making apps for Apple’s new wearable. Instead of attempting to cram all the features of an iPhone app onto that tiny screen, devs need to focus as much on what they leave out as what they include.

“That’s how you get a successful product,” Cieplinski, who works for Philadelphia-based Bombing Brain Interactive, told Cult of Mac after his AltConf panel here Tuesday. “It’s not just trying to be philosophical.”

Cieplinski’s mantra is a kinder, gentler version of the KISS principle. It’s also the approach taken by Apple as the company seeks to make its products ever more useful and delightful, often by stripping down design to its most basic and elegant elements.

During his AltConf panel, titled “Design Is Not for Designers,” he teed off — in a nice way — on some websites that broke his golden rule. For instance, Apple’s mini-site for the Mac Pro looks gorgeous but doesn’t scroll how you would expect. It’s also larded with gigantic images that make the site slow to load.

It sacrifices function in favor of form and, while that might gain the designers high fives from their colleagues, it’s a cardinal sin when it comes to keeping users happy.

This user-centric approach is even more imperative for Apple Watch apps. For most of them, less is definitely more, Cieplinski said. It’s about refining apps down to the simplest and most utilitarian form possible.

Unfortunately, many designers try to do too much with their Watch apps. Instead of doing what’s right for the device — and ultimately for the user — they keep thinking about what their iPhone app does.

“The whole idea is to get in there in three seconds and get out,” he said. “After about 10 seconds, my arm is tired!”

These Apple Watch apps get it right

To illustrate his point, Cieplinski named a few apps from the more than 6,000 already available that get the Apple Watch right.

Fantastical: Flexibits’ calendar app works better than the stock iOS Calendar app for one simple reason: “What he did right was, he saw exactly what Apple did wrong,” Cieplinski said. Instead of showing a long calendar grid with empty slots, Fantastical simply lists your appointments. Plus, it lets you dictate new events right from the Watch.

Twitterrific: Cieplinski favors this Twitter app because it makes good use of Apple Watch’s notifications and allows you to dictate replies. The Watch app surfaces a small subset of the data served up by the Twitterrific iOS app. As a result, it doesn’t take long to load, sidestepping one of the Apple Watch’s biggest frustration points. We’re so used to fast machines, Cieplinski said, that even the slightest lag now seems interminable. “Most people just give up and say, ‘I’m going to pull out my phone,'” if a Watch app is too laggy, Cieplinski said. “You’ve lost at that point.”

Currencies: This smart currency converter from Edovia keeps a list of what types of money you’ve used recently, serving up exactly what most travelers need from such an app. “You don’t want the full interface,” he said. It also allows dictation straight from the Watch.

Deliveries: June Cloud’s Mac and iOS app that tracks packages is another example of doing one thing well. The Watch app is “really convenient to have on your wrist,” Cieplinski said.

Teleprompt+: Cieplinski didn’t actually name this app — his company made it, and he’s far too modest for that. Teleprompt+ is a teleprompter app used by lawyers, senators and basically “anybody who gives a prepared talk,” he said. It’s also good for people running one-person video studios.

The new Teleprompt+ app for Apple Watch hews to Cieplinski’s streamlined sensibilities. “It’s basically a remote control for the teleprompter,” he said. It offers different layouts, including one with five buttons, but Bombing Brain also gave users a stripped-down option. “We added one where there’s just one giant Play button,” he said.

Loving the Apple Watch and waiting for watchOS 2

Cieplinski said he’s loving his Apple Watch, even if it is sometimes difficult to explain the device’s subtle attractiveness to others. Even he was briefly baffled by the shiny new gadget.

“It felt really strange at first because I was thinking of my iPhone,” he said, but within about 10 minutes he had developed an affection for the device he hadn’t found since the original iPod.

“It’s already integrated into my life,” he added. “I think it qualifies as a big deal.”

Still, we haven’t seen Apple Watch’s full potential.

Cieplinski can’t wait for watchOS 2, which was announced by Apple at this year’s Worldwide Developers Conference. When it is released this fall, it will allow apps to run natively on Apple Watch and give developers access to the device’s sensors, Taptic Engine and Digital Crown.

Apple Watch apps will become much better after the upgrade. But why didn’t Apple allow such access at launch? Cieplinski suspects Apple clamped down on these capabilities for the Watch launch out of paranoia over battery life.

“I think a lot of it was just fear,” he said.

Apple wanted to avoid disappointing early adopters, and they’ve clearly under-promised and over-delivered. Now Cupertino can loosen the reins — and we’ll see what Apple Watch can really do.

“I think they realized, ‘OK, we can back off a little bit. Let’s give developers more power,'” Cieplinski said.

Now, if they all just realize that with great power comes great responsibility — to make sure users stay happy.