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How Apple’s larger-screen Apple Watch is opening up new ideas

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Apple’s button layout changes on the new Apple Watch: The extra display space shifted some things around.


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The Apple Watch’s display doesn’t feel so small anymore. In fact, it’s getting surprisingly expansive. The new, larger-screen Watch Series 7 didn’t get a ton of new changes, but its larger and slightly curved OLED screen is another step toward making Apple’s 6-year-old wearable feel like an all-screen device.

All of this could eventually lead to a transformation of how Apple thinks about WatchOS — and how future apps and watch faces themselves will change. For now, a lot of the tweaks that matter most are about accessibility. Alan Dye, Apple’s vice president of interface design, and Stan Ng, its vice president of product marketing, say this drove the decision for a larger-screen Apple Watch more than anything.

Better readability (and keyboard) over everything else

For Apple, the larger watch display came to be because of a need for easier-to-read text. “We had the opportunity to allow users to increase the point size [for text] even larger than we’ve allowed for in the past. That was very much motivated by the new display,” Dye said over a video call, adding that it’ll be “far more useful and accessible to a lot of users who just need the larger point size.”

Dye points to the onscreen full keyboard on the new watches (which other app developers have explored before, but Apple never introduced) as adding accessibility, along with finger-drawing letters and voice dictation. The keyboard didn’t add distinct key areas because, according to Dye, it made the keyboard less cramped, but “also, to imply that precision isn’t totally critical with your taps because we have that intelligence built in.”

The carefully designed buttons are bigger on the Series 7, but the new watch faces interest me more, particularly since they’re trying to push more information onto the larger screen. 

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The keyboard’s here now, which also suggests other new interfaces could fit on the display, too.


Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

The curved display effect drove design ideas

While the semicurved display edges of the Apple Watch Series 7 are something you might imagine as a future iPhone feature, up close the effect feels less like a curved screen and more like a way to mimic a traditional watch’s domed glass. The way the display seems to curve around the glass of the Series 7 gives a similar effect to looking into a watch crystal, a design idea that was intentional. “This refractive edge creates this very subtle wraparound effect. And it makes the screen appear to bend downward, right toward the watch housing,” says Ng. “Really, it’s an optical effect, it’s due to the way the light from the OLED refracts at the edges of the front crystal. We redesigned that crystal to be more of a dome shape, which also contributed to the thicker crystal and the greater durability. So it was kind of a twofer for both.”

That domed effect and wraparound quality were what sparked Apple to rethink some watch face designs. “Once we started to play with this new crystal and the display, that’s where all those subtle design decisions were made to push those ticks out to the very edge of the display to highlight some of these effects,” says Dye.

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Apple

Deeper complications are Apple’s answer to a watch face store

There are some new watch faces for the larger-screen Series 7, some of which put more information up at once. “We know that having these large complications is really compelling because they provide the most rich data at a glance,” Dye says. But what Apple hasn’t introduced yet, despite partnerships with companies like Nike and Hermes on individually branded Apple Watches, is a watch face store. 

I asked about that, but it still doesn’t seem like part of any immediate future plans. “As critical as the hardware is at playing the role distinguishing Apple Watch as Apple Watch, we think the watch faces play a pretty big role there as well, which is why we’ve been so careful over the years, despite the fact that there’s wide variety, to have a lot of consistent design elements,” says Dye. “If you look closely, the watch hands are always drawn exactly the same way, despite the fact that they show up in different colors. We think we struck a really good balance. The watch faces themselves, they provide a canvas for third parties for sure, and a template that they can [use to] create multiple complications and turn a watch face into their watch face, and that becomes the interface in some ways for their application.”

Apple Watch design philosophy is still the same, for now

With that larger display, could the Apple Watch eventually have a fundamentally different OS, or a reinvented purpose? Even with the Apple Watch’s evolution over the last six years, a lot of the fundamental ideas are pretty similar. And for now, continuing that is the plan.

Dye says that despite the extra screen space, Apple still sees the Apple Watch as a device to be used in small amounts, just like the original 2015 model. “I think a lot of those core foundational values around how we manage to watch the news remain the same,” says Dye. “Despite the fact that we are able to allow for more content on the display, we still see it as a glanceable, smaller, shorter-interaction type of a product versus something like a phone or certainly an iPad.”

“It isn’t about the 30 minutes you’re spending looking at your phone and social media, or the hour on your Mac working on a document,” says Ng. “The power of Apple Watch is in those hundreds of glances a day that might give you information that you need right at that moment.” Ng sees the larger screen as mainly being about being able to “consume that information faster and easier.”

The Watch still has its own unique design and screen shape, which Apple still sees as staying removed in design from iOS and iPadOS. For now, at least. “I mean, we’re always thinking about the future, we’re always looking at and challenging the language we have. We don’t talk a whole lot about what’s coming,” says Dye, who still sees the fundamental concept of the Apple Watch working just fine.

“The initial design we spent a great deal of time on. I think we got a lot of things right, especially as a wearable device that was really built for comfort on the wrist. We’re pretty pleased with where it’s at from the design perspective.”


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