Design Time @ Run Time: Apple Watch Put Through Its Paces in Beijing

Observations on UX research and road-testing wearable tech in the wild. The vehicle for today’s message is Ultan O’Broin (@usableapps), taking advantage of Oracle Applications User Experience events and outreach to evaluate the fitness and health option on the Apple Watch—and to continue his Fitbit Surge exploration—this time in China.

The Watch Ethnography (say what?)

All the warnings about running in Beijing proved wrong: that my clothes would turn black; my skin would turn grey; I’d need a facemask; I wouldn’t see any other runners; I’d attract the attention of security personnel with my blue hair.

None of this happened.

I shoulda guessed. Running is one of the most “unasked-for-advice” activities out there, usually from non-runners or “joggers.”

Instead, I saw lots of other runners in Beijing’s parks and streets, mostly locals, with a small number of “ex-pats.” At times there were so many runners—and power walkers—early in the morning that I had to weave hard to get by them. On the long, straight streets of Beijing, I saw hardcore runners in action, percentage-wise more than, say, in Dublin.

Running in Beijing. Scene from Temple of Sun Park.

Running in Beijing. Scene from Temple of Sun Park.

I saw lots of runners sporting colorful running gear; more than I’ve seen in San Francisco, though the styling was far short of the effortless funky co-ordination of the lemons, oranges, and blacks of the Nordic scene. Yes, I’m a running fashion snob. It was kinda hard to tell what fitness devices the Beijing crowd was packing, but I did see some Garmins: a sure sign of serious runners.

I did one run to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, a 10 miler; hauling myself around the Central Business District and diplomatic zones on other days. The eyes of Chinese security guards swiveled to follow me as I strode by, but generally they seemed nonplussed with my blue hair and obvious Apple Watch. I was kinda disappointed I didn’t end up on CNN.

Running to the Forbidden City. Alas, selfie sticks were not forbidden.

Running to the Forbidden City. Alas, selfie sticks were not forbidden.

The best time to run in Beijing is clearly in the early morning. Public parks were open by 5:30 AM and full of runners and walkers by the time I arrived. There is very bad air pollution in Beijing, but growing up in pre-smokeless-coal-carbon-fuel-ban Dublin, it really didn’t seem that menacing. However, I did detect a markedly poorer air quality later in the day. Your mileage may vary on that one, I guess.

The Device Findings

These runs in Beijing were another opportunity to test out the Fitbit Surge but really to try out the newer Apple Watch in another location. There are other comparisons between these two devices.

Both performed flawlessly, though I preferred the superior build quality of the Apple Watch, which is outstanding, and its UX with configurable glances display and superior styling. Henry Ford’s “Any Color As Long As It’s Black” as applied to smartwatches and fitness bands is #fashtech #fail by this stage.

Again, I was particularly impressed with the rapid GPS acquisition and holding capability of the Surge. I’ve used it on three continents now, and I love its robustness and long life battery.

Fitbit Surge GPS recording from Tiananmen Square run (on iOS)

Fitbit Surge GPS recording from Tiananmen Square run (on iOS)

The Apple Watch’s built-in Workout app proved easy to use for my runs. It has indoor and outdoor options for other activities too, whether with target metrics, distance, time, or calories, or you can use it for an “open” hustle. I was a little disappointed that the watch app doesn’t enable wearers to recall more basic run details from the last activity but being able to see real-time progress was great. I also enjoyed using the Apple Watch built-in Activity app too. Its simple and colorful progress analytics for exercise, moving, and standing were fun to glance at throughout the day, though the data is not for any serious runners or QS fanbois out there.

Using both of these Apple Watch apps together provided a compelling health and fitness experience.

Apple Watch Activity App

Apple Watch Activity App

Apple Watch Activity App

Apple Watch Activity App

Being able to use both devices without carrying a smartphone with me on a run was the UX joy. Being freed from dodgy Bluetooth pairing and GPS signal worries, and that tricky music selection procedure required by a smartphone, saved me 5 mins (about three quarters of a mile distance at my speeds) at the start of each run. Being able to see my performance in real time—on the go—without having to fish out a smartphone, was awesome.

That’s what a smartwatch glance UX is all about: being kept in the moment.

The battery life of the Apple Watch didn’t make it longer than 10 hours because of my runs, though without this kind of exertion, it seemed to last most of my waking day, which is reasonable.

What’s Next?

I normally carry a smartphone when running as my music platform, but increasingly to take Instagram images during my journey. The Strava app GPS integration with Instagram is a fave running experience. I did carry my Apple iPhone 5 in Beijing, to take pictures—no, I don’t really carry a selfie stick—and to try out the Strava app for comparison. The Instagram integration seemed to be DOA though.

So, my thoughts on wearable tech super watch evolution, and the emergence of the standalone wearable device as the way to go for smartwatches, were reinforced from my Beijing experience.

However, a super watch UX needs to be flexible and offer more capability. I’d like to see onboard music and image capture capability on the watches themselves somehow. Audio notifications for time, speed and distance and geographic points would also enhance the experience immensely. However, what such enhancements would mean for the bane of wearable tech UX right now—battery life—yet alone device size, remains just another challenge to be solved. And it will be.

And what UX research methodology lessons might be gleaned from running in Beijing with wearable tech? Firstly, don’t assume anything about your ethnographic experience upfront. Try it yourself on a dry run first to iron out any possible kinks. Run at different times of the day, over different distances and routes, in varying weather conditions, and, of course, with different devices along the way. Most importantly, find real native runners to follow around, and record what they do from start to finish, what they do offline as well as online, and with what tools, on their runs.

Running, just like user experience, is about the complete journey, a total contextual experience, not just where your rubber meets the road.

2 comments

  1. Thanks for your great experience! Just motivated to buy a apple watch!
    I’m also expecting onboard music and image capture capability on the watches very soon in near future!

  2. Awesome insight. Beijing is very polluted so I guess context of use can be extended to imclude air quality. Unusual way to test fitness technology. Is the iWatch available I’m China?

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