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It’s Not Your Job to Figure Out Why an Apple Watch Might Be Useful


The Watch to Watch

A couple weeks ago, the New York Times reviewed the Apple Watch. A paragraph early in the article caught my attention:

First there was a day to learn the device’s initially complex user interface. Then another to determine how it could best fit it into my life. And still one more to figure out exactly what Apple’s first major new product in five years is trying to do — and, crucially, what it isn’t.

It’s worth taking a moment to recognize what’s strange here. If it takes three days to figure out why something might be useful to you, then you probably don’t need it!

In any other market, a product without a clear use case would be impossible to sell. But in the cultural distortion field of Silicon Valley, this is the new normal. They provide the hot new thing, and it’s up to you to figure out why you need it.

Start With Why, Not What

The reason this state of affairs worries me is because once you start letting other people tell you how to invest your limited time and attention, you’re almost certainly going to stray from the things you find most important.

Here, for example, is the reporter from the above article explaining his experience with the Apple Watch (once, that is, he figured out how to work it): “[it] became something like a natural extension of my body, a direct link, in a way that I’ve never felt before, from the digital world to my brain.”

For anyone trying to build (or write, or code, or paint, or plan) something of consequence, this is, to steal a line from George Packer, a truly frightening vision of the future!

But when you work backwards from what’s hot, instead of what you need, this is the type of behavior you stumble into.

The alternative here is simple: Decide what matters to you; seek out the tools that most directly and obviously help you accomplish these things; then get down to work.

Life’s too short to waste three days trying to figure out whether some shiny new gizmo might be useful.

52 thoughts on “It’s Not Your Job to Figure Out Why an Apple Watch Might Be Useful”

  1. I’d say it’s more bad reporting than anything. I already know why I want an Apple Watch (and have been wanting those features for years), and it’s not to tell time.

    Ordered mine at 12:01am and can’t wait until it gets here.

      • Andrew,

        While I’m looking forward to the health apps, my long-standing need is for multiple alarms, reminders, and notifications. I need to be reminded to both start doing things and to stop doing things.

        The watches I’ve tried in the past where either just out and out crap, or nice and somewhat useful but so fussy to set up and alter that I ended up not using them. I’ve also tried the armbands for ipods and variants as well.

        Have you even mentally wished for something that solved a number of your problems with one device? That’s what the Apple watch is probably going to do for me.

        Note that I am already in the Apple game, so adding another device that is part of that universe is easy, and keeps most learning curves simple and (to a large degree for me) intuitive. It serves my specific needs.

        I love tech stuff anyway, so it’s a win either way for me. Fun and useful.

      • Tricia does an excellent job of highlighting the author’s point.

        “That’s what the Apple watch is probably going to do for me.”

        The key word here is “probably”, she does not know for sure and will take three days to figure it out. Rather than spending three days to figure out how to change her life so she doesn’t need the alarms.

        • I always find it interesting how snotty and condescending people are when others don’t do things they way they do. If Tricia “probably” wants a watch for this reason or that, so what? Why should she change her life so that she doesn’t have to use alarms? I have ADHD and alarms help me a lot. Maybe it’s the same for her. Or maybe she just likes them.
          There is, I think, a big difference between falling for marketing hype and simply using the tools modern life makes available. And people aren’t stupid for using the tools, no matter how good it makes some people feel to try to tell them they are.

  2. Not wasting time on unnecessary tools for work or other purposes makes sense. But these Apple products are more fun than anything.

    Some of these cost $10,000 or more. So what is the purpose of getting a Rolex? Or vanilla ice cream…or a really nice suit, trying a new sport or activity or toy.

    It’s just for fun.

    (Yes they market this as a productivity tool. But it’s just fun productivity, not essential productivity.)

    • This is a good point. But I think what makes things like Apple products and social media web sites different than most other fun activities, is that they have a potential long term negative impact on your ability to do things that really matter. In particular, things like the Apple Watch or Facebook can fragment your attention and retrain your mind to a state that cannot support depth. This is why, when it comes to these types of products, that I suggest being wary of adoption — wait until there is a really compelling reason for *you* to use it before you do.

      • Cal I agree with you 100%. If I remember correctly when I originally read Farhad Manjoo’s article, he gave “management of notifications” as one of the things the watch enabled him to do better. I thought to myself, “why not just disable all those notifications?”

  3. That’s the genius behind something like that. You feel like its a sunk cost because the money is already spent – and then once you understand it, you will rationalize using it

    “[it] became something like a natural extension of my body, a direct link, in a way that I’ve never felt before, from the digital world to my brain.”

    That quote says it all.

  4. I couldn’t agree more on this.

    If it’s just a toy to play around with, that’s fine too. If one has too much surplus time to figure out why one wants to play with it, then that’s ok too.

    A while ago, I got into Excel (actually LibreOffice Calc and Google Spreadsheets) because I had a problem that it could help me with in the quickest way, which it does. It would’ve never occured to me to spend time learning Excel and then trying to figure out what I could use it for.

  5. Sometimes with technology you don’t know you need something

    Did most people need a computer before they started using one?

    Did people need Iphones and be able to access the internet and social media.

    Apple are selling things people need they are selling thing people want to have.

    personally I don’t think watches will become popular with the mainstream until they put better batteries in them. A watch that last one day is in danger of becoming a bracelet. It will be a bit like Cinderella (having to get home by 12) with people having to get home before midnight otherwise they won’t know what time it is because the watch has run out of juice

    • A lot people seem to be making this same point, so let me clarify my argument…

      I of course agree with the idea that sometimes a technology’s real use is not clear at first. But I disagree with the idea that it is up to you, the consumer, to adopt the technology and invest your time and effort in figuring out its use. My alternative: wait until you encounter a clear use that will help you before you adopt something.

      Returning to your computer example, it is true, for example, that businesses at first didn’t know why they needed a PC. But here’s the thing: they didn’t buy them until such a use became clear (in this case, visicalc).

      As an individual, I suggest you adopt a similar cost/benefits approach.

      • Actually, yes, people needed computers before they started using one.

        The first commercial computers were built for accounting and tabulating, and obviously, large companies needed to improve the productivity of accounting, creating invoices automatically etc.

        People wrote business documents by hand, then the typewrite was invented. So people replaced the typewrite with a computer that was running WordPerfect or something like that.

        People needed to keep track of business contacts, so database programs helped you doing so.

        There were lots and lots of client problems that computers addressed and helped to solve.

        If the use of computers wouldn’t be so much faster and more convenient to tackle those tasks, they would not be so widespread today.

        As a computer is very versatile, one can also waste time on it, like me writing this comment. 🙂

        • Reading the comments, I think people should work on their comprehension reading skills. English is not my native language and I get that he is saying that the company who offers their product (whichever, this is only an example) should inform you of its uses.
          That´s it, it is not whether we need technology or not, but that we should be informed by the companies of the possible uses of their products.

  6. I understand the sentiment of this post. To me, watch is NOT a breakthrough for productive use functionality, let alone wearable technology (no WATCH can be – if a product stemmed from the interface engineering Apple is capable of to a direct sight and hearing device concept like the woefully marketed Google Glass product, that might have been interesting). And of course, Apple’s astoundingly unique marketing success “distorts” the notion of a product launch. But to prescribe only ‘analytical’ reason when considering one’s own “workflow, work processes innovation” misses the entire synergistic half of reasoning; the half where the leap-frog advances live. There’s always the possibility that a something more than a simple ’cause-to-effect’ use of the Apple watch could prove us both wrong!

  7. First: I completely agree that we should base products on user research instead of making something cool and expecting users to spend the time playing with it to figure out if it is useful or not. That’s the situation I’d be in if I bought an Apple watch, but I assume Apple did enough research that for at least some users there is a clear use case.

    Having said that, I’ve had good results in the past with trying new gadgets where I didn’t see a clear need before, and the uses I’ve discovered have been transformative. A smartphone has been the perfect example for me – I first bought it with no clear idea on what use I get out of it but it’s been indispensable.

  8. Good observation.

    There’s also the slightly more subtle version of this, which is where the company tells you what the product essentially does, but it’s up to you to figure out how best to use it.

    Flexibility is good, but I often find myself thinking ‘surely I music be able to use this thing somehow’ which is kind of the same problem as above.

  9. Yes I think it’s an instant temptation of distraction at your finger tips , including the deleterious cell phone effects worsened by being attached to your body.

  10. With sports or health-related exceptions, the only use I can come up with for the Apple Watch is as a convenience to those who’re obsessive-compulsive about what their iPhone is telling them, pulling it out every minute or so. The watch will let them indulge that compulsion by looking at their wrist instead.

    There are, however, a few features that Apple was forced to develop for the watch to even make it workable that might prove helpful ported to iPhones. It’d be handy, for instance, to have a phone that’s situationally aware, responding when we move it in certain ways.

  11. “[it] became something like a natural extension of my body, a direct link, in a way that I’ve never felt before, from the digital world to my brain.”

    That thought kills me because that direct link goes both ways, from brain to watch and watch to brain. I’m afraid some of us aren’t protective enough of our brains.

  12. I am an ardent follower of your Blog. “At first I had to spend a few weeks learning how to use it but alas after putting in some time sharping my blade instead of continuing to just chop I have found it has raised the quality and productivity of my work.” OK enough with in quotation makes sarcasm.

    I am amazed at this blog by someone who thinks of themselves as helping people get things done better. So what other innovations would you like us to reverse that took a long time to figure out how to use. In 1946 Sir Charles Darwin (grandson of the famous naturalist), and then head of Britain’s NPL (National Physical Laboratory), where research into computers was taking place, wrote: “it is very possible that … one machine would suffice to solve all the problems that are demanded of it from the whole country”. There are too many of these types of quotes to count and I could go on and on but I think you all are very bright can see where I am going.

    As a technologist, software industry veteran, tech investor, and lifelong pursuer of productivity I have a pretty good idea of what the “use cases” of the iWatch/wearables as well as IoT devices are going to fulfill. Your comments in this blog remind me of when I saw the first demo of the iPhone six months before it was released, because immediately I recognized it for what is was, the next evolution of computing form factors and a completely new UI (User Interface), btw I had the same experience when I saw the first demo of the iWatch last fall. Back in 2007 after watching the demo of the iPhone I tried to convince my fellow software industry veterans, VCs, etc. of this fact but usually got the response “what App would ever be built that I would ever use”, usually as a defense of staying with a blackberry which was a superior email device because of the keyboard “and the fact that they had already spent the hours, nay I say days, to learn and perfect their use of the Blackberry UI”, I use the quotes in this case to signal that I broke my promise of not returning to sarcasm directed at your blog theme, sorry. I usually just ended the discussion by telling them, don’t worry you will not only soon ditch your blackberry for the iPhone but even become dependent on many apps that haven’t even been conceived of yet.

    What made/makes the iPhone special was/is IOS, and the fact that there was for the first time a complete and useful enough mobile computing form factor (with many new hardware elements like an accelerometer, etc. to make it so, as well as a completely new UI for personal computing using what is called “direct manipulation” and “multi-touch gestures”. It was categorically different from earlier attempts at mobile computing (Palm Pilot, etc.) by putting everything together in a complete enough way to disrupt the current most popular computing UI and form factor, the PC, and more for the first time make mobile computing (or just mobility) mainstream.

    So here we are again with the iWatch, a new computing form factor with a new UI (one requires the other, something Microsoft has never understood) that has been introduced and we have a personal productivity guy like you turning all Malthusian on us. So here it comes, I will explain the two main concepts for why the iWatch is a significant new and soon to be dominant computing form factor and UI. First it never leaves your body and second it is attached closely to your skin and can thus detect things about your body, and it does all these things by replacing something that the majority of people used to (before the iPhone) wear all the time, a watch, so it will be very natural to most of us. Let me give you a trivial but real simple reason why someone who writes a blog like you do should love it, I can reduce the many hours in my life since the invention of the iPhone that I have to go searching for my iPhone. I am sure I am not the only one that has wasted many precious hours of my life looking for, that could be put to better use “deep thinking”. And before you go down the path of OMG this thing is going to be constantly interrupting me and therefore not allowing for deep thought and work, that is only the case if you are stupid enough (from a deep thinking perspective) to allow it to do so. Like the iPhone it only interrupts you because you have allowed it to be set up to do so. Oh and while we are on the subject of deep thinking then perhaps I should mention that one of the many impediments I have had for deep thinking is when I have some important meeting or appointment that I do not want my deep thinking to make me loose track of, if I have an iWatch on, I can set it up to remind me and then completely forget about it and more peacefully go into deep thought without having to co-process a worry that I will be lost in thought beyond my appointment.

    Sorry for the slightly rantish nature of this post but this Blog just really got me going because I usually really like your insights but this one is just wrong on so many levels!!

    • To clarify, I’m not arguing that the Apple Watch will be useless. I am also not arguing that all technologies need clear application from the very beginning.

      What I am arguing, however, is that it shouldn’t be up to the consumer to do this market research. And for products that can have a significant downside (such as the fragmented attention that the Apple Watch might generate), it is especially important to be wary of early adoption.

      Many companies, for example, had no idea why they would need a personal computer. So they didn’t buy them. Then VisiCalc came along and made them clearly useful, so they bought them. This is entirely reasonable behavior. Consumers should behave the same. It’s not a rejection of technology to say, “this is not useful to me at the moment.”

      Put another way, there are many technologies out there. Many will turn out to be quite useful to many people, and many will turn out to be fads. Unless you’re a tech journalist or investor, however, you can’t waste your time trying everything out for yourself. Focus on the tools that you clearly solve your problem.

      The Apple Watch might end up doing this for a lot of people, but until it’s clear that it does for you, get back to work. Or something like that…

    • Agree with Cal on not allowing tech into your life, until you have a clear use for it. What the tech should be able to do, which problem it will fix, is the job of companies/engineers to figure out, and journalists etc to test.

      Not buying, “I spent hours looking for my iPhone”; you can still loose it even with the watch! Still, like the idea of an alarm on my wrist…

      • What worries me about some of the new technology is that by using that technology, one is outsourcing activities that one ought to be able to perform oneself.

        I find it firghtening to leave it up to some gadget to remind me of the things I need to do.

    • I got a “smart” phone a couple of years ago just because it came with a cheaper phone service I signed up with. Hate it with a livid passion. One of these days I’m going back to a flip phone if they are still made. I don’t want a phone that requires 100% of my attention to do basic tasks. I want a phone that operates by touch for answering and hanging up.

      Meanwhile, I get spurious phone calls because my friends “butt dial” me with their fancy I-Phones.

      I-Phones have their uses, but they can be a bane as well.

      • I recently went back to a flip phone and so far I don’t miss the “smart one” I think it made me dumb in a way. I’m thinking more now instead of browsing.

  13. Great post Cal,

    Seriously though, don’t rock the apple cart (hahaaaaaa..). You’ll have leagues of adoring, militant apply fanboys knockin down your door screaming bloody murder.

    People will defend mediocrity with their lives, because for some people, it’s all they have.

  14. Come to think of it, something similar can happen when people take up a new spirituality/religion/life philosophy; or when it comes to watching new tv series, or any other new thing.

    At first, it’s just a shiny new thing (albeit a mental new thing), and one pays attention to it because it’s shiny and new. But one doesn’t yet have any idea as to whether one really needs or not, and why.

    Sure, later on, it can prove useful, or enlightening even. In the case of spirituality/religion, it can turn into becoming a member. With some other things, it can mean a new career.

    But I really don’t think this is a sane way to go about choosing and developing one’s interests.
    For some people, some of the times, this passionate approach goes well.
    For many others, it doesn’t. This is why in spiritual/religious etsablishments , there are all too often fanatics who joined in a fit of passion, and who stay because they have committed themselves to the point from which it is very difficult to quit. Or why some people spend endless hours watching daytime tv.

    Perhaps, implicitly, they are spending all that time and money trying to figure out why on earth they are in that spiritual/religious group, or why they watch so much tv, or whatever, except that that very activity prevents them from being able to figure out why they do it and what they hope to get from it.

  15. With things like this it also helps if you have a bigger picture value system that drives this.

    Beyond the Apple Watch most people live there lives this way, deciding (i.e hoping), that something will be useful afterwards. People are not purpose driven.

    Purpose driven in the sense of only doing things and seeking out things the serve an actual purpose or need they have. It’s the same with internet surfing, randomly visiting sites, clicking things and wasting time hoping something will be useful.

  16. I could imagine that the iWatch would be quite useful to remind you of appointments, and to track your use of time.

    As rule #1 of personal effictivity by Peter Drucker says, “Know Thy Time”, meaning, “Know how you spend your time”.

    Hasn’t there been a programmable watch by Texas Instruments way before that, running a small Linux kernel?

    It’s amazing that things don’t catch on before a skillful marketing machine like Apple pushes a product.

  17. I think that many critics of this post confusingly take everyone in the world to be a tech investor.

    Off course, if you are, like Jeff, by profession a tech investor, tech blogger or app developer, it makes sense to spend several days to figure out yourself the iWatch’s future abilities. I’m pretty sure Cal often spends several days studying new mathematical techniques for which he doesn’t know yet whether they turn out to be useful. Furthermore, teachers will browse new text books, carpenters will try out new tools or materials, musicians will try out new styles etc.

    The point is that you should not invest such an effort for things that do not relate to your core business: leave that to those whose core business it is.

  18. Decide what matters to you; seek out the tools that most directly and obviously help you accomplish these things; then get down to work.

    Yes, Apple manufactures great products!

    Apple is also about more than selling a potential technological need, ignoring the notion of whether the “need” is genuinely required from a technical standpoint for genuinely required for a good life. Apple marketing is about selling a brand meant to help define you/me and impart meaning to your/my life. And in order to give your / my Apple-based identity a fresh boost of meaning, you and I need to keep up with the latest gadgets coming from Apple.

    If this latter part of the Apple-universe is a primary motivator for you or me, maybe we need to think deeply, sans electronic devices, about what matters.

  19. Letting possession define who you are?

    Needing possessions to add meaning to your life?

    This is the most terrifyingly BROKEN thing I have read on this post.

    If you’re so lost and empty that this gadget is going to change your life that much, you need help, not the gadget.

  20. Read this blog this morning and sifting through articles for review and came across these 2 quotes:

    Henry Ford: “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

    Steve Jobs: “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them … That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.”

    Not sure I agree but it sounds great. Maybe some survivorship bias with all those folks that didn’t ask and put out horrible products are not around to be quoted!

    I’m not sure I’m old school but I prefer dedicated software/hardware. Heart rate monitor w/ strap (Garmin), mp3 player (Sandisk), Linux for home computing. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t ever maximize the Trapper Keeper in junior high.

  21. joshua,
    I love your blog and rarely comment but I disagree with you on this one. I think it’s time we stopped demonizing new technology. I’m fairly frugal in most ways but have the latest iPhone because it’s important to me! I won’t be getting the new watch because I’m trying to spend less time being connected to my phone. However, if you can afford it and want it I can think of much worse ways to spend $400.

  22. Letting things happen naturally as a matter of course. A good invention needs a reason to exist. But now with the power of branding (possible Apple halo effect), seems lots of people will attempt to create a reason to own a product from a brand they like.

    But since your whole message is about efficiency, there’s a bit of cognitive dissonance. Why read a site about productivity if I value products that may add more clutter? I suspect because people who care about productivity and love Apple, have more disposable income and will try to do a bit of both. Be more productive to buy more “toys.”

  23. Originally, Apple sparked the mainstream desire to have a touchscreen smartphone as a response to Blackberry’s non-touch smartphones. Unfortunately for Apple, they didn’t come out with the first mainstream smart watch. The first “mainstream” one (mostly adopted by fellow android enthusiasts) was the Pebble smartwatch, selling over 1,000,000 smart watches that work on both Apple and Android smartphones. I’m thinking I’ll either partake on a Pebble Time (their second generation watch) or an Asus Zenwatch when I’m tired of digging out my smartphone every time I want to check a notification or the current time.

  24. Truly spoken, though it’s an opinion and opinions differ. Some people like to explore before they know what they want or desire. It’s kind of same situation wrt technology.

  25. I find this thread somewhat interesting I can’t help but comment. I find it funny in a way that I don’t think someone would buy something he or she isn’t sure what he’s going to use it for. but yes people do it. not intentionally though…

    “Start With Why, Not What” :
    OK Why do I want an Apple Watch? … But.. What’s An Apple Watch?


    What first before Why:
    Oh look, There’s a new stuff called the Apple watch, hmm what is it? ….. Why Do I need An Apple Watch?

    Either way, you are really pretty stupid to buy something you’ve got no use for. PERIOD…

    but in my opinion… you’d sound more stupid asking yourself why you need something if you don’t know what it is; if you didn’t find time to check out what it is FIRST, learn about its features. (the days it takes you to learn about new stuff does not equal to how its such a waste of time. It would be equal to your learning curve… you know how easy you are at analyzing things you do or do not need…

    Like the commitment you give to your articles… And I’m not saying they’re waste of time. If it took you days to make the post or it took you less … and whichever meant that it’s “worthwhile” because I’m already lost with the analogies.

    Some companies just beat their brains out trying to make solutions they could profit from and the rest of the world to enjoy…

    Apple creates stuff, and probably take months or years to develop their ideas. I definitely forgive them if they thought of creating something I personally don’t need in my life, but what I don’t need, probably others do.

    I’m geeky, yeah…I like apps, I NEED alarms, and reminders etc… I keep forgetting things. and as a consumer, my needs are different than others, if Apple didn’t nail all my needs, that’s OK, they don’t have only me in mind when they made the apple watch, that’s OK.

    As to why buy an apple watch: people who needs the “functionalities” on an apple watch, and those who like sophisticated techie stuff would know instantly why thwy would want an apple watch….

    As to what is an apple watch: if you are lost looking at the app icons on the watch… of course do not buy it… but I’m guessing you use apps on other devices and is only making it sound so complicated than it really is to deter people or get people to agree with your standing point. What is so complicated with a watch with an interface that is so common even the cheap phones have it….

    Just my opinion after you’ve all aired yours.


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