How One Weekend with FaceID Convinced Me Wearables Are the Future

My shiny new space-gray iPhone X arrived at 3 p.m. on a Friday; by 4 p.m., I had completely forgotten about the missing home button, grumbled more than once about needing bluetooth headphones, and realized that my Apple Watch would never leave my wrist again because of FaceID — the iPhone’s latest “sexy new feature” that unlocks your device when held up your face using TrueDepth infrared technology. In fact, I realized that FaceID could cause a surge in wearable tech like we’ve never seen.

After the Apple keynote snafu (where Craig Federighi struggled to unlock the iPhone X on stage during the FaceID debut) and the inevitable “Silicon Valley” spoof that followed, I was initially skeptical about FaceID. Many others shared my skepticism, with concerns ranging from usability to “tricking” the mechanism to mass spying and privacy and security in general. But with only two or three failed attempts to unlock my phone with FaceID over an entire weekend (while sporting both a heavy beard and sunglasses), my fears were assuaged.

What I found most interesting — besides the surprisingly fluid new gestures of the iPhone X — was that the unlocking interaction took on much more deliberateness and significance.

The older iPhones’ TouchID unlocking ceremony feels mindless and automatic: Press the home button, and fingerprint scanning happens concurrently. It doesn’t require any thought or effort on the user’s part. This contrasts with FaceID, which calls for raising the phone close to your face and looking directly at it. As a result, it feels like a formal, intentional start of a session. With my 6s Plus and TouchID, it was easy to keep my phone off to the side and apply a quick glance and thumbprint when an alert came in. And I was conditioned to respond, even for little things like reading a text or dismissing a meeting notification, by fully unlocking my phone. Now, with the more deliberate interaction the X requires to start a session, the more efficient way to react to that new notification or text is to glance down at my Apple Watch. For these smaller, quicker interactions, a smaller, more quickly accessible interface is better suited to the task.

For some, the extra effort it takes to unlock their phone with FaceID will provide a welcomed reason to limit their interactions with their phone. But for most, I wager, it’s not about interacting with technology less; it’s about consuming the right kind of information on the right interface. Ultimately, we want to immediately read our text messages, see who is calling us, check the time, know someone liked our photos, and be reminded of calendar engagements. Compared to a wearable like the Apple Watch, FaceID makes this information harder to consume by adding time to this process: pulling your phone out of your bag or pocket, lifting to your face, and opening the desired app. And then there’s the question of distraction — who can resist the urge to open Facebook or SnapChat and peruse the feeds with a powerful device in hand that you’ve just taken the time and effort to unlock? In contrast, the Apple Watch allows you consume only the information you wish, in a discrete manner, without danger of going down the distraction rabbit hole. You can customize notification settings to deliver only what is most interesting to you, and once you put on and unlock the Apple Watch, it remains unlocked until you remove the device. This means that you can access your notifications with a simple flick of the wrist, as quickly as you might check the time. For busy professionals who live on their phones, the ability to shave seconds off micro-interactions with technology in this manner can add up to substantial efficiency gains over the course of a day.

Our behaviors and decisions are based largely on one factor: return on time. It’s why we aren’t willing to wait for slow websites, always try to pick the shortest line at the grocery store, and loathe rush-hour traffic. (You can read more about my Return on Time philosophy here.) Interactions with our devices are subject to the same rule. We’ll always pick the faster app for the primary task we want to achieve. It’s why Facebook decoupled Messenger from its main app. Or why the three syllable “Alexa” feels better to say than the four syllable “Ok, Google.” And it’s why FaceID will finally give the wearables market a good reason to exist. Strong criticism of wearables has been their failure to do anything that our phones don’t already do. And in a post-FaceID world, they may still offer the same information as a phone, but their efficiency and user experience will now outstrip the phone for our dozens, if not hundreds, of micro-interactions with technology each day.

Wearable devices already save users’ time, but FaceID emphasizes this effect. The AirPods’ double-tap control of music and the lifting of your wrist to wake the Apple Watch feel so effortless and natural. They supplant even the most fundamental lock screen functionality of the iPhone, like music control, text message preview, or activating Siri. These and other wearable devices now fill roles once entirely consumed by smartphones and are earning a place among the critical items we carry everywhere we go. 2016 research by PWC showed that 57% of us are “excited about the future of wearable technology as a part of everyday life,” up from 41% in 2014, a figure that will continue to climb as wearables make our interactions with technology more efficient and enjoyable. The same study reported that the top reason users stop or decrease their use of wearables is that consumers don’t perceive a pressing need for them — but FaceID creates a compelling use-case for wearables.

Of course, wearables are best suited for small interactions, so their smaller form factor will by no means completely replace their larger-screened counterparts. However, their speed-to-interaction time, streamlined information delivery, and smooth user experience will continue to justify their existence. Just as you wouldn’t open a laptop to check something easily available on your phone, so too do wearables negate the need to constantly take a device out of your pocket.

It would be remiss to not acknowledge the notable challenges that still lie ahead for the wearables market. It’s hard to appreciate time-savings and improvement in UX without already owning and spending intimate time with wearables; so marketers may have difficulty conveying these benefits to new users. And for some, these benefits simply won’t be enough to justify the purchase. Whereas smartphones are often subsidized by wireless carriers or structured for incremental payment, wearables enjoy no such benefits, making “sticker shock” a relevant barrier. Wearables brands must find a more compelling way to position their products. Namely: Wearables don’t aim to fully replace any part of the phone. They should be viewed as accessories to the phone, not as accessories to the person.

Still, my first weekend with the iPhone X leaves me bullish on wearables. Now that I have to stare into the eyes of my device to access it, I find myself reaching for it less and being more aware of when I need to use it. In just two days, my entire handheld tech routine of the last two years was upended and replaced by an undisruptive glance at my wrist. Farewell to the compulsive relationship I had with TouchID, where I would sometimes unlock my device just to check the time. Now that FaceID demands a more effortful interaction, my texts, notifications, music control, and more now fall to the most immediately accessible device I have: my Apple Watch. It allows me to process and discretely triage incoming alerts so I only need to access my phone for in-depth interactions. And it keeps me from going down the distraction rabbit hole so easily accessible with my phone in hand.

As our casual interactions begin to flow more easily through wearable devices, those beautiful iPhone X screens will stay dark just a little bit longer — and the wearable market will be that much brighter.

Bringing more than 10 years of experience building pixel-perfect custom technology products for leading brands, Ian has specialized in implementing front-end responsive web solutions and custom mobile apps for a diverse portfolio of clients ranging from bootstrapped startups to Fortune 500 members.

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