The Challenging Ergonomics of an Apple iWatch

| Editorial

There is no doubt that Apple can make an iWatch that does all the right things: works as a standalone device and helps us monitor our health and upcoming events. Plus all the other cool stuff we know an iWatch can do. However, the biggest challenge may simply be good old-fashioned ergonomics.


I've seen lots of concept designs for a possible iWatch that are strikingly beautiful and functional. The ones I like the most are from Todd Hamilton and Martin Hajek, shown below. The focus of these designs seems to be something dramatically beautiful and Applesque functional.

Concept by Martin Hajek

What interests me, however, is the ergonomics. This is something that's a lot harder to deal with because it requires experts in human physiology to work closely with the designer of the look of the iWatch. Beautiful renderings generally don't address that issue.

It all starts, for me, with the idea that we'll want to wear this device 24 x 7. In my case, I have found that watches with metal bands dig into my wrist and are always painful. I have to use a soft plastic or leather watch band. And even then, I take it off at night so that the red marks on my wrist can recover.

A watch we'll want to wear all day long has to fit so well, for lots of different sized people, that it's never painful. It needs to come off quickly, yet be secure so that it's isn't lost on the subway. This will be a fairly expensive item, and so a loose, circular band, like a bracelet just won't do. It needs to be waterproof, and Apple has never made a waterproof product. It must be so comfortable that it feels like a second skin, and yet not accumulate water during the morning shower.

Men's and women's watch sizes are now standard. Unless Apple intends to make one size for women and one size for men, an adjustable band will have to be very clever.

An iWatch needs to account for the clumsy amongst us who may bang it against a door knob or a refrigerator door. It may need to have a sapphire crystal to keep it from getting scratched and be able to withstand a healthy shock in everyday use. More than any iOS device we now use, I expect it will take a beating. But we'll want it to retain its beauty.

It the iWatch is so integrated into our lives, awake and asleep, what will we do when playing sports? Throw it into pocket during flag football? That sounds like a bad day when one falls on it when in a jeans pocket.

What about battery charging? A device that's intended to be always worn shouldn't have to be removed just to charge the battery. I've seen stories of a solar powered iWatch, and I think that's the way to go. Except for customers in Sweden and Norway.

If we wear it to bed, will it make obnoxious beeps that might disturb a spouse?

Will it be so tough, ABS plastic and sapphire, that if it gets caught in some machinery that the wrist bones give before the watchband does?

While not strictly an ergonomic issue, what if the iWatch we want to always have with us violates government security rules in the workplace, and we have to surrender it to the security guard every day.  What a mess that would be.

Concept by Todd Hamilton

These are just some of the initial thoughts I've been having about iWatch ergonomics. Apple has its work cut out. All the cool technology Apple puts into the iWatch may be fairly straightforward compared to the ergonomic issues for a new class of device: something so darn useful and integrated into our lives that we never want to take it off.

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Mike Weasner

John, you mentioned concerns with solar charging from a couple of countries.  Actually, solar charging a watch can be a problem from any location in winter when the user is wearing a winter coat or even any coat with long sleeves.  And of course, long sleeves, especially if tight fitting, could prevent using the watch for its intended functions.  I’m not yet convinced that an iWatch would be that useful to me when outdoors.


I expect it will take a beating

The iWatch. It takes a beating and keeps on….eating?

OK, their might be a rhyme problem.


OK all kidding aside I still don’t see the iWatch as something I would want. First, I stopped wearing a watch a few years ago. The reason was that a watch as a time piece was redundant when nearly every device and appliance had a clock in it. It did not perform a function I needed any longer and so wasn’t worth the hassle and discomfort. This is why I don’t see the iWatch as a must have, for me at least. The functions discussed here and elsewhere aren’t something I need or want badly enough to put up with the hassle and discomfort.

That goes x100 if it’s just a portal for an iPhone. I has to have it’s own functions and not require another device in my pocket to work. That was the biggest problem with the Samsung SmartWatch. (OK it didn’t help that the battery life was measured in minutes and it was butt-ugly too.) It requires a Galaxy phone in your pocket to do anything. So first the iWatch has to be a stand on it’s won product. Then it has to do something, actually a bunch of somethings, that I need and do them better than what I have.

If anyone can get it right it’s Apple but it’s going to be a tall order.

Oh and one more thing. solar sounds great but the trouble is not just winter coats. Businessmen wear suits and shirts with long sleeves. Actually a lot of people wear long sleeves for protection or due to dress code. I like the idea but doubt it would be practical.


Todd’s example is more to what I think would be done. The first example uses
skeuomorphism which I think is ridiculous in this case.  Take Todd’s idea but make the band super thin as it wraps the underside of wrist. Newer materials like carbon fiber could be used to make an iron strong paper thin strap. The same carbon fiber woven “patches”  can contain sensors that will be sewn into shirts, blouses, pants, shoes, glasses, hats, gloves, and along with sensor equipped hardware - phones, phabs, cameras, cars etc to complete the loop for “smart” device ecosystem. Apple is scrambling to sign up big name clothing companies as we speak and I don’t think it’s for a new line of iHankys but you never know. Apple model Fruit of the Loom shirts, Hanes socks up to high end shirts and suits with the Apple logo sewn in as in “Apple Equipped” ? You bet.
  The iWatch has to be a conduit to a sensor heavy world coming;  a fancy shmancy watch by itself would seem like a desperate move to “innovate” for a need that doesn’t exist just because stockholders are antsy about Apple’s self-made mythical innovation hype.


I’m one of the few who still wear watches because I don’t enjoy having to pull my mobile out of my pocket just to check the time.  Aside from being an inconvenience, it’s terribly rude if you’re in a meeting and you are not the boss.

Watch batteries last at least a year and most people go to a jewelry/electronics counter to replace them, so I don’t see battery replacement to be an issue for most people.  And seriously Mr. M, even if you want to wear a watch 24/7, you still won’t.  It’s downright unhealthy to keep a patch of skin continuously unexposed.  Reasonable people will still remove the device even if it’s just for 5 minutes a day.

That said, for me, battery replacement is an issue.  That’s why I wore only automatic watches until Seiko’s Kinetic watches finally shrunk to a reasonable size.  Used to be, an automatic movement with quartz accuracy cost an arm and a leg, both to purchase and to maintain.  (Have you asked lately how much it costs to overhaul an Omega?)  I wonder if a kinetic-type mechanism could be compact enough and generate enough juice to run an iWatch pretty much for perpetuity.


My Pops was a watch designer for Elgin watch co. I remember getting all sorts of prototypes as a kid like the first self winding ones. One of those self winding watches - might have been the first Timex one never broke, I wore it for a decade.
Either way, I don’t see kinetic charging in a solar electric world. The glucose battery seems a tick away though, and if the casing was made out of Hemp you could recycle the battery by eating or smoking.

John Martellaro

aardman: I agree about keeping a patch of skin covered. That’s just another ergonomic issue to deal with. Perhaps it will have its own sensor and provide its own warning: “I see you haven’t moved about lately. Are you reading? Now might be a good time to take this iWatch off, give your wrist a break.”

The possibilities will be fascinating.

And a kinetic mechanism, while old-school, might just be new again. grin


For 3 reasons, if Apple does release an “iWatch” I don’t think it will have any kind of display beyond the time and date (if that).
1. The more buzz I hear about devices monitoring your biorythms makes more sense to me than just another device that alerts you with notifications.  I can see a lot of people - myself included - could be enticed to wear a device 24/7 that promises some health benefit rather than just purely news and entertainment consumption
2. More and more I notice that iOS devices, through economies of scale, the amount of raw computing horsepower in such a small device, and the generous screen real estate, are becoming the brains for more and more electronic devices instead of throwing a crummy little LCD display and programmeable chip in the electronic device.  Be it remote controls for other devices, blood pressure monitors, oscilloscopes, or grilling thermometers, there’s a growing trend to just let your phone be the controller instead of coming up with a half-baked solution on your own.
3. The LiveStrong bracelets provide a precedent for one type of wearable device that average people will commit to wearing for extended periods of time.  It appears to satisfy all the issues John mentioned about comfort and durability.

I wonder if it’s possible to have such a device that worn so close to the skin be able to use the human body as a charger?  Or maybe the natural motion of walking or raising one’s arm can create enough kinetic energy to act as a charging mechanism? 

I like where CudaBoy is going with this, maybe the answer is something not to be worn separately, but something that can be integrated into your clothing itself.


Some of these rumored iWatch functions get into the medical appliance field. That is quite a different business than consumer electronics. It has multiple regulatory and liability issues that do not fit well with mass market consumer goods.

Alex LSW

I think what could be the primary feature of an iWatch would be on identity based functions.

The fingerprint id security could enable an individual to do away with security passes, unlocking car doors, home security, movie tickets, transport passes, etc.

For commercial purposes, replace VISA cards, membership discounts, etc


One huge issue I see with an iWatch is that hands, especially two hands, can not be counted on for any input (or other) purposes.
The hands are free, and yet they are not really available, and one hand AND arm are encumbered.

This is not a complete deal-breaker (there are other ways to do input), but it is a limitation.  I like using my hands on a computer…..and if the iWatch isn’t intended to be a full computer that lessens its interest to me as well.

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