Sporting Apple Watch: a Runner’s Experience

How does Apple Watch UX rate for runners? Do you need to tote your iPhone? What about battery life? A field test proves my expectations wrong.

It came encased in a slender plastic shell reminiscent of the early MacBooks. Together with the accessories and spartan user’s guides, the shell came entombed in a snug fitting, Jony-Ive-white box.

My 38 mm Apple Watch Sport practically jumped outta the box to hug my 51 mm wide wrist. Some of the guys at work got on my case for not ordering The 42 mm one. But I think it’s the perfect size.

Just a few hours of work left before I finally get to hit the road – with running shoes on my feet and a quite expensive fitness band on my wrist. In all my years of running, I’ve never relied on electronics to measure my meters or plot my pulse. I even hang up my headphones, preferring to listen to my body’s natural rhythm.

But the digital world has been a’ buzz over the last couple years with new gadgets aimed at quantifying sleeping, working, moving and living. It was just a matter of time before I strapped on some sensors.

Not-So-Great Expectations

In the months leading up to the Watch’s release, I’d been contemplating its benefits for running. Some blog articles decried the poor battery life and screen size, others questioned the usefulness of a smartwatch that can become outdated as quickly as a smartphone.

I strapped on Apple Watch Sport with these expectations:

  • It’ll do and iffy job when Bluetooth is off
  • It’ll get in the way while running
  • It’ll become a beeping, buzzing distraction
  • It won’t reliably measure my heart rate
  • The Fitness app on the Apple Watch will be used by the most users, as it is a default app
  • Battery life will spoil my fun

So I put my Watch to the test:

  • I took it with me on a regular weekday evening run, which usually takes me about 35 minutes to complete
  • I put my iPhone into Flight Mode to see if it works on its own
  • Test of battery life, noted down the battery level when I started out: 18% percent.
  • There are tons of fitness apps out there – I just wanted to try out Apple’s Fitness app since it’s the default fitness app on the Watch

Selecting a Workout

After opening the Fitness app, you’re presented with a list of workout types: from “Outdoor Run” to “Rower” to “Other”.

I select “Outdoor Run” and see the Calories page with a big red Start button. On the same hierarchical level is a page for time, one for distance and one for…”Open”?

Each page has its own Start button and its own color, which is a bit misleading. A tad bit more wording – i.e. “by calories”, “by distance”, “by time” and “just track my workout” – would have made that easier to understand for me.

And on an IA level, I’d expect to select one of the workout programs before pressing Start.

I go with the default calorie selection, press the big red Start button and see a circular dial fill and then count down, “Ready…3…2…1…”. Then the time elapsed begins, and I let my feet guide the way.

Ergonomics

My course takes me to the fields in the outskirts of Bonn. The evening sun is warm and still glaring.

I expected a weighty watch that would slow the sway of my left arm. But the mini wearable is surprisingly light. Not as slight as a Swatch or a Casio, but it doesn’t inhibit your motion. And although the watches smooth plastic band sits snuggly, it feels comfortable. It seems to loosen up with heat and sweat.

Despite my stride, I did notice the gentle haptic feedback when my battery was getting low and when I completed my fitness goal.

Reading Vitals and Checking Progress

Making out the smallest digits on a postage-stamp-sized shiny display in the evening sun light is not easy. For me that’s one of the biggest drawbacks.

Also, forget about trying to navigate between apps or interact too much with your Watch when you’re at a full gallop. Unless you’ve got a surgeon’s precision, you’re not gonna be able to tap the screen precisely when really running.

But I really liked the split view for the current program. Instead of scrolling vertically through information, navigation between time elapsed, pace, distance, calories and heart rate is page-based, so current time and time elapsed remain in view.

Heart rate monitoring via optical sensors is the biggest reason to buy for me. I was all the more pleased to see that whenever I lifted my wrist, the Watch didn’t go back to the watch face as it normally would when another app was open. Rather, it kept my selected view in the Fitness app displayed, kind of blocking the “return to home” behavior.

Calling it Quits

Pausing or stopping the program to take pictures, chat up a passing neighbor or do stretches is no problem with Force Touch. The new gesture makes it very easy to call up a contextual menu on such a small screen without navigating away from the main view.

When I was about 150 calories from reaching my workout goal of 350, my Apple Watch gently tapped my wrist, notifying me that its battery was low. It asked me if it should go into Power Reserve (battery saving) mode. Naw, I thought. Let’s just see if it’ll keep pace with me.

Battery Life

I hadn’t charged my Watch after unpacking it, and midway through my workout, I got a low-power warning.

Worried about whether it would hold out, I picked up the pace to reach my calorie goal.

Fortunately, my Watch stayed on until I completed my workout and got home.

A one-hour workout used about 20% battery life.

Running Buddy, Coach or Companion?

I had to run around a few blocks extra than I normally do to meet my workout goal. But it’s fun to see how many calories my Watch says I’ve burned.

During my run, my Watch didn’t bother me with motivational tips or try to be a butt-kicker like a coach would. It also didn’t try to entertain me with music, jokes or useless information like a running buddy would.

Once I hit the 350 mark, I get a gentle tap and hear a soft chime. I glance down at my wrist: “Summary / Outdoor Run / 101% complete” and a satisfying full circle. The Watch briefly flashes something along the lines of, “Did you enjoy your first workout?”, but I didn’t quite catch it.

The Activity app also flashed up a screen about me reaching some sort of daily goal, which was also cool to see.

All in all, my Apple Watch provided just the right informational tidbits that I could consume at a glance – all without a host device. Once I took my phone off Flight Mode, my Watch pushed all my workout data to it silently and automatically. And the wrist wrangler felt comfortable the whole way.

So will my Apple Watch Sport accompany me from now on after all of these years doing without fitness gadgets?

I can live without it. But since it doesn’t disrupt the rhythm of the run, it'll definitely make for a pleasant partner.

A Sporting User Experience at a Glance

  • Apple Watch Sport is your non-obtrusive companion during the running experience
  • You can leave your iPhone at home!!!
  • Battery life is not great during a workout. A one-hour workout used about 20% battery life.
  • Sharing data with your iPhone is super easy. All your data automatically appears in the Health app
  • Microinteractions such as “show heart rate“ or “show distance traveled” were easy enough to do while running
  • Force Touch is a huge help with interacting with a small screen
  • Animations make it easier to understand a task flow
  • And most importantly for designing apps for smartwatches: keep the usage context in mind! For fitness apps that means the user might be moving when interacting with the UI.