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Mobile Apps Design Features Maps

Wearable maps: making at-a-glance nav for smartwatches

Talk to any designer and they'll tell you the same thing: "it's all about turning constraints into opportunities." But at the start of 2014, Karen Janssen’s design constraints got a lot tighter than our team has faced to date.

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Karen led the team that designed the HERE for Gear navigation app. The app comes pre-installed on Samsung’s latest smartwatch, the Samsung Gear S, which ships today. Similar to HERE on Android or Windows Phone, the navigation app offers turn-by-turn pedestrian navigation and public transit routing, but with one significant difference. While smartphones screens run five inches or even more these days, the Samsung Gear S has a two-inch screen.

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“Normally you know the old constraints,” Karen told us in an interview. “But this was a new challenge with new constraints.”

For Karen and her team, it wasn’t just the smaller screen size that made this assignment challenging. The context of a watch and the way people use them are very different from smartphones, she said, lifting her wrist to mimic the way someone checks the time.

“We all have had a watch at some point in our lives. We are very used to it,” she added.

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The Berlin-based designer says she focused on translating the same behavior people have learned over the years into a new, navigation-based offering. People might walk for blocks with their heads buried in their smartphone, but only quickly glance at their watch to get the time. In the same time it takes to do that, Karen wanted Gear S owners to be able to glance at their HERE for Gear app and know exactly what to do.

That meant looking step by step at how people use watches, and determining what the right information was at the right moment. It also meant getting rid of any extraneous information that users didn’t need to take the next action, she said.

“Anything that was more informative or gave you more context was basically a second step,” she added.

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Karen and her team took a minimalist approach with the app’s transit routing, for example. After typing in a new destination or picking a familiar one amongst favorites, the app tells users when they should leave and how long the journey will take. In the same screen, it also indicates via color coding which trains Gear fans should take and how many times they have to transfer. Should Gear fans need more information, it’s just one button to access live turn-by-turn guidance or they can scroll down for a step by step list of directions. At any point, the classic digital map view is also available.

Ultimately, that was what made designing HERE for Gear for Samsung so interesting, Karen says – not adding additional features, but rather expanding and innovating on the most basic features of HERE navigation for a completely new device.

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