Home Why Phone Notifications Don’t Belong On Your Wrist

Why Phone Notifications Don’t Belong On Your Wrist

Would you want to check your watch as much as your phone?

Start shopping for a smartwatch, and you’ll notice—no matter what the make and model—that the ability to show notifications from your phone is touted as one of the major selling points. But is this feature actually such a benefit in everyday use?

No need to take your phone out of your pocket, because your tweets are right there on your watch. Leave your mobile in your desk drawer, because your emails come straight to your wrist. Manage your texts without launching apps, unlocking screens or even typing. It’s all here.

There are tales of early Apple Watch testers barely using their iPhones because they’re managing everything on their wrists. “I like to be able to look at my watch without pulling my phone out all the time,” said Apple’s Kevin Lynch during Monday’s Apple Watch event, as he walked the audience through numerous app demonstrations.

In many smartwatch sales pitches we’re promised freedom from our smartphones: less time checking our mobiles and more time interacting in the real world and focusing on what’s in front of us. Here’s the potential problem: the exact opposite happens, and you become more attached to scanning for notifications, not less.

The Tiny Screen That Eats The World

Everyone who owns a smartphone knows the temptation there is to look for a new tweet, email, text or IM every couple of minutes, even when you haven’t felt a buzz or heard a tone. Drop your phone into a bag or turn it upside on a table and that temptation is diminished somewhat. But if it’s right there on your wrist, it never goes away.

The accessibility and always-on nature of wearables offer some great opportunities, but allowing relentless smartphone chatter to intrude even further into our real lives should not be one of them. The data suggests that on average we’re checking our phones more than 100 times a day. Are we sure we know what we’re doing by transferring that urge to a screen that’s even closer and requires no unlocking?

I’ve tested several Android Wear smartwatches over the last year as part of my duties as a tech journalist. I found that the act of checking my wrist was so easy—a quick movement and glance—that I was doing it almost constantly. And that’s a problem if you have anything else to do (like pretending to listen to a presentation).

In my experience, these devices didn’t give me more time to focus on the real world (whether that means friends, work, dinner or a movie), they actually made me more distracted. It was harder than ever to stay in the moment, whether my watch was chiming or not, because the option to escape was always there.

Alerts, Alerts Everywhere

That wasn’t the only problem. If you’ve got your computer set up to show phone alerts as well, like I have, then that’s three devices going off every time something new happens. With a system like Apple’s iMessage or Google Hangouts configured you could have even more.

Of course, you can cut down and manage this overload without too much effort—though it still does take effort, one of the countless small adjustments our personal technology seems to require of us on a regular basis. Even when I did so, though, it still felt like Twitter, Facebook, Gmail and their brethren were encroaching even further into my personal space.

In most cases you’re just going to pull your mobile out anyway, to get a better look at what’s just happened. For me, having notifications on my wrist became a gateway drug to even more smartphone use, not a cure or a replacement for it.

I’ve been a “dumb watch” wearer for many years, and once the review units had been packed away and sent back, it came as something of a relief to be able to once more check the time without knowing which apps were clamouring for my attention.

What Does Belong On Your Wrist?

That’s not to say smartwatches are a bad idea—unwholesome devices that will inevitably suck us further and further into the digital app vortex. But how we use them, and what’s displayed on them, needs some serious thought.

Take being able to walk through an airport gate with your arms full of luggage, for example, or paying for a transaction with a wave of your wrist, or getting navigation directions via haptic feedback while your hands are on the handlebars of your bike. These are all genuinely useful real-world applications.

Then there are the extensive health and fitness tracking features available on most smartwatch models and much more suited to a wearable than a smartphone. Being able to actually check the time with a glance—via a range of personalized watch faces—shouldn’t be forgotten either.

Even alerts have their place: pop-ups when your flight is delayed, perhaps, or a meeting is about to start, or there’s a weather warning. Google Now is making some useful progress with context-sensitive notifications that only show up when needed, and it’ll be interesting to see if Apple does anything similar.

But a smartwatch used primarily as an extension of a mobile phone? Or even worse, a shrunk-down mobile phone? That’s a less appealing prospect. Smartwatch makers, app developers and end users should think long and hard about what makes these wearables compelling. It’s not being able to check your emails on your wrist.

Image via Apple

About ReadWrite’s Editorial Process

The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

Get the biggest tech headlines of the day delivered to your inbox

    By signing up, you agree to our Terms and Privacy Policy. Unsubscribe anytime.

    Tech News

    Explore the latest in tech with our Tech News. We cut through the noise for concise, relevant updates, keeping you informed about the rapidly evolving tech landscape with curated content that separates signal from noise.

    In-Depth Tech Stories

    Explore tech impact in In-Depth Stories. Narrative data journalism offers comprehensive analyses, revealing stories behind data. Understand industry trends for a deeper perspective on tech's intricate relationships with society.

    Expert Reviews

    Empower decisions with Expert Reviews, merging industry expertise and insightful analysis. Delve into tech intricacies, get the best deals, and stay ahead with our trustworthy guide to navigating the ever-changing tech market.