Translating mobile app design to Apple Watch with Evernote

Sizing down a mobile app from a smartphone to wearable technology is no easy feat -- especially when it comes to designing for arguably the most anticipated smartwatch yet.

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REDWOOD CITY, CALIF.---Sizing down a mobile app from a smartphone to wearable technology is no easy feat -- especially when it comes to designing for arguably the most anticipated smartwatch yet.

Evernote already has a myriad of mobile apps at the ready for its user base of more than 100 million and counting as of the company's last developer summit in October -- 70 percent of whom are said to use the digital notetaking platform for work (a.k.a. Evernote for Business).

That pool covers iOS, Android, Windows Phone, BlackBerry, and "probably a few others I'm forgetting," quipped Jamie Hull, vice president of the product and engineering groups for Evernote's mobile department.

But even looking at just the iOS and Android versions, it is not as simple (or even thinkable) that one could simply drop the same app and functionality onto a wearable device and expect the same results and reactions.

I recently sat down with Hull at the software wunderkind's lustrous and easily Instagrammable-headquarters. (Seriously, there are blackboards on each floor adorned with chalk artwork stylish enough for the most hipster cafés in Brooklyn.)

Hull has been at Evernote for three years, starting as a product manager for the web team, eventually honing in on iOS. Prior to Evernote, she was a product manager at Comcast following a few resumé bullet points at some Bay Area startups, including San Francisco-based publishing startup Blurb.

With Evernote being one of the elite cornucopia of apps at the ready as Apple Watch ships on Friday, Hull had a spectrum of unique insights to share about the app redesign process for new form factors as well as being in on the ground floor as Apple prepares to launch a new vertical of products under global scrutiny.

ZDNet: What did it take to build a mobile app, make it unique but also just as productive as it would be on a desktop browser?

Hull: There are a few things in there. Originally, when we were building for the iPhone, you weren't necessarily looking for unique. You were actually looking for dependable -- feels like a responsible app, feels like an app that's going to be around for the long haul.

That was really important when the platform was first getting established. You had all these crazy apps that you assumed people were going to abandon because no one was going to have time to maintain them. So in the early days, we were looking for utility, something that people would easily understand and would feel is a valuable app for them.

I think the way that's changed overtime as the iOS and Android platforms have matured, you have more leeway in designs users are going to understand. There are certain things people take for granted now. A plus button in the top right for iOS or bottom right for Android is always going to create a new thing of whatever you're looking at right now. That's just something people get these days. Four, five, six years ago, that wasn't really true.

That's a really bad trap for us to fall into when you think about how complex the Evernote ecosystem is. The idea we build every single feature in similar ways on every platform is going to get us into trouble.

Now you have a lot more flexibility to play around with the UI and give experiences that are not just utilitarian, but just really nice. That's our focus these days: how do we marry productivity and experiences that feel good?

I think that comes down to figuring out use cases. What do people want to do with Evernote on the phone? You always have to assume, most of the time, they actually have a desktop nearby for certain things. During the workday, if we're really building for knowledge workers, you have a desktop nearby. So what role does a phone play in that world? Is there also a universe where you need to think about the phone on-the-go entirely?

When we look at our mobile apps, note creation and note capture has to be really quick. The camera tends to be really important. It's always better to take photos with your phone than your laptop. The other one when you're talking about Evernote on mobile is quick recall. No one is spending a ton of time reading notes on their phone. It's not our primary use case, but we support it.

But it's more about reference material. For example, I took a web clip of my travel itinerary and now I need to remember the confirmation code at the airport so I can type it in. Those are the kinds of use cases we think about when building for mobile.

Whereas for desktop, you probably are reading. You're much more in a long form read or long form write mode. Also much heavier on the organizational side. People on desktop spend time picking things up and putting them in notebooks and thinking about tag structures. You don't do that as much on mobile.

Tablet is a bit of a hybrid. You have to solve the on-the-go cases as well as tablets attached to keyboards, which are becoming more prevalent. We try to hit a balance there where it does a bit more heavy lifting than the phone but not as much as the desktop.

ZDNet: Were there any surprises when building these mobile apps? Either the way people responded to a feature you didn't expect to be popular or when you thought you hit it out the park...but didn't?

Hull: Sure, when we first redesigned for iOS 7, one of the earliest things was we had taken out a feature called "Places." It was the ability to view your notes by location. It seemed like a pretty edge case. Not a lot of people; we didn't see a lot of usage if you looked at the numbers. Also, the idea that people on their phones would go into Evernote and view their notes based on a map...how were people using this?

So we decided to take it out. You could still search by location and get that information. But the idea you'd view it on the map, we thought it's not something people are going to use.

But very quickly, we discovered there were specific user groups for which we had broken their entire workflows. Realtors was an easy one to point out. They went to the app and searched by location, looking for "notes by me" on the map. It would pull them all up and it was very organized by where comps are, what's for sale, etc. There wasn't really a good way to accomplish that with us having taken that out. So it was one of those things internally it seemed like people didn't use much and made the app complicated, so maybe we should take it out.

Ultimately, we rethought it a bit and put it back in. When we put it back, we tried to make it more useful for those use cases, so if you wanted it, it did the job better now that we knew what it was for.

ZDNet: When it comes to adding new features, are these based more on customer demand or in response to marketplace trends?

Hull: We tend not to do either of those things. Our philosophy for the longest time was that we built for ourselves. We built features that would be most valuable to us during our workday, and the trickle-out effect would be stuff that was more useful for other Evernote users like us. If you were to only build to our user requests, we would build very crazy things, very niche scenarios.

ZDNet: What's one of the crazier suggestions you've received?

Hull: Definitions of crazy do vary. They tend to be more desktop-oriented, where people want an importer from a service we've never heard of before. For example, Twitter to Evernote, back when this was really a thing. Such as, "I want every single Tweet that ever mentioned me to show up in my Evernote account." Like, that's going to be a terrible account. How are you going to use that later? Every Tweet of everyone you follow?

There are other things that aren't particularly crazy, but they don't fit the platform. If someone asked "Why can't I tag notes for the Apple Watch?", that's really not a good use case for the Watch.

So you have to come back from there and say, if we have calendar access, we could probably show the business cards in your timeline with meeting attendees. So you take that sci-fi future and boil it down to what is possible today.

We really try to keep those things in mind. Yeah, these are valid, but let's make them really great for the platform it belongs on and not build everything everywhere. That's a really bad trap for us to fall into when you think about how complex the Evernote ecosystem is. The idea we build every single feature in similar ways on every platform is going to get us into trouble.

ZDNet: Let's pivot then into wearables from a broad perspective because Apple Watch is not the first wearable you guys have worked on. (Note: Evernote is on at least six wearables.) What went into the initial brainstorming process and then deploying them?

Hull: The earliest ones were Pebble and Samsung Galaxy Gear. There have been a handful along the way -- not all of them saw the light of day. Google Glass, for example, we did an integration with them. Very small market of people that actually got to see that and play with it.

The brainstorming process starts with, in those, a lot of what was possible. The early APIs were fairly limited in what you could do. You built your UI from that. Can we show you a note list? Can you view a note? If you can do these things, we start to build UIs around them.

If you look at some of our earliest wearables apps, they feel like little phone apps. They mimic that same structure. They weren't trying to be particularly different. You actually could go on Pebble to your notebook list and see the note list within that notebook. Very hierarchical because that was how we had been designing for awhile.

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We always try to start the brainstorming process from what would be awesome. You have to hone in on what's available. I remember some of the first conversations around Google Glass, wondering if it does face recognition, we'll pull up the business card of the person you're looking at so you can remember their name, title, where they work, and everything right off the bat. I still want it! I need that in my life.

But obviously, that's not possible -- and it's certainly not possible on, you know, version 0.9 on an API. So you have to come back from there and say, if we have calendar access, we could probably show the business cards in your timeline with meeting attendees. So you take that sci-fi future and boil it down to what is possible today.

ZDNet: What was something possible on either Pebble or Glass?

Hull: For Pebble, we definitely spent time working on things like reminders, notifications, and being able to bring information up that you'd at least asked to be reminded of. If you look at where it's headed now, you can do that preemptively and say you're probably going to want this. In previous iterations, we've just relied on users telling us what they need and then making sure we give it to them when we need it.

Checklists. We had to think about what's a note-editing experience, if there's anything. Is there any reason to edit on a wearable? Isn't it always going to be better doing it basically anywhere else? The exception we found that was basically true was a checklist. It is actually much faster to scroll, check, scroll, check as you're walking through a grocery store than it is to have your phone in your hand and do it.

Those are two quick things that resonated for people. Also those early v1 pieces of hardware, our user base was willing to work in a way that they're not anymore. The same was probably true for the earliest adopters of the iPhone. You would put up with crasher apps, apps where the user experience didn't make a ton of sense as long as you could find what you needed, still fulfilling a role for you. I think early wearables are sort of like that. You've got these super gadget geeks, for a lack of a better word, who just want to play with stuff.

If you get the intersection of super gadget geek and hardcore Evernote user, you give them a wearable device, they will absolutely sit there with buttons and jump in and out of menus, and dig down for what they are looking for. They're willing to do it because they're invested in our ecosystem and also invested in seeing those platforms do well.

The tolerance for that is going to change over time. We made that assumption for sure going in with the Apple Watch. We're building for a different user base. If we built something for the Apple Watch that felt like some of these earlier wearables, we're really limiting our potential success there - and users' love for it.

It's less about being additive and more about refining. For Apple Watch, we wanted to take a look at what that user base is going to look like and how is that different than our previous user bases for wearables.

ZDNet: Who do you see as that user base with the Apple Watch?

Hull: You're still going to see primarily knowledge workers, people in office buildings, people who are still early adopters for the most part. I don't imagine you're going to get the broadest possible base for wearables on v1. When you hit v2 of that hardware, I wouldn't be surprised if you saw broader adoption. But really, it's people working in office spaces.

You will see more who aren't -- that fitness realm Apple is obviously trying to go after. Sort of like fitness/travel/lifestyle focus. That's a more general consumer market there. We're actually hoping to reach some of those folks. This is our opportunity with a wearable to try and hit a broader selection of people.

ZDNet: I assume those features you mentioned on Pebble, like Checklists, those will all be on Apple Watch?

Hull: Yeah, you want to bring over the good. Learn from your mistakes, what trips people up on a previous generation. But bring over what works well. Checklists was a straight forward one. I was surprised how many people wanted to do that. We can't have the new generation of a mobile app feel like a step backwards.

ZDNet: How do you want to take that step forward? What do you want to add on Apple Watch?

Hull: It's less about being additive and more about refining. For Apple Watch, we wanted to take a look at what that user base is going to look like and how is that different than our previous user bases for wearables. Again, if you're looking at broader adoption potentially consumers not super familiar with Evernote, we need to think about simplifying. We can't go in with everything we can possibly do. What are the simplest use cases we can bring to people that feel useful?

The other part of it when we were designing for Apple Watch was we wanted to hit something that has a high utility. So it is actually adding something to your work day if you use Evernote on your Apple Watch instead of it is reference material. This was a time when we took a step back and said how we can make sure that the watch app we build this time around is allowing people to get work done in a way they couldn't on another device.

When you're talking about Apple Watch, you know the iPhone is going to be there. You know the iPhone is going to be available. For some of the other devices, that may not be true. We know for sure your phone is in Bluetooth range. What are the reasons you would use it on your watch if your phone is there? It gave us a new framing for the design exercise.

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ZDNet: What are some of the joint possibilities with iPhone -- or even iPad -- being that close in range?

Hull: What's important to note there is anything that takes more than a couple seconds is going to be better on your phone.

Think of core Evernote use cases: make a note, edit a note, look for a note, and view a note. Those are super straightforward, those are your top four. Which of those would belong on a watch?

Make a note. If you can say, remember to do this thing, it makes me that more productive without my phone. But edit a note? You can't insert a cursor on that tiny screen with precise placement. That didn't seem like a very good idea to use after looking at the possible ways to do that.

For searching and viewing, those made sense to us. However, they have an asterisk on them. People aren't going to want to do them in volume. You're not going to want to scroll a 10,000-note list on a watch. If you're a core Evernote user, you probably have anywhere from a couple hundred to many thousands of notes.

So we had to figure out how to solve that problem. You do want to look at notes on a watch, but you only want to look at the ones that are going to be important right now. If we just rely on general note lists, sort by date created or date updated, we're not giving you anything of real value. It would have been better for you to pull out your other devices, like iPhone or iPad.

ZDNet: But won't Apple Watch have its own checklist and reminders apps?

Hull: Apple will always have their base included apps, such as reminders and notes apps. They're great. We use them here for specific use cases. But they tend to be limited in functionality. They're starter apps on a platform. They teach you what's possible.

They come to Evernote when they hit the walls. You hit the bounds of what you can get done in the Notes app and want something for more detailed formatting. Or paste in and save all the text from an email and keep that in the same place as the checklist I'm already running.

That's where we come in. That's Evernote's sweet spot: people looking for more out of an application.

That's been true on every platform. When we worked with Android and are looking at Samsung devices, they have the S Note app. That's great! You have people convinced they need to take notes on a phone. Then when they realize that's all they can do on your app, pass them over to us and we can help grow them up into bigger, badder notetakers.

The same is true on the Apple Watch. I don't know the functionality of Apple's Notes or Reminders apps on the Watch on Day 1. I imagine they're going to be pretty useful and pretty well integrated. They have the advantage at the OS level that we're not going to be able to do.

But they're still going to have limited scope. The strength on our platform is the other stuff you can do.

Images via Evernote

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