Watch ethnography: how to understand Apple Watch users

Norah Walsh Antropologa social business anthropology

Teleport with me back to September 2014, the month when Apple announced that they would be launching a never-before-seen gadget: The Apple Watch. The had been working on the project for year, with Kevin Lynch in charge of design and development since 2013.

In order to clear away the ocean of mystery surrounding the smartwatch we seemingly all wanted, the agency MBLM conducted an incredibly interesting ethnography: 12 months, 11 participants, 11 watches and many, many recordings.

This wearable gadget, with not many things in common with a watch, would work as a bridge between the user and the Iphone generating a closer and more personal engagement between device and human. Since its early stages the Apple Watch was considered Apple’s most focused on fashion and design device (and the 12-page Vogue special helped position it as must accessory of the season), but also focused on health and exercise.

During the yearlong qualitative study MBLM explored in depth the connexion between the gadget and users, aged 13 to 65, to get to know the technological intimacy the watch claimed to create and how it could alter day to day behaviours on users.

The participants shared with the agency private video entries on a weekly basis, reporting feelings, behaviours, joys or disillusions they experienced using the watch. Additionally, the agency preformed detailed interviews and recorded them on the week, month, six month and year mark.

One week with the Apple Watch

The eleven users that took part in the study received the first version of the Apple Watch. During the first week of the research every participant shared their experiences though video diaries and got together with MBLM on three occasions to talk in depth their journey.

The excitement of the panel is easily perceived through the screen. Visible thrilled, they are proof of the months (perhaps even years) of media speculation and hype bombardment.

The Apple Watch stirred emotions long before its release: web sites, newspapers like The Financial Times or the Wall Street Journal speculated over the features, price and design of the new Apple baby. Could the Apple Watch change the human-technology relationship?  Would the Apple Watch overcome the Iphone success?

To resume what happen during the first week of this study in an agile way I should say that it’s clear Apple product fascinate consumers. There isn’t a lot more to say on the matter. Perhaps the reason behind this irrational love is that Apple knows how to touch their client’s hearts and connects them to tech in an emotional level, perhaps it’s a question of good marketing, but the end result is that their users a run to buy Apple products.



Throughout the first week the panel experience many surprises and excitement but also many frustrations. The initial impressions were of astonishment, admiration and wonder; users connected their new watches to their Iphones and amazed.

The fists days of excitement were short lived: the smartwatch made its way through the lives of the users quickly and stopped being such a big surprise. It even started being a source of frustration to many of them. Though the watch did successfully expand the relationship between user and Iphone, this relation was not as comfortable and smooth as with the “mother device”.

Dependency issues between the watch and the Iphone complicated basic task like going out for a run without your phone, getting a call from another room and answering it on the watch, or staying on top of notifications if you were a bit too far from mama Iphone. Another important detail that triggered frustration was the limited number of apps available on the watch, and the bugs on the one that were available. The “beta” feeling of the Apple Watch bothered the users: they couldn’t answer emails, open social media links or comfortable interact with the screen.

For the different generations participating on the study the learning curve on the use of the watch was drastically different: while millennials considered the watch simple and were able to use it without difficulties in a couple of days, older users had to invest more days into the watch to feel comfortable using it.  

It was the end of the first week and MBLM was starting to wonder why the users were not giving up on the watch even when they seemed frustrated with the learning curve, bugged apps or the Iphone-Watch dependency. Surprisingly, the panel claimed to trust Apple and said to be sure that the company would fix all of the issues quickly. Some of them believed Apple was already working on another version of the watch that could leave behind the current one, and seemed anxious to find out.  In my opinion, not many companies can count on such a high level of trust and expectations quit like Apple.

One month with the Apple Watch

If Apple’s plan was to radically innovate and get Iphone users to change over to the Watch, judging by this first month they didn’t achieve their goal.

Although in theory the Apple Watch was able to substitute most of the Iphone features in a more personal and quick way, all the bugs and dependency problems stopped the users from giving up their phones. Throughout this first month, the Apple Watch proved to be a useful, aesthetically pleasing, practical and not very essential. We again see interesting differences between generations: the younger users claimed to be more connected to their Iphone so less inclined to stop interacting with it.  For them, abandoning interactions with the Iphone made them feel a little bit guilty, and the watch had a constant echo of “if my Iphone can do this, why would I do it the watch?”.

Older users, however, experienced the initial excitement for a longer period of time and while feeling frustrated often they still felt that the Apple Watch made their life easier. Answering a call or a massage without having to fish for your phone in the bag, or keeping track of notifications gave great value to the watch, overcoming many of the negative aspects.

In general terms, the watch was firmly strapped to more than halve of the user’s wrists; they expressed having daily contact with the device.

Six months with the Apple Watch

Crossing the six-month mark was very important for MBLM: the agency asked the panel to spend a week without their watches. At the end of these seven days the participants were recorded sharing their thoughts. Some of the conclusions extracted from this series of interviews are very interesting:

The watch had become another gadget used daily. It had adjusted to each participant’s routine, needs and likes, but it didn’t overpass the use of any other device the users carried. Compared to mama Iphone the watch was not essential or life-changing. Far from ideal, specially amongst the young users, dealing with bugs and design errors was staring to be a big inconvenience. Where were the OS updates, the usability improvements? Siri Watch was still a mess, the watch was used less and for more specific tasks and, another red flag to considers, participant’s social group didn’t use the watch so social interaction through the device was limited.

Surprisingly, users still trusted on Apple fixing the issues and did not express a lack of loyalty to the brand. Their optimism was extraordinary: though Apple had barely exchange any information with the watch early users and no big updates had been introduced, the participants still claimed to feel hope.

One year with the Apple Watch

One of the characteristics that makes Apple special is that it makes sure not to internally compete between products, creating somewhat of a balance between its products focusing on complementarity and not on competitiveness.

During this year-long qualitative study it was evident the Iphone and the Apple Watch did compete on many features: and the watch was losing. Most of the things users could or wanted to do on both devices could be done better, faster and smoother on the Iphone.

With the year almost over some of the bugs were considerable improved, optimizing the user experience: now users could answer emails, interact with a better OS and Apple was emphasising the design identity of the watch by launching exchangeable different coloured bands.

The watch finished the year being used in many different ways; each user worked with some features and ignored the rest. The idea of using it “for everything” did not fit in user’s routines.

How did the panel imagine future versions of the watch? They expressed interest on features concerning health and sports, but also in more general apps available in other Apple devices. Apple stepped up and in the next versions of the watch they introduced important changes, adding more apps and making it waterproof.

The truth is most of the panel claimed not to be interested in buying a new version of the watch unless it drastically changed.

Tying up loose ends

Apple ended up launching other versions of the watch. Series 1, launched in September 2016 and Series 2, launched six months ago.

Many of the observations and frustrations that the users of MBLM’s study experienced were resolved in the new versions of the watch. Apple also continued to work on positioning the watch as a fashion accessory, joining forces with fashion firms like Nike or Hermes to design high end versions of the watch that retail for over one thousand euro and exchangeable fashion-oriented bands.

Staying on top of the many conspiracy theories concerning the alleged current state of panic in Apple since Steve Jobs passed away (and took his ideas with him) is very interesting. Many believe the present Apple management tries to imitate Job’s we-don’t-know-what-he-had channelling their energy into inventing the new Ipod or Iphone. Perhaps the watch was an attempt to create a new world-changing product, but didn’t quite succeed. No matter what, it’s still very interesting learning about how the Apple Watch was born (at end of this post you will find a remarkable piece on this subject).

The wise on this matter seem to agree: Apple rushed the watch. Did they decide to go ahead with it and then think on what was going to make this watch special? Did they innovate, but not too much? We don’t know.

What we do know is that Apple could have saved all this headache not launching the first version of the watch with so many areas to improve. In Hipopotesis we love focusing on human insights and even though MBLM produced many valuable one during the study, they did it when Apple had already invested a lot of time and money in the product, it was already for sale! Apple would have been able to produce all these insights by prototyping, testing and co-designing the end product with real users.

Being able to learn with the users before launching the product would have guaranteed a final device a lot more connected to user’s real needs, saving the pain of selling a product that consumers believe to be bugged.

Interested in getting to know your clients as well as MBLM got to know Apple Watch users? If you have launched a product and it’s not going as well as you expected or if you are currently prototyping one, Hipopotesis can help you understand in depth how your users perceive it, how they use it and what are their frustrations, expectations or perceived gains.


To read on this topic:

-Read MBLM’s ethnography:

1 First Part 

2 Second Part 

3 Third Part

4 Fourth Part

-To get to know Apple Watch history:


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