Wear OS Standalone

Image with an Android Wear 2.0 watch on the left displaying the app launcher with Play Store and other apps on its screen, and diagram showing new standalone watch relationship with the phone on the right.
Android Wear 2.0 introduced the concept of a standalone watch that didn’t rely on the phone. Diagram on the right from the Google I/O announcement of Android Wear 2.0, copyright Google.

Wear OS by Google (previously called Android Wear) is a smartwatch operating system. The early versions of smartwatches promised hands-free connectivity, but still required people to be tethered to their phones to get many on-watch experiences. This also impacted iOS users from using an Android Wear device as they were entirely prevented from downloading 3P watch apps. These issues impacted the perceived usefulness of smartwatches, evidenced in general industry coverage about smartwatches and in our own research.

When I joined the Android Wear team, I saw the opportunity to transform the smartwatch experience by enabling the devices to go standalone from the phone, and took steps to make it a reality.

Leading visioning for the standalone watch

I organized and led a strategic workshop with a group of UX, research, PM, and Engineering to explore the potential of a standalone watch. Using inputs from that session, I crafted a pitch that highlighted the opportunity for standalone smartwatches and what pieces we needed to build to go standalone. This included the need for on-watch authentication and permissions, which I took forward.

Designing the Google Account model & credential handover

First I needed to define the model for how Google Accounts were stored on the watch. I drove toward a solution where the watch, like the phone, can store none, one, or multiple Google accounts. Those Google accounts would only be necessary for signing into individual apps, such as Gmail, but not necessary to manage the watch overall.

Image showing screens during setup as accounts are passed from the phone to the watch
I designed a companion app setup flow that enabled a user to pass Google Account and Wi-Fi credentials from their phone to their watch.

I then designed the Android Wear setup flow to include a one-time transfer of Google Account and Wi-Fi credentials from the smartphone to the watch. This enabled a person’s watch to be quickly connected to the same Wi-Fi network as their phone, and to be automatically signed in to their Google Accounts (and 1P Google watch apps) straight after setup. I also designed for cases like signing in to multiple Google Accounts, re-authentication due to token expiry, and account errors.

Images showing different Google Account sign in approaches
One of the cases I designed for was how an app chose to sign in using a Google Account after credential handover at setup

Designing on-watch authentication for 3P apps

I defined and designed authentication patterns for 3P Wear apps, many of which were first-of-their-kind for smartwatches. On-watch authentication for 3P apps allowed users to download and run apps on the go even if their phones were not available, and store the apps’ account information on the watch.

Image showing designs of multiple sign-in experiences on watch
I designed multiple patterns for on-watch sign in to support users and developers with different needs. From top to bottom: Sign in with a Google Account; sign in using credentials on the phone via the Data Layer API; sign in using on-watch keyboard. Images from the Android Developers Guide, copyright Google.

Designing on-watch runtime permissions

Standalone watch apps also needed a way to request permissions, such as location, without the user needing to open a permission screen on the phone. I defined on-watch permissions patterns and best practices for apps, including a framework for deciding how and when to request a permission.

Example of one of the first on-watch permissions scenarios I designed. Image from the Android Developers Guide, copyright Google.

Publish guidelines for authentication and permissions

Finally, I wrote and created assets for guidelines and best practices for on-watch authentication and permissions for the Android Developer guidelines. Although the visual design of the OS has been updated since I published these guidelines, all of the best practices I defined are still reflected in the current version (see authentication guidelines and permissions guidelines).

Flow chart illustrating how to prompt for sign-in
Snippet from one of the guidelines I developed for authentication on Wear OS, a flow chart for deciding when and how to request sign-in on the watch. Image from the Android Developers Guide, copyright Google.

Overall, standalone watch functionality was a marquee marketing feature for Android Wear 2.0 and opened up new possibilities for iPhone users to pair their phones and use apps on an Android Wear smartwatch.

Skills demonstrated

  • Strategy & visioning
  • Project management
  • Systems design
  • Interaction design
  • UI / visual design
  • Guideline publication