The UX of Swimming with an Apple Watch: What’s it like and how can it improve?

As someone immersed in technology both personally and professionally, I was a relative latecomer to smartwatch ownership. I had played with smartwatches, but I always found them too sluggish, not good enough as fitness trackers, not waterproof, or lacking their own data connection, particularly if not intimately integrated with my iPhone.

I bided my time with a Fitbit Surge, which did a decent job at general fitness tracking, but I was hopeful that smartwatches would mature enough that I could eventually feel comfortable making the leap.

And leap I did, with the Apple Watch Series 2. Not only did it seem to operate more smoothly than its predecessor, but it also had built in GPS and, best of all, was waterproof with swim tracking! No data connection, but given a tight integration with my phone, this was enough to convince me.

Fitness Tracking with the Apple Watch

I aim to exercise six days a week. Two or three runs per week, one or two gym visits per week with weights + cardio equipment, and one or two swims per week.

For the most part, run tracking on the Apple Watch is excellent. No more wondering if I’ll finally get a GPS lock like my Fitbit and Garmin predecessors, reasonable accuracy, consistent heart tracking and generally good data display. I also appreciate that when I need to I can answer the phone from my watch while running on a trail and can both hear the caller okay as well as be heard well.

Tracking on cardio equipment such as an elliptical or my new favorite, an adaptive motion machine, has also been good, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see that my heart rate on the watch is reasonably close to my heart rate shown on the equipment.

Fitness Tracking while Swimming

Before the Apple Watch, even while a little more clunky, I’d been able to use other devices when tracking indoor and outdoor activities. What I had never done is purchase a standalone swim tracker, and I loved the idea that I could have a single device do it all.

Before I say anything else, I’ll say that the Apple Watch does do a decent job with swim tracking. It seems reasonably accurate in the lap count, and while it sometimes loses my pulse as I swim, I understand that heartrate technology is hampered by the water – and that’s just the way it is for the moment.

My issues with using the Apple Watch while swimming, therefore, are only with things that perhaps could have been a little better thought out when thinking explicitly about swimmers.

Swimming is a horizontal activity

It makes sense that when your torso is vertical, a user will naturally turn a wrist inward to see the watch face. In fact, just a few degrees past being parallel with the ground will light up the screen. Swimming is different though. Those few extra degrees are unnatural when a swimmer’s body is horizontal.

My hope for a future release: At a minimum, as I stroke downward when swimming freestyle, I’d like the screen face to come on the moment the watch is parallel with the ground. In that way, by the time the watch submerges below the water, I’d be able to periodically take a quick glance at the data by doing nothing more than slowing my stroke. Perhaps the settings could take this one step further and include a sensitivity slider where I could make the watch even more sensitive so that it turns on even before being parallel to the ground.

Drain my battery – please!

My favorite running trail is a bit rocky so I don’t have the luxury of taking my eyes off the path for more than a second, particularly on the most uneven parts. Although lacking a backlight, I loved having my always-on Fitbit screen. A quick glance could give me the information I needed. The Apple watch screen takes a moment to illuminate – not ideal – but since I don’t need to use my arms to run, I can turn my wrist to get the watch into position, wait a moment, and then look. But when I’m swimming, I don’t have that moment. Beyond the angle discussion above, waiting a few moments for the screen to light up means that I need to briefly pause my stroke.

My hope for a future release: I would like to make a conscious decision to turn the screen on for the entire duration of my swim. I know that this will use up the battery quickly, but I promise to charge up as soon as I’m done. Really, I will!

What pace should be measured?

When I run, I like seeing my average pace. That is, how many minutes per mile. I can use this information and easily project how long it will take me to finish a run (without necessarily choosing a goal at the beginning) as long as I keep my pace. But the average pace when I swim in a 25-yard pool is shown as minutes and seconds per 100 yards. Now my calculation gets a little more complicated since my pace is shown as time per four laps (using the Apple Watch definition of lap as a single length).

My hope for a future release: Let me determine the units for my pace. In my case, my ideal display would be the average time for one lap. With that I can most easily do any necessary calculations on how I’m doing.

Temporary pause from Water Lock

When I’m swimming with my iPhone close enough, I may see a text or email pop up on my watch. If it’s so important that it’s worth a quick read, I’m currently very limited in my ability to see more of the message without a multi-step process of pausing by holding down both buttons, then going out of Water Lock mode, then reading the message, then resuming Water Lock mode and then restarting the swim.

My hope for a future release: The side button alone doesn’t serve any purpose while in Water Lock mode, and it seems that it would be pretty safe from an accidental press while swimming. I’d like to be able to define a purpose for that button. Maybe there could be a few options. In my case, I’d select to see all new messages and momentarily unlock the screen so that I could click on specific messages and read further. When I’m done, I’d click the button again and resume my swim without having to get through a full unlock of the Water Lock and then another relock.

How awesome a SIM card would be!

While I’d love for my Apple Watch to have an independent data connection, with just about any land-based workout, it’s easy enough to keep my phone relatively close to my watch. When swimming, however, my phone is usually locked up in a locker and sometimes too far away to maintain a reliable connection with the watch.

My hope for a future release: I’m just waiting for that SIM card!

Maybe one day

No matter what issues I have with the watch, having an all-in-one tracker like the Apple Watch Series 2 is pretty cool. And as swim tracking is very new to the all-in-one nature of the watch, I’ll continue to enjoy the abilities that I do have and look forward to those future releases!

Image of swimming pool: klikk / BigStockPhoto

2017-04-22T22:36:45+00:00 Mar 6, 2017|Tags: |