Pebble’s Eric Migicovsky Talks Wearables

posted by: Seiko Itakura

I attended the Future of Wearable Tech event last week where Owen Thomas, editor-in-chief of the ReadWrite, interviewed Eric Migicovsky, Founder/CEO of Pebble. One third of the audience had a chance to show their support for Pebble when Thomas asked them to shake their wrists in the dark so their backlights would light up. I felt as if I was in the middle of a live concert. Among the audience were developers, wearable advocates, and representatives from bigger companies like Accenture. It was exciting to see the interest in wearables. The event also gave me a sense of what our future may look like with regards to wearables.

The Story of Pebble

In 2008, Migicovsky and his team started building their first smartwatch out of Waterloo, Ontario. They designed the InPulse smartwatch exclusively for BlackBerry. At the time, Migicovsky’s research showed that BlackBerry was the major player in the smartphone market (not to mention that Waterloo is the home of BlackBerry, formerly known as Research in Motion). However, in 2011, Migicovsky’s team saw people shifting to iPhones and decided to create the Pebble smartwatch that worked with the iPhone. It was interesting to hear an example of how quickly tech gadgets go out of fashion, but at the same time, it is exciting that new players can also enter the market as Pebble did through a Kickstarter campaign about two years ago.

Quick statistics about Pebble today:

  • 13,000 -14,000 developers are writing apps for Pebble
  • Over 400,000 pebbles in the field
  • About 60% of customers on the website buy the Pebble steel
  • 45% of backers came from outside the U.S.
  • 60% – 70% of the website traffic comes from outside the U.S.
  • Pebble ships to more than 150 countries

Some takeaways from the talk

Wearables should be fashion focused

Pebble values fashion and has opened up opportunities for designers to accessorize the Pebble smartwatch. To serve the demand, Migicovsky and his team are looking into customizations. For example, Migicovsky said, “We released 3D print files on GitHub so that designers can create bangles, sticky wraps, snap on Pebble covers…etc.” Having taken a lesson from the Apple, the Pebble team approves these design ideas before releasing them to the public.

Make wearables that stick

According to Migicovsky, “We love to make a product that meshes into a user’s life. Pebble really lets you live your life a little better.” Pebble attempts to improve the user’s life from the get-go. In addition, offering an open-platform means that the Pebble smartwatch will only become more useful over time as developers build additional apps for it. Pebble’s strategy is to introduce some basic value first, but it does not want to stop there. Pebble wants to offer many more use cases and apps that a user can benefit from to make it sticky.

Customization is key

Migicovsky mentioned that Pebble wants to create a product that provides value to people on their terms. He shared a real example about Pebble, “What’s interesting is that with every person there is a different thing that they do even when it comes to notifications. People have different use case. Some are getting their Hangout notifications on their wrists. Others turn off everything but phone calls.” This made me think that a successful wearable device should let users customize it to fit their lifestyle.

Adding context is important

Migicovsky thinks that there will be more and more sensors around us soon, even embedded on our clothes. A Pebble smartwatch can add values to those wearables.  Migicovsky said, “One of the cool things about Pebble is that it has a Bluetooth radio, so it can talk to Bluetooth LE enabled devices.“ It is still a concept, but Migicovsky painted a picture where Pebble would be useful, “Pebble can talk directly to a heart-rate monitor, power sensors, and iBeacons.” One of the use cases Migicovsky said was that you might prefer looking at a display on your wrist than looking at a display on a heart rate monitor under your t-shirt.

The right technology has to be available for a product to be successful

Migicovsky mentioned two reasons why his team could not make Pebble as successful a few years ago as it is today. First, people did not normally have an Internet connected device in their pocket as they do today. And second, battery life was not as good as it is today. As battery life improves, Migicovsky sees Pebble introducing cellphone chips later when the technology is supportive for lower power consumptions.

User experience should be taken in consideration for a wearable form factor

As a part of creating a better user experience on wearables, Migicovsky envisions a future where a Pebble smartwatch is not tied to a phone. He gave an example, “There is an awesome app called PebbleBucks, a Starbucks app for Pebble that lets you pay using a barcode pushed to your Pebble by your phone. Why cannot the barcode be enabled at a Starbucks location served by some kind of iBeacon Bluetooth LE system and that is something worth investigating. Over time, we want to look into more elaborated scenarios.“

Pebble has been building the first OS that is purposely designed for a wearable platform unlike Android Wear which is based on an existing OS. Migicovsky believes the Pebble’s OS also differentiates it from competitors in terms of providing the best user experience.

Working with constraints like limited battery power, Pebble succeeded in differentiating itself and offering a unique experience. According to Migicovsky, one of the interesting visions of a computing platform is that it can work separate from the Internet, but when it connects back to the Internet, the data get transferred back to apps for a user to use. For example, Migicovsky said that when someone goes to swim and a Pebble smartwatch becomes separated from a user’s phone, but once the user comes back to a locker room, he will be connected to his phone via Bluetooth and his fitness app syncs the data from the Pebble smartwatch.


Migicovsky provided some interesting insights on what goes into making a successful wearable like Pebble and the exciting possibilities the future holds for wearables. Moreover, I was intrigued by the factors that Migicovsky mentioned have shaped the unique user experience that Pebble offers. For example, there is a strong online community for the Pebble smartwatch that helps both the users and the Pebble team. Another interesting approach that Pebble is taking is to tap into more retail spaces. According to Migicovsky,“All Target stores will be rolling out Pebbles in the next month or two.”

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Twitter Redesign Thoughts: Great for Celebrities, But What About the Rest of Us?

posted by: Kimra McPherson

cowritten by: Kimra McPherson and Joanne Wong

Not that we follow him or anything, but have you seen Channing Tatum’s new Twitter profile?

We wouldn’t normally have been scoping it out. But Tatum — along with First Lady Michelle Obama, Weezer, and a handful of other famous folks — was privy to an early rollout of the new Twitter profile page, which was officially announced on Tuesday after months of speculation (thank you Mashable).

The new layout enlarges your most popular tweets based on engagement: number of retweets, replies, likes, etc. The more popular a tweet, the more real estate it gets on your profile page. Twitter also rolled out a couple of new features, such as the ability to pin a tweet to the top of your page or filter tweets with images and videos. Many people compared the redesign to Facebook because of the expanded timeline photo you can customize.

What Does this Mean for Users?

As Twitter #addicts, our first reaction was fear. Twitter has become an indispensable source of news and communication for us, even replacing Google Reader as the easiest way to scan hundreds and hundreds of headlines in search of something interesting. Collectively, we (@_jwong and @kimretta) have tweeted nearly 17,000 times since Twitter began in March 2006 — averaging 6x a day! — and follow nearly 1,200 people in our streams (meaning we read A LOT of content). We were worried the new profile would mean big changes for the way Twitter looks and feels when we check it every day (or, OK, every hour … minute … whatever).

But as we looked more carefully at the changes, our fear turned to relief and curiosity. So far, none of the changes will actually affect how we experience Twitter, since neither of us really looks at our own profile pages — or, really, at other people’s profiles. (We might now, just to see what it’s like.)

Everything about the changes would indicate Twitter has hit a home run with brands and celebrities — those who are inherently more self-promotional. But we, and the majority of “active” Twitter users we talked to informally after this announcement, rarely look at someone’s profile and instead follow their 140-character musings in our timeline stream (or via an app that keeps us from visiting twitter.com anyway).

Why change the profile page experience at all? With this, Twitter is suddenly prioritizing a different part of the user experience — and maybe even a different user — than what we previously perceived as primary. They are making the experience more about YOU vs. more about the people you follow. They’re also enhancing the experience for someone who might go to Twitter only occasionally to see what a particular person or company has to say, versus those of us who use Twitter to follow many people’s bite-sized thoughts simultaneously.

This is quite a big difference. However, the Facebook-like personalization capabilities might invite a more “mainstream” crowd. After all, it worked for Facebook, right?

Let’s explore deeper.

Twitter’s Heritage

Change always ruffles some feathers, but Twitter’s announcement on Tuesday was met with more anger than usual. To understand why, it’s important to understand how Twitter grew and why none of these changes should really surprise us. For this we dug out an “old” Wired article from 2009: Mob Rule! How Users Took Over Twitter.

As the article describes, Twitter really just began as a Yammer-like service where people could post short status updates. Its most salient features, the retweets and hashtags and ‘@’ mentions, were actually “invented” not by product managers but by Twitter’s earliest users, who needed a way to communicate better while still staying  within the 140-character box. It’s probably safe to say that its founders weren’t sure how their product would be used. Or as the article puts it:

“Essentially, Twitter left a ball and a stick in a field and lurked on the sidelines as its users invented baseball.”

But even back then, it’s clear the founders wanted to get more users. By 2013, according to internal documents cited in the article, Twitter hoped to have one billion users. It’s 2014, and Twitter has just over 241 million users. In comparison, Facebook reached one billion users in 2012.

So, Now What?

All of this makes us wonder: Who is Twitter really designing for?

As Twitter tries to keep growing, is the company’s priority the users like the two of us, who use Twitter as a “front door” to links, jokes, conversations, and, yes, lunch pictures from our friends and favorite Internet personalities? Or will it be focusing more on the experience of folks who want to curate their own image or check in on celebrity profiles every now and then? And will the future of Twitter be designed from within, or can passionate users still dictate the company’s direction? We don’t know any of these answers yet.

Prioritizing the profile could be a relatively small design tweak — or, it could be a big signal of change at the heart of Twitter.

Let us know your thoughts on the new Twitter re-design in the comments below or on Twitter, @EchoUser.

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Tips of the Month: How to Create Depth in Flat Design

posted by: Wan-Ting Huang

When I first encountered “flat design,” I fell in love with it. I thought: What could be more tempting than a clean and minimal interface-design style that can be even more beautiful and functional than visually busy solutions? As would any designer who is eager to try something new, I started to “flatten” all my incoming UI/visual design projects and hoped the results would look just as good as those beautiful examples I found online.

However, soon after I tried flat design in a couple of projects, I noticed something was wrong.

It wasn’t that my works looked absolutely horrible, but something just didn’t feel right. I almost thought my flat designs were “too flat.” Overall, the works lacked personality and vibe, and everything looked so plain and dull.

Following frustration after frustration, I realized over time that a lot of special attention needs to be paid to create some tiny little “depth” in the flat world to keep the final design looking vivid and interesting. That extra depth not only provides more affordances and visual cues, but it also improves usability overall.

Here, I’ve created some example screens to showcase the tips I employ to create depth when making a flat-design interface. Although these screens are far from perfection, I hope they can at least be a starting point for you when brainstorming different visual design directions.

1. Colors

Cognitively, human eyes are more sensitive to some colors than others. (See this detailed graph.) Thus, a colorful design can naturally bring more layers and contrasts into an interface than a monochromatic approach can. The dashboard from Fitbit, Apple’s Healthbook app, and the to-do-list app Clear, for example, all incorporate a very colorful palette into their interfaces.


2. Photography

Not every theme is appropriate for a colorful design. Oftentimes, corporations’ identities are limited to only one or two primary colors. In this case, photography — especially full-spread photos with a bit of perspective — becomes a nice medium to bring more depth to a flat interface. It works really well on many companies’ landing pages like Airbnb and Treehouse. You can find more examples that combined photography and flat graphics together on Land Book.


3. Subtle Layer Effects

I used to think that one of the principles of flat design was to avoid using layer effects as much as possible. Things like drop shadows were evil. However, after taking a closer look at many flat design examples, I was surprised by how many flat-looking interfaces actually have a lot of layer effects applied. Those effects are subtle to a point that they look “Almost Flat.” One example that might be familiar to you is Google’s web interface. For instance, Gmail’s page is generally flat, but subtle shadows are applied to buttons, where the “extra depth” is needed to enhance usability.

layer effect

4. Subtle Gradients

I used to think that gradients, like layer effects, were one of the most evil techniques when it comes to flat design. Ever since iOS7 was released, people have criticized its dramatic and inconsistent gradients. (See this Tumblr thread.) Although it’s very easy to overdo gradients and make designs look garish, gradients can be a great tool to create that tiny extra affordance when applied moderately.

5. Blending Mode: Multiply

When it comes to creating flat-looking icons and illustrations, I really enjoy playing with the multiply blending effect between different-colored shapes. This technique creates a darker shade in the intersecting areas, which creates that extra layer of depth but still goes hand in hand with flat design. Some examples are websites from General Assembly and 23andMe as well as the iOS7 Photos icon.

Note: Blending modes let you vary the ways that the colors of objects blend with the colors of underlying objects. It’s a common feature in graphic design programs like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. (See more blending options: Photoshop, Illustrator.)

Other “Outside-of-the-Box” Inspiration

Flat-design interfaces tend to look alike when everything is minimal to an extreme. It’s getting harder and harder to create something original by just looking at other well-designed apps and websites. In order to think outside of the box, I often turn into illustrators’ portfolios to get more inspiration. Some flat-looking illustrations that I like a lot are from Kelli Anderson, DKNG Studios and Jack Hughes, to name a few.

Bottom Line

The decisions made in visual design are closely tied not only to pure aesthetics but also usability. The tips mentioned above are meant to provide some ideas — which doesn’t imply that one method is better than the other or that the methods are mutually exclusive. Oftentimes, I’ll try a combination of different approaches and see how things play out. No matter what technique is used in the end, the result should always be a conscious decision that enhances the overall interaction with the UI and reflects a brand’s identity.

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