How long does it take to design a smartwatch that captivates the mobile tech world? As little as a month, according to Ben Norton, the designer of the acclaimed Huawei Watch. We recently spent a little time discussing the origins and development of the Huawei Watch and learned a few interesting things about one of the most compelling smartwatches we've seen so far. Here's how Huawei did it.
First, Huawei got the right designer. Ben Norton has a strong background in traditional watches, with more than 50 designs under his belt on a CV that spans fashion watch maker the Fossil Group to the ultra-lush Armani Exchange in both the US and Switzerland. Huawei brought him on board specifically to design its Smartwatch.
Secondly, Huawei nailed the form factor. The Huawei Watch was not always round: “Before I got [to Huawei] they were looking at a variety of different designs, but by the time I got there it was round,” expains Norton. The decision to produce a smartwatch with the appearance of a classic timepiece ruled out anything but a circular design.
Once that was settled upon, other design decisions became easier. Norton explains: “The initial design process [for traditional watches] is not that long. It can be a month or two. A lot of the design process in both traditional and smartwatch design is refinement – finding the right suppliers and choosing the right materials.” It's these things that take up more time.
The emphasis on traditional design didn't mean the whole look of the Huawei Watch was set in stone from the beginning. The crown was originally at the three o'clock position, like it is on traditional watches, but was moved to the two o'clock position “for ergonomic reasons”. Motorola made the same decision with its second generation Moto 360.
Huawei also wanted to avoid anything that would detract from the look of a classic timepiece. “We wanted a display that was totally circular so instead we put all the componentry inside the lug areas,” said Norton.
Moving components to the lugs is the default solution for smartwatch makers that want a fully circular display, but where some manufacturers, such as LG, end up with bulky lugs, Norton managed to keep the lugs on the Huawei Watch very small, with an equally tiny bezel – no mean feat in itself.
This is one of the most striking features of the Huawei Watch and a true testament to its design, but it wasn't easy. According to Norton, designing a smartwatch is much trickier than designing a traditional watch. This is because a smartwatch module (the internal components) is not only non-cylindrical but is also larger than a traditional watch module. Likewise, components like the display driver need to be “designed around”.
Smartwatch batteries provide another design difficulty. “A smartwatch battery, a lithium battery, is larger than a traditional watch battery. It is always a tug of war because you want it small and [engineers] want it big. But I think we found a very happy balance.”
Norton feels that battery life is the biggest hurdle for current smartwatches. “The challenge is convincing consumers to charge their watch. Even though battery life very good with the Huawei Watch, I think it is going to have a big influence on the success of smartwatches in future – on wearables in general.”
But Norton is confident in the future of devices like the Huawei Watch. “I think the floodgates for smartwatches have opened now. They're far better than they've been in the past, much better, but obviously technology always gets better.” So will Norton stick around for the follow-up to the Huawei Watch? “Of course,” he tells. We'll be looking forward to it. Take all the time you need.
What do you think of the Huawei Watch? Have you committed to a smartwatch yet? Let us know in the comments.