How  Watch Complications Can Get Smarter


You are a top surgeon. Your steady hands move surgical instruments with precision in stressful situations. What skill do you most want in the person who assists you in the operating room?

Surely their ability to anticipate your needs is at the top of the list. An assistant who hands you the correct instrument when asked is useful. But one who hands you the correct instrument before you ask is invaluable.

Smart Complications Know When They Are Useful

Unlike a surgical assistant, the Apple Watch probably won’t save a life. But what a tremendous improvement if it could anticipate your needs.

That’s where Smart Complications come in. On mechanical watches a complication was any information shown other than the time. They were often shown on smaller “sub-dials” on the watch face.

Today complications on the Apple Watch are far more capable. They are immediately visible when you raise your wrist. They show up-to-date information like temperature, sports scores, or your next appointment.

Heres my watch face with the complications highlighted.
I have highlighted the four complications. Clockwise from top left:sunrise/sunet, weather, date, and activity.

There are lots of complications from which you can choose. Up to 5 of them can be used at a time. The visible complications are static for each watch face.

It’s time for complications to get smarter. The Watch should know which complications are most relevant to the user at a given time. It could then hide less important complications and show more useful ones. The user’s location, habits, time of day, or other context would control this.

In some cases, very little “intelligence” could go a long way. Imagine a user is running a timer. The Watch might show the Timer complication instead of the Moon Phase until the timer is done.

There are many other great examples of Smart Complications. Imagine how useful these things would be:

  • Calendar complication displays before an impending meeting
  • Flight status complication appears when you arrive at the airport
  • A “Commuter’s complication” like ETA displays right before you usually leave work.
  • If you have almost hit your Move goal, the Activity complication might show up to motivate you.
  • When the Apple Watch battery gets low, the Battery complication shows.
  • A complication that tells which way to turn for walking navigation.
  • When sunset is approaching show the sunset complication.
  • Sports scores appear only during the game and immediately after.
  • A complication that shows the number of unread iMessages or emails when there are some.
  • Complications triggered to become visible by proximity to Bluetooth devices. I imagine a Starbucks complication displays when near a Starbucks. Or maybe a complication for launching the Remote app when you are close to your Apple TV.


Not Invented Here

I did not create the idea for Smart Complications. I saw a thread on Reddit describing “Live Complications” along with a few examples. Somebody named “Jeff” submitted a Radar to Apple requesting this feature and dubbed it “Smart Complications.”

It struck me as an excellent and feasible idea.

How Would They Work?

Users would no longer just choose the complications they want to see. They would rank all complications in order of importance. One possible ranking could be “never show this.”

Each complication has a several triggers from which a user can choose. When the trigger action occurs watchOS would know that the complication “wants” to be displayed on the watch face.

Some complications may support user-defined trigger actions. A sports ticker could be set so that it is only important if a specific team is playing. A calendar complication could be unimportant when the user has no appointments.

User rankings would let watchOS arbitrate conflicts between complications. Imagine a timer is running when the Watch battery is almost dead both of which are trigger actions for their respective complications. Both the Timer and Battery complications want to appear. WatchOS defers to the user’s ordering to know what to display.

Changing visible complications might be disorienting for the user. Their top 2 complications should never get trumped by others. On most watch faces 2 complications would remain for smart changing.

Or watchOS could give the user the choice to “pin” some complications to a watch face so they don’t change. Most users will always want temperature and date to be visible for instance.

For a system like this to work well, complications would need to do two things.
1. If a complication knows in advance when it will be important it should tell watchOS. Then it won’t be fetching data all the time to check its importance.
2. Some complications can’t know in advance when they will be important. Those will need to refresh their data more often than they can today.

There are two remaining details to address.

How Would Smart Complications Work With Time Travel?

Some complications know when they will become important. Those could display when time travelling into the future if they are not superceded by others.

Other complications have non-deterministic importance. They won’t be shown when going through the future timeline. But they do display when time travelling to the past.

What If the Wrong Complication Disappears?

Let’s say a user wants to check a stock price when there’s a running timer and a dead Watch battery. The Timer and Battery complications take precedence over the Stocks complication. The Stocks complication is not visible.

In that case, a tap on the watch face cyles through complications that aren’t on screen. It will take several taps to cycle through all complications and return to the automatic ones.


There are many marketing names Apple could use to describe this sort of feature. Here are a few possibilities that I have seen or brainstormed:

  • Smart Complications
  • Live Complications
  • Proactive Complications
  • Contextual Complications
  • Prioritized Complications

The Apple Watch has tons of room for improvement. But complications are one of its most esteemed features. Information on the wrist reduces distraction for users. Glancing at the watch is effortless compared to fishing through a pocket or purse for the phone.

Complications get checked many times every day so their value accumulates rapidly. Apple knows this, so I think the Watch will soon predict which complications are useful to you.

I predict something like Smart Complications in watchOS 3.


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