watchOS 7 Forces Out Force Touch

Apple first signalled that pressure sensitivity screens were on the way out with the iPhone XR in 2018. Last year, Apple fully removed the reliance on 3D Touch from iOS in preparation for the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro’s release. On reflection, the transition has been uneventful. It was a regression — activation with pressure is still faster than a long press — but the difference in speed was small enough that techies quickly forgot to care, and normal people didn’t notice.

In key areas of the system, it was also an opportunity to make the iOS experience wholly better, by removing places where the gestures were overloaded and conflicting, like on the home screen. You still hear occasional grumbles about the loss of the headphone jack, and a lot of people want Touch ID to be offered as an alternative to Face ID. Yet on the eve of iPhone 12, nobody is yearning for 3D Touch to return.

Whereas 3D Touch for iPhone was tacked on years after the platform’s idioms were established, Force Touch was an inherent part of the Apple Watch’s design. The Watch’s small size meant that Apple needed a way to offer users access to additional app actions without taking up valuable screen space. So, the solution they came up with was that a firm press on the display would overlay a menu of buttons, relevant to the current context.

However, Apple is dropping pressure sensitivity from the Apple Watch this year and it is watchOS’s turn to adapt its software for a world without Force Touch. With watchOS 7, all of the old Force Touch menu stuff is deprecated. Instead, developers are expected to incorporate these buttons directly into their app UIs. In the WWDC sessions, Apple proposed a few approaches for how to achieve this.

One suggestion was to add a primary action button at the top of scrolling lists. For example, to start a new message on watchOS 6, you would firmly press on the Messages list to show the New Message button. On watchOS 7, a blue New Message button resides at the top of the list. When you first launch Messages, this button isn’t visible as the default scroll offset hides it. A simple swipe down reveals it and it sticks to the top of the screen whilst the rest of the list bounces, providing some subtle visual delineation of content.

This pattern is a pretty natural transition for list-based apps. But a lot of watchOS apps are not structured as pages of lists. A good number of Watch apps are actually single-screen widget-like experiences. For these kinds of apps, it is less obvious what to do. You can see this play out in the Apple stock apps.

For apps that previously used the Force Touch buttons as pseudo tabs, each providing different views on the same data, Apple appears to have decided that merely tapping on the screen will suffice. In Stopwatch, you tap anywhere to switch between the digital, analogue and hybrid modes. Similarly, tap on the forecast summary in the Weather app to toggle between weather conditions and temperature estimates. This works, but it is a bit undiscoverable and perhaps too easy to trigger accidentally. It’s also a little awkward if the mode you want to flip to is multiple taps away and most people won’t remember the order of screens — just tap and hope I guess.

Calendar used Force Touch to switch between Up Next, list or day view, a tab-like design. But tapping the screen is already used in Calendar to perform navigation, so the standard approach can’t be used. What they landed on was moving the view options out of the app entirely and exposing it as a preference in the Settings app. I hate it. Settings are meant for user choices that aren’t contextual, things that are rarely changed. Yet, I’m constantly wanting to switch calendar views, depending on things like how busy my schedule is and what time of the day I’m checking it.

Other Apple apps are a bit of a free for all. In the Activity app, the new buttons are found by scrolling to the bottom of the screen. Maps exposed all sorts of actions through its Force Touch menu. These are now placed behind a translucent circular button, tucked in the bottom-right corner of the screen. Photos has similarly added a Create Watch Face button, albeit in the bottom-left corner. Calculator put a percentage button in its Force Touch menu; Apple seems to have found no viable alternative location and simply opted to remove the function altogether. A little-known trick in the Workout app is you could press on the End button to reveal a button to cancel it, in case you started a workout accidentally that you don’t want to save and notify your friends about. As far as I can tell, this feature is also no longer available.

At the watchOS system level, users most commonly encountered the need to Force Touch to enter and exit the watch face edit screen. This has been wholesale replaced by a long press. Something that felt fast now feels slow. Just like the iPhone though, it is a manageable loss and I expect people will quickly forget the former elegance.

There is one place where getting rid of Force Touch has made the Watch meaningfully worse to use: clearing your notifications. I get a handful of notifications throughout the day. When my watch taps me, I look down and see what the alert is. Usually, it doesn’t demand a response so I turn my wrist back and the notification goes to Notification Centre. I clear up my inbox about twice a day, usually once at lunchtime and once in the evening. If I know there is nothing that I need to go back to, I simply swipe down on my watch face and press firmly to clear all my notifications away. At least, that’s what I did prior to June.

I can’t do that anymore as Force Touch is gone. watchOS 7’s solution is to put a Clear All button at the top of the list of alerts. This means I have to swipe down to open Notification Centre, then spend several seconds scrolling the list back up to the top where the button is, and then tap it. Even though I am only doing this process two or three times a day, it is a right pain. I had hoped this would have changed over the beta season, but we’re at watchOS beta 7 now and there have been no improvements.

Like with the iOS transition, the execution has been mostly good. I just really hope the Notification Center interaction gets smoothed out. As for why Apple chose to kill Force Touch now, I point to the reports that Apple is about to launch an ‘Apple Watch Series 3S’. Removing Force Touch helps to trim component costs and may make room internally for a slightly larger battery.