It’s Not Complicated

When he introduced the iPhone 7 in 2016, Apple executive Phil Schiller described the company’s decision to remove the phone’s headphone jack as “courageous.” While some people mocked this assertion, Schiller’s point is valid: Apple often makes bold decisions and sticks by them even when they may be unpopular (as with the headphone jack.)

This courage doesn’t just come across in the design of Apple’s products and their features; it’s also sometimes evident in the language the company uses to describe them. Remember when the iPad was first announced? This was a time when Apple still had a product in their lineup called iPod; the name iPad lent itself to confusion. I remember stumbling at first when trying to talk about the device. Now the name iPad feels natural. Some people call all tablets iPads, even the ones produced by other manufacturers. It’s become the name of the form factor itself, not just the product. Apple pulled off a coup with that label, a testament to the power of their marketing.

More recently, the company has made another bold naming choice. I’m talking about the word they’ve chosen to describe how users add functionality to watch faces in the Apple Watch. You can’t just say “the space in the watch face where you can see the temperature.” Too clunky. At some point, a team at Apple had to discuss giving these things a name. The word they chose? Complications.

Complications on a Series 4 Apple Watch. Image: Apple.com
Complications on a Series 4 Apple Watch. Image: Apple.com

This is a courageous choice because complication is so close to complicated. I’m willing to bet most new Apple Watch are encountering the word complication for the first time. At least in this context; the word also appears in medicine, where it usually portends bad news. These are not good associations: The last thing you want someone to think about a new technology product is that it’s complicated; people die from complications.

So the label seems counter-intuitive. It begs the question: why did they give this aspect of the system this weird name? The answer: because it’s a watch, and that’s what watchmakers have called these things for a long time. The little date number window in your dad’s Rolex is a complication. By calling them complications rather than widgets (or some other computer-y term), Apple is in effect saying “this is not a computer or a phone; it’s a watch. Unlike our competitors who see themselves as gadget makers, we think of ourselves as serious watchmakers. You know so because we use the lingo of the field.” Brilliant.

In choosing the word complication, Apple has established distinctions on two levels. On one level, the label gives users, developers, and Apple itself to talk about these aspects of the Watch’s operating system in distinction to other elements. This is its practical dimension: It’s a handle for the concept that sets it apart from other aspects of the system. On another, more subtle level, the label asserts the product’s identity as a watch. It distinguishes Apple from its competitors and elevates the Apple Watch beyond mere electronic gadgetry onto the rarefied domain inhabited by the Patek Philippes and Rolexes of the world. It’s a bold, courageous act of information architecture.