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Tick talk: Developers chat about creating and testing an Apple Watch app for time tracking

When the Apple Watch arrives on the wrists of a few users on April 24, there will be a lot of apps available. Apple CEO Tim Cook already noted in an email to employees that “over a thousand” apps have been submitted, and Apple World Today has heard from a number of developers who are working on Watch apps. Molehill created one such app for its flagship Tick time tracking service, and I had a chance to ask the product team a few questions.

Answering those questions were Alban Brooke (Director of Marketing for Molehill), Kevin Finn (co-founder of Molehill and a designer), and John Pollard (Molehill app developer). Finn and Pollard recently traveled to an Apple facility in Sunnyvale, CA to test their Tick app on actual Watch hardware. Note that some responses were tempered by the fact that the team is under a non-disclosure agreement.

What gave your team the idea of developing an Apple Watch companion for Tick?


We’ve dedicated a lot of time over the past few years into building new applications to interface with our web application. As soon as we saw the Apple Watch we knew that it would be a perfect device for time tracking; it could be really useful for quickly starting and stopping timers. Typically, we’ve found that people capture a lot more time as we’ve make it easier to track time.

Tick is time tracking software that helps teams easily track time and hit budgets. It integrates with Basecamp, Quickbooks, Freshbooks, and others to bring time tracking and budget feedback into your project management workflow.

The Tick app for Apple Watch is designed to quickly start and stop timers that will then be logged into your Tick account. It is part of a suite of apps that we’ve built for Tick to make time tracking as quick, easy, and delightful.

Time tracking is something we think will really benefit from the Apple Watch.

Did you have any problems learning the new user interface elements, such as the Digital Crown, Force Touch, etc?


One of the features of the Apple Watch is the “digital crown” – the twistable knob on the side of the watch. Since we’ve all used iPhones and iPads we had an idea of what it was like to use an Apple Touch screen. The digital crown, on the other hand, is a new UI element so it’s a bit harder to understand how users will use it to interact with the watch.

Before attending Sunnyvale we knew you twist it to turn scroll on the screen, but we 1) don’t have access to input from the digital crown in the early SDKs, and 2) we didn’t have any idea of how the digital crown felt when turned. For example, we might develop the app differently if it spinned freely or clicked in small increments.

One of the common complaints in last week’s early reviews of the Apple Watch was that third-party apps sometimes take a bit of time to load, and that sometimes there’s a delay in pulling up information from the iPhone. Was this noticeable during your testing at Apple?


We’d worked on the Apple Watch application for about 10 weeks before being invited to Sunnyvale. A lot of that time was spent refining the app so that it can be as quick and lightweight as possible.

The simulator gave us a good idea of how fast the apps would work.


Our app has the benefits of not requiring location information. It seemed like the complaints from the reviews were linked to location information. So, we’re actually really happy with how our app works.

Think it might be similar to transition from desktops to laptops, from laptops to tablets, and then from tablets to smartphones – developers are learning how to make apps that use the available resources including screen real estate and memory.

When you were testing the app on an actual Watch at Apple, how long did you have to try out the device?


The invitation was for a full 8 hour day in Sunnyvale. John and Kevin can’t answer this question.

WatchKit is relatively new. Does it seem like a “work in progress” or do you feel that it’s a fairly mature development tool?


We were somewhat limited in that all the code has to be run on a simulator instead of on the watch itself. Sometimes we encounter bugs and have to try to understand if its a bug with our app or the simulator itself (it was almost always our app).

There are also limitations on what our version of the SDK can do. Most of the apps that Apple has demoed have a lot of features that are not available to 3rd party developers.


One limitation for companies trying to get their application out in time for the Apple Watch launch date is that apple has been releasing multiple beta versions of the WatchKit library.

Developers on Apple’s Developer forum have been creating tickets and informing Apple of bugs and enhancements for the past several months. One big enhancement was the ability to have a dynamic page based app. This was not possible until Beta 2 causing apps built before then having to be built with this large limitation. And limitations like this have been cyclical throughout the entire process.

Animations use a lot of the limited battery so while they add a nice ‘wow’ factor to an app they have to be used sparingly or apple might reject the app for using too much battery.

WatchKit is definitely in the early stages. It is impossible at this point in time to get information from your screen. i.e. label.getText or image.getFilename This makes it harder to understand the state of your screen while using the stateless watch.


Watching Apple introduce the watch last September set some pretty high expectations for what the apps would be able to do. The SDK was released shortly thereafter and we were challenged in some unexpected ways. The software and apps that Apple highlighted were beautifully designed and tastefully animated. So we were very surprised to learn that animation was severely limited in the SDK. Apple also spent a considerable amount of time featuring the digital crown as a revolutionary UI element, but again the SDK provides no methods for interacting with this element beyond a standard scroll.

Third-party apps are also limited to either hierarchical or page-based navigation methods. This felt quite limiting at first as apps we’ve developed for other mobile devices quite often call for both styles of navigation. After spending some time really studying the content Apple had made available, we honed in on one statement made by Jony Ive in the introduction video. “Apps are designed for lightweight interaction.” Starting from this premise we scrapped everything we had and began working towards an app that is now designed to be launched, used and quit within 10 seconds.

Did having hands-on time with the Watch make you more or less excited about the prospects for the Watch platform?


The watch was amazing. We had read all of the reviews, but holding the watch in person really showed me how it was a real Apple product. Felt like a complete and polished product. Two of the guys on our team were hesitant to buy the watch before we went, but they were both sold on the watch during our time in Sunnyvale.

I was unsure how the watch would be used until I finally got to put it on my wrist. Glances immediately popped out as being very informative and easy to access. Finally understanding how the watch provides so much information from such quick interactions made me even more excited.

Are there any concerns your team has about the Watch that were not there before they had the chance to work on it? (i.e., battery life, ability to press onscreen buttons, etc..)


This is something that would probably be covered by the NDA. I will say that the watch worked much better than the simulator.

How percentage of the people at Molehill are going to be awake at 3 AM ET to order an Apple Watch?


80%. There are a few guys that aren’t going to buy watches, but it isn’t a coincidence that these are the same guys who weren’t invited to Sunnyvale.

Everybody who went is going to be up at 3AM to buy a watch. Though there has been talk of having the newest employee stay up with all our credit cards and Apple IDs. 🙂

Do you have any words of advice for our readers who are considering purchasing an Apple Watch?


This answer comes from Alban, so it doesn’t include insider knowledge about Sunnyvale. My advice is that you’ll want to buy them ASAP. Seems like Apple is really pushing people to buy them online and that supply will be really limited in the store. Think a lot of people are waiting to try them on, but will end up waiting 2-3 weeks due to limited demand.


You may be able to live without it now but eventually the Apple Watch will be so powerful that you will buy one or else you feel left behind.

Many thanks to the team at Molehill for their willingness to answer questions for Apple World Today. The interview took place prior to the pre-orders; Albon notes that four of the Molehill staffers ended up ordering the 42mm Space Gray Aluminum with Black Sport Band.

Steve Sande
the authorSteve Sande
Steve is the founder and former publisher of Apple World Today and has authored a number of books about Apple products. He's an avid photographer, an FAA-licensed drone pilot, and a really bad guitarist. Steve and his wife Barb love to travel everywhere!