4 Management Lessons From The Overhaul Of Android's UI

Matias Duarte, the designer who was brought on to make Android gorgeous, offers lessons in persuading stakeholders to embrace a turnaround.

There are a lot of things you might say about an Android phone—that it’s more powerful than the iPhone, more customizable, better integration with Google services. But one thing you probably wouldn’t say about an Android phone is that you love it—can’t-live-without-it, rip-it-out-of-my-cold-dead-hands love it. When Matias Duarte (the designer behind the T-Mobile Sidekick and Palm’s WebOS) joined Google a year-and-a-half ago as senior director for Android user experience, he set out to change that.

But Duarte has been around the block a few times. He knows you can’t just walk into a place like Google, wave a wand, and make large-scale changes—especially when the inmates probably don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with the way they’ve been doing things to date, thank you very much.

The fact that the latest version of Android, release 4.0, code-named "Ice Cream Sandwich" (shipped in December on the Galaxy Nexus), is such a leap forward, and perhaps, even, bordering on beautiful, means that Duarte was able to convince Google’s Android team to see things his way. Here’s how he did it.

Know that no one else might think there’s a problem, even if you do

Duarte walked into Google knowing there was a long way to go with the Android interface. But he was also aware that it’s one thing to try to convince people to change what they’re doing when things are going poorly. It’s another entirely when things are actually going quite well. "I was going to have to ask them to change the way they’d been doing things for years," he says. "And the way they’d been doing things [led] to great commercial success." If he tackled his assignment without acknowledging that, he would likely run smack into opposition.

And so he decided to …

Run a baseline study to identify users’ core issues

"I needed to have a mechanism that would both give me confidence that we were making the right changes and would also really engage everybody and not make them feel like we were arbitrarily throwing away work that had worked for them in the past," Duarte says.

So he built up his research team—that was his first major step—and then initiated a study to establish users’ baseline attitudes toward Android. The three principle questions were: How did users feel about Android? How did they actually use Android phones? And how did Android compare to other platforms?

The first thing they found was perhaps predictable: People who have started using smartphones feel like they are an extension of themselves. They can’t imagine going back.

But the team also found two other things. The first was that users felt Android was hard to learn—though they didn’t actually phrase it that way. "They felt that, even though the device was powerful, maybe they weren’t smart enough to unlock that power," Duarte says. "Of course, that’s not really their fault. That’s our failure."

The second thing they learned is that users didn’t really love their Android devices. "Oftentimes there was enthusiasm, but beyond that sense of necessity, that sense that 'This is my lifeline, I can’t live without it,' there was seldom the positive that goes beyond that, the sense that they really loved it.'"

"It’s kind of funny to talk about something that you don’t hear as a finding," Duarte says, "but when you do research, you have to be alert to the things that are unspoken as much as the things that are said."

Bring your stakeholders along on your research

As they were doing the baseline study, Duarte’s team brought engineers out into the field with them to observe what the users were saying. "Engaging people in the research gives it credibility," Duarte says. "They see first-hand what people are saying. So it’s not somebody else telling them, 'Oh, by the way, maybe there are some issues that we should look at.' They can see the real customers, and they can see the kinds of problems that they’re having, and that provides an opportunity for us to have a dialogue, to say, 'Look, these are some things we could do to alleviate that.'"

Use the baseline research to establish your design goals

After seeing users’ attitudes to the operating system, the team established three goals for the next phase of Android design, which would serve to give the team focus and, as Duarte said above, confidence that they were investing their efforts in the right places:

1. Transform Android into an OS people fall in love with.

"We knew as designers that, for a really successful product, people should be having a stronger emotional reaction," Duarte says. "They should be talking about how much they love it, how much they desire it, how much they appreciate it."

2. Make Android truly simple and straightforward to use.

"People know that Android is powerful, and they’ve felt a little bad about it when they can’t figure it out," Duarte says. "We want to turn that around and make you feel like you completely understand the system."

3. Have users associate Android’s cutting-edge innovations with things that will turbo-charge their own lives.

Google is constantly turning out pioneering features, like voice actions or, the latest, Face Unlock, which allows you to unlock your phone using facial recognition software. Android wants users to have the feeling that "the technology is not just there for technology’s sake," Duarte says, "but it’s there to make you an amazing person—to essentially unlock your own digital superpowers."

This is part one of a two-part story on the design overhaul of Android. Stay tuned for the second installment, which will detail how Android is meant to create a visual look that recreates the experience of the printed page.

[Top image by GWImages/Shutterstock]

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  • TeddyD19

    I use a Motorola photon android phone.  I do like.  I also have an iPad which I love Overall I do like my phone just as much as ipad only after using ipad for a day my phone seems small.  I'm sure this would be case if I had an iphone.

    Never had smartphone before this one so it is obviously better than previous flip phone.

  • Anton Krivosheyev

    @John Removing the long press functionality and replacing it with super long menus is another mistake.



    Gimmick or not, I just can't seem to disable it. It's so... addictive. Narcissism perhaps?

  • Anton Krivosheyev

    @John Removing the long press functionality and replacing it with super long menus is another mistake.

  • John

    I find ICS to be an utter failure and its weak adoption rate is proof of this. Rather than generate some random sound bites from focus groups they should have built on their strengths. My Nexus S has the upgrade and is now too slow to be reliable, whether trying to dial a contact or use the GPS. Also, the interface is more suited to a laptop than a truly mobile device. I use the maps and phone and voice search while in the car and these have become way too complicated. Also, the color and design selections are not just arbitrary, they are dumb. The teal color of the time at the top hardly contrasts with the black background, so I can no longer rely on my phone while outdoors or driving to see the time. Removing the long press functionality and replacing it with super long menus is another mistake. Mr Duartes conclusions from the focus groups is too generic to be useful. Even worse, the execution does not achieve the goals. Once the iPhone 5 comes out on Tmobile, I will split from Android. At least the apple phone just works.

  • Briggy

    So says the expert of device UI.

    As much as you want to rant about ics I can rant just as long about ios. In the end we are both unimportant bs'ers.

    Luckly, I have the option of switching to any device I want, as I own everything.

  • Dave Thackeray

    You know what, EB? You can apply this thinking to any product, service or brand - just substitute yours for "Android". I'm so inspired by this I'm going to follow the strategy in relaunching a website.

    Solid, solid content. Kudos!

  • Pakergong

    Life is so lonely .I am a sexy and single
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    and we can be friends if necessary. Maybe you are my Mr right. Wooooo

  • phuong

    Face Recog unlocking is a gimmick, a photo can be use to unlock it.
    So all of the research sound amazingly like Steve Jobs mantra at Apple. hmmm

  • Briggy

    Are you new to the Internet?

    Its been told multiple times that face unlock is not via level device security. Its for people who may not even care for passcodes for their phones, and a quick image of themselves is good enough.

    Let me guess, you probably think IOS 5 notifications are the best implementation of device notifications ever, right?

    And I guess the only one true designer in the world has past. What the hell are we going to do now? LOL

  • Tim Hardesty

    Very noble intentions but they are taking a different approach then Apple. Apple does not survey it's customers about UI or Features, it just knows what is best. I am a little bitter because my 18 month old Droid X will not run Ice Cream Sandwich. Apple seems to stop supporting it's hardware after 3+ years. Is Google going to only support old hardware for 18 months?

  • Sycamore

    The battery life is terrible on the system and no long life ones are available. Never had a phone with such a short life. (sorry for the typos)
    Flag Like ReplyReply

  • Briggy

    My iPhone 4 is pretty terrible with the battery too when I have everything on.

  • Sycamore

    The battery life is terrible on the system and bo long life ones are available.  Never had a phone with such a dshort life.

  • Rico T'melo

    true... there is a lot to learn from Matias Duarte's approach
    thanks for the article.

  • Jacko

    Icecream sandwich is an awesome name for a OS.  Will it melt under security pressure though?

  • Bon

    " is such a leap forward, and perhaps, even, bordering on beautiful,"

    Yeah, bordering on beautiful, but still terrible.