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5 Ways That Android Is Trying To Break The Mobile UI Paradigm

Android's design chief asks why we're still designing smartphone applications as if they were desktop software.

When designers create applications for smartphones, they often hark back to principles inherited from desktop software. After all, they’re all computers, right? Android UX Design Chief Matias Duarte thinks it’s time to jettison that idea. The technology available in the average smartphone today is vastly more powerful than the desktop computer of 30 years ago, when those standards were first created. So it’s time to rethink the paradigms and invent new ones for today’s technology and devices. "I want people to stop thinking of an application as a bucket of buttons and think of it instead as a canvas," he says.

That was one of Duarte’s guiding ideas as he went about leading the team that redesigned the Android UX for Ice Cream Sandwich, the latest Android operating system, which was released in December. Duarte says he took his inspiration from cutting-edge graphic design. "We’ve had 2,000 years of development in visual communication, and mobile computers typically don’t take advantage of that," Duarte says. That was particularly important in light of one of Ice Cream Sandwich’s primary design goals: Turn Android phones into objects their users love passionately, instead of simply devices they find useful. "It just makes sense that the next step in connecting to people and, especially connecting to them emotionally, is to look at the best lessons of how people have been connecting emotionally for the last thousands of years." Here’s how he did it.

Lose the Feel of Buttons and Be More Like a Magazine

Application interfaces have always felt like functional assemblies of buttons. Because, after all, they took their cues from machines. Want to make a machine do something? Push a button. But as you flip through Ice Cream Sandwich’s screens, you get a much different feeling. Each screen feels lightweight, as if it were a page in a magazine, rather than a set of knobs and switches. Even the phone dialer looks light and sleek. It’s clear how to use it, of course. It just doesn’t feel so … buttony.

All of that is intentional, Duarte says. Each screen is designed to heighten the emotional impact. Take the contact card, for example. Many smartphones allow you to include photos of the people in your contact list. And many of them store them as thumbnails in the contact card. Not so in Ice Cream Sandwich. Instead, the image takes prominence in the layout, consuming a third of the screen. "We’re really visual creatures," Duarte says. "We want the person to be the point of emotional contact." So the image gets emphasized, while the actual contact information recedes. It’s still there, of course, but the emphasis is on the visuals, not unlike, say, in a magazine.

Building Blocks That Are Light as a Feather

Any UI toolkit has a series of elements that get re-used throughout an interface—checkboxes, dropdown menus, lists, and so forth. Typically, Duarte says, each one of gets "designed on a silver platter"—a lot of time is spent making each one beautiful in its own right, with beveled edges, perhaps, and a full 3-D feel. The problem with that, Duarte says, is that when you assemble the individual elements on a screen, each one becomes prominent on its own. (Go ahead, pull out your iPhone, and look at a contact card, for example. See how each element on that card seems to have equal weight?)

Duarte says that overwhelms the layout. He compares the overly designed elements to pieces of Victorian hand-carved ornamentation. "Each is very pretty, but when you try to make a wall or a house out of them, all the embellishments fight with the larger building."

So for Ice Cream Sandwich, the UX team designed each building block to be as minimal as possible. Individual screens still use the elements, but it’s the overall layout that captures your attention, rather than the individual units.

Who Needs a Menu Button Anymore?

"The menu button was a source of frustration for users," Duarte says. "You never knew if there was going to be any functionality hiding behind that button or not." While doing baseline user research, the Android team discovered that many users felt dumb using the system because they couldn’t figure out how to access all its features. "We went through and eliminated all the hidden affordances [controls], places in the system where it wasn’t clear what you had to do, or where somebody would have to teach you, or where you’d have to just try it [to figure out what it did]," Duarte says. To reduce the learning curve, all essential actions in each application are right up on the surface screen. "That makes everything much more discoverable and much faster."

The Words You Say Should Feel Different

The Android operating system used to use Droid Sans which was a basic workman sans serif with notes of "computer" about it. Duarte felt strongly that the font needed to be upgraded and optimized for high-resolution screens—so much so that he assigned a team to start designing a new font without being sure they would be able to complete it in time to ship with the new operating system. They did, and the result is Roboto, a crisp and friendly sans serif that is both pleasing to the eye and exudes a sense of style. "It just feels right," Duarte says.

The Text You Have Should Share a Voice

Every magazine has its own personality, and every article within it adheres to a tone of voice that reflects that personality. "That didn’t really exist for Android," Duarte says. There were no writing guidelines, so the text on the interface ended up being overly technical and unintentionally overbearing. "In an attempt to be clear, it fell into the habit of being aggressive," Duarte says.

To fix that, the UX team created a "writing" style guide which lays out the tone for all text. "It should be something that is instantly helpful and supportive," Duarte says. "Not cutesy, not apologetic, not omniscient or overbearing, but simply the perpetual supportive character."

Duarte says he didn’t get any pushback from Google’s top leaders as he went about ripping apart a design that, based on sales, had been working just fine up until then. Android head Andy Rubin, Google CEO Larry Page, and co-founder Sergei Brin were all behind him, he says.

"They really want to push Android to the next level, to take it into totally new directions, to make it something that is phenomenally successful, critically regarded by designers and consumers alike," Duarte says. "And also to really use this as a platform to break new ground."

"The mobile industry is changing faster than we could have imagined, and that comes after two or three decades of complete stagnation on the desktop. The interface paradigms there have been static. Mobile is an opportunity to take us to completely new types of ways of interacting with other people and having computers make our lives better."

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  • Andres Torres

    I have been a fan of Duarte ever since he graced the stage at CES to show off what would be know as the Palm WebOS. His design philosophy is almost reminiscent of Dieter Rams, Less is More. The only annoyance I have is that developers seems to put less focus on design and more on what the current fad is. Hopefully this complete break from the current mobile paradigm will make it work it in the near future.

  • Andrey Verbitsky

    Interestingly, but Widows Phone's UI is a good example of implementation of
    Duarte's phrase "I want people to stop thinking of an application as a bucket of buttons and think of it instead as a canvas,".

  • Gonzalo

    A phone is not really a computer (some of us want to use a desktop and not a pad!!), and I really hope computer's graphic environments won't become phone-like environment, either! Congratulations Android team.

  • Smeckle

    Ice Cream Sandwich really has made Android a thing of beauty, not just in its design and look but in its usability. I have never found Android easier and more seamless to use than it is now with ICS, and I love what Duarte and his team have done to accomplish that. So many steps have been eliminated to make it easier than ever to do what you want across multiple applications. The use of soft keys that disappear when you aren't using them only improves upon this and makes the interface feel so much more polished. People who are detracting from ICS are likely people who have not used it. The hype is right: this is the future of Android, and the future is looking bright.
    Android is not as easy to use as iOS, and that makes it difficult for beginners to come into, as alluded to in the article. Anybody can pick up an iPhone and begin doing everything they want because it is designed for simplicity. It is really just a bunch of icons. Android is designed for functionality and is less intuitive; unless you take some time to learn about your phone, you wouldn't know the vast amount that it is capable of. Take a look at iPhone home screens. They all look exactly the same. This is not a bad thing, as millions and millions flock to it. It just means that millions and milllions all have the exact same phone with no character. Now take a look at Android home screens. You will find "a plethora" of completely different designs and themes. Already ever customizable, with ICS I am truly happy every time I unlock my phone because of the customizations I've made and all the visual improvements that have been made to the UI.
    And fragmentation on Android is not as big of a problem anymore as people make it out to be. HTC is already preparing to update a long list of phones to ICS, as is Motorola. Asus has already begun pushing ICS to its tablet line. Those who are rooted can install ICS on their phones already if the appropriate ROM is available. If Apple weren't the sole manufacturer of iPhones then you'd assuredly have fragmentation problems there as well.  

  • Axiomflash

    Sounds like Metro (XBox, Windows Phone, Windows 8). All get a nice new design, but it's clear the focus is on appearances, and not usability.

  • Jesse Kinsman

    I really like Duarte's comments about hierarchy. I would like to see more of this applied to apps. When you have such a small screen and with such high resolutions, it is tempting to make everything small and orderly to make it fit. But hierarchy is one of the foundations of good design and really helps us as users determine what is important and helps us find the info we need. Even iOS misses this point.

    Also, I have a hard time with Duarte giving buttons a bad rap. It is like berating page numbers in magazines. They are old school but we need them to give readers and idea of where they are or build effective tables of contents. 

    It seems to me that Google has fallen into the trap that many designers find themselves: They made something beautiful but did they actually make it better?

    No doubt it is a beautiful interface and it is different, it will be interesting to see how Android users respond. I don't use android so I am only speaking from what I have seen in this article.

  • Android AbsBro

    Duarte has a track record for intuitive design and users "loving their phone", with the sidekick and then with Palm Pre.

    Dude knows what he's doing.

  • James Kirk

    obviously you haven't used ICS yet. The galaxy nexus works beautifully w/out dedicated buttons and is not confusing at all. Once you're familiar with the phone which takes less than 5 minutes to figure out. The phone is smooth overall, and its combination of phone and tablet software is a beautiful mesh. And a 4.65 inch screen is not very small it is the second largest behind the galaxy note's 5 inch screen. Its also has one of the best video qualities on the market.

  • KEWE

    I'm just not seeing it... What apps is this guy using? He needs to get out more.  I can't remember ever thinking, "Gee, this really feels like my desktop." The dynamic phase of design we're in right now IS all over the place (and that's great) but some things like the button endures because it works. Both the aesthetics and functions of buttons have so much range that they will never become antiquated.

  • Samir Zahran

    I think the idea is that buttons shouldn't be used for everything, not that they shouldn't be used at all. Buttons make perfect sense for some things, but not others. For example, on a computer if you wanted to go to the next page of something, a button is probably the best option. On a phone a swipe would probably make more sense.

  • Android AbsBro

    >>Buttons will never be antiquated.

    Steve Jobs one mission in life: eradicate all buttons.

    If you use an iPhone, oh, the irony of your comment. Duarte beat Jobs in the race to "a no button world".

  • Woody

    Sure, Android 4 is pretty swell. But besides interface design geeks and hardcore stock Android fans, nobody gives a shit as evidenced by its dismal uptake. Fragmentation in Android is so severe that I really don't think ICS is going to win over the general public no matter how cool and magazine-y it tries to be.

  • TheQuestian

    I have to respectfully disagree. The Galaxy Nexus is the first Android phone I have ever purchased. And that's by a long, long shot. I have always despised Android for its clutter, counterintuitivity, and general disregard for aesthetics. Windows Phone and iPhone just seemed to care more. Period. Sure, I'm a tech nerd, but that really just means I find out about things before Joe Snuffy on the street, not that I necessarily like them MORE. Friends and co-workers *regularly* ask me, "Oh, what phone is THAT?" and even come into my office to play with it.

    The same was true (though to a lesser degree) when I used a Windows Phone. People do care about interface design—they may not voice it in technical terms the way some of us would, but they say things like, "Ooh, this so cool," instead of, "The new font raises the level of sophistication on the whole while the stark layout and neon blue color theming create an atmosphere of futurism-meets-serenity and provides an overall sense of well-being."

    If anything, I believe the reason for its "dismal uptake" is not consumer-driven at all, but manufacturer-driven. There is only one phone on one carrier that offers it. I'm in the minuscule minority who would be willing to pay $600 outright for GSM phone off-contract. But I did it for this one, and I truly love it. It's gorgeous.
    When people get the opportunity to see this for themselves on devices they can hold in their own hands—much like with the iPhone's first release—I believe it will gain traction.

  • bthesingh

    Ehm... computers are from 30 years ago so mobile phones should be more like magazines? Because magazines are really modern? Please, apps and social at the moment are like the cotton gin was to slavery. I wish Google properties would come to their senses.

  • Android AbsBro

     You're missing his point. Computer interfaces were created by engineers. Magazines are put together by designers. They take style into account.

    Duarte was saying we're VISUAL creatures. Computer interfaces get the job done, but not elegantly.

  • Sean Landry

    Tactile affordance is a visual clue to the user that it can be pushed. Flattening the interface may be more elegant but less intuitive to the user. Magazines are tactile, the way the paper feels in your hand, it's easy to know what to do next (flip the page). But if it were interactive, there would need to be cues to the user that some elements had more information, could be enlarged, could be saved etc. By flattening the interface these things become camouflaged into the canvas.