AUSTIN, TX—Google Android and Apple’s iOS pretty much split the mobile world, at least when it comes to operating systems; rivals such as Windows Phone or BlackBerry own a small sliver of the overall market. Despite its dominant position, however, Android has faced longtime criticisms that it’s simply not as pretty as the highly polished iOS—a sentiment that’s only starting to change, thanks to new features and an emphasis on polish.
At a SXSW panel titled, “Android’s Principles for Designing the Future, ” Helena Roeber (who headed up Android’s UX research from 2007 through 2012) and Rachel Garb (who leads interaction design for Android apps at Google) discussed the complex philosophy behind Android’s design.
Acknowledging that it “seems touchy-feely,” Garb broke down Android’s design principles into three categories, phrasing each the first person: Enchant Me, Simplify My Life, and Make Me Amazing.
“Every decision we make affects people emotionally,” Garb said, referring to Android’s design team.
Roeber went back to the very beginning, recounting Google’s Android Baseline Study, in which the team made in-home visits to study how people use technology. “We saw the profound effect that technological design has on people’s lives,” she said. “Technology had become so pervasive that people had started to schedule and enforce deliberate offline moments to spend time with their family and friends.”
From that study, the team learned that users were often overwhelmed by their options and “limitless flexibility,” leading them to consider how to design a mobile operating system that wouldn’t beat those users over the head (at least in the proverbial sense) on a minute-by-minute basis. Instead, they focused on an interface capable of serving features to users only when needed.
That meant creating an interface that only interrupts users when needed; that does the “heavy lifting” of the user’s tasks and scheduling; that emphasizes “real objects” over buttons and menus; and that offers lots of chances for customization. All those elements—and many more—eventually ended up in Android’s trio of design principles. By the end of the process, Android’s creators had decided on designing Android in a way that would create more positive emotions than negative ones.
Roeber and Garb used the visual metaphor of two jars filled with “positive emotion” and “negative emotion” marbles. Certain design approaches cause those hypothetical jars to fill with more “negative” than “positive” ones. For example, placing a graphical indicator to show that a user has reached a “last screen” when swiping back and forth through Android icon menus sparked positive emotions; without that graphical indicator, users felt they were doing something wrong—i.e., leading to a jar full of negative marbles.
Positive emotions also stem from word choice. Too chummy, too rambling, too curt—messages that fall into those categories can spark a negative reaction. So when it came to messages and alerts, the Android team worked on sprinkling encouragement, keeping things brief, and making sure the user knew that, whatever was happening onscreen, it wasn’t their fault. “Your phone is contacting Google” is better than “Google is trying to reach out to servers in order to access your account.”
“You did not insert a SIM card!” is an example of violating that “not the user’s fault” maxim; instead, Android flips it in a positive way, merely asking users to “insert a SIM card.” Since Android needs to fit a variety of users and situation, humor is risky, as is excessive politeness—instead, Android’s creators kept humor to a minimum.
The team also banned the use of the term, “Are you sure?” Evidently, that doesn’t sit well with Android users.
Android 4.2, Jelly Bean, attempts to coalesce Google’s longtime design principles, emphasizing—via Google Now—things that are timely. The latest update attempts to deliver the right information at exactly the right moment, such as flight information—an example of Android handling the user’s “heavy lifting.” If the user drives to work at a particular time, Google Now will learn your habits and feed you traffic data. “It sounds kind of easy when I say it, but it’s really not,” Roeber said, suggesting the system constantly has to adjust based on dynamic user data.
Weather and other visual elements are kept as simple as possible, showing only what’s needed. Google Now, Roeber added, is the ultimate extension of the Android design principles.
Google Now and Android 4.2 have attracted strong reviews (as well as some very public concerns over privacy, given how the system monitors users’ habits). It might even be enough to make Android seem “cooler” than iOS, although measuring such a thing is nebulous and subjective. In any case, comparing Android 4.2 and its features to the first versions of Android shows just how far the operating system has come in the past few years—and the importance of good design to the overall user experience.
According to recent data from ABI Research, Android will account for 58 percent of the total apps downloaded in 2013, well ahead of Apple’s iOS at 33 percent. That’s not a surprising statistic—Strategy Analytics estimated Android’s market-share in 2012 at 68.4 percent, with iOS a distant second at 19.4 percent. But if the past few years have taught the tech industry anything, it’s that seismic changes in the mobile world happen at a rapid clip, with unexpected reversals of fortune—look at how precipitously BlackBerry’s share of the market declined, for example. By focusing on user interface (and features) Google can help ensure that Android stays at the top of the market heap.