Fri 13 Jan
It’s probably a good idea for everybody involved in design to follow closely what happens with Android Design, a portal that Google launched yesterday as part of a new initiative to raise the mobile platform’s user experience to the next level. Aimed squarely at Android developers, the site sets out a creative vision (tied closely to the awkwardly-named Ice Cream Sandwich, or Android 4.0 release); its central tenets are “enchant me,” “simplify my life,” and “make me amazing.” Those three ideas are supported by a series of design principles and a library of design patterns and building blocks that should make it easier for developers to adhere to the vision.
All in all Android Design is a well-executed package, and it’s significant in that it’s the first — or at least the most cogent — articulation of what designing for Android is all about. It puts forward clearly delineated concepts that Android developers should hold in their heads when they set out to create a product on this platform, and backs those up by identifying the specific, tactical methods that Google feels are most effective at arriving at these ends. Good stuff.
What struck me the most about the site, though, is that its vision is so broad that it becomes broadly generic, too. There’s nothing about “enchant me,” “simplify my life,” and “make me amazing” that’s objectionable, but there’s also nothing about those concepts that sets the platform apart from what iOS or Windows Phone are trying to do, either. The design principles are smart and illuminating, and in fact everyone should read them as they offer a lot of good advice. But again you could apply these to just about any design system, whether an OS or a suite of products. The only material that shows how Android is different lies in the lower-level patterns and building blocks; this is a little bit like saying that Android is different because its constituent parts are different, but not truly explaining why they are the way they are. This was a chance for Google to clearly state how its Android design philosophy is different from the rest of the pack, but it doesn’t seem to me that they followed through on that.
However, Android UX director Matias Duarte promises that the Android Design site that launched yesterday is just an opening salvo, and that over time its resources will grow deeper and, presumably, richer. This is why I think watching this initiative will be very instructive for any designer or design professional: Google is trying to engender a design culture where, frankly, there isn’t much of one at the moment.
This kind of effort is something that few companies can successfully pull off: changing the character of the platform in mid-stream, splicing in a new design-savvy gene even as the organism is growing with incredible rapidity. It’s a nontrivial challenge, to say the least, and if Google can make it work — I hope they can — it will demonstrate to many kinds of organizations that design can be successfully evangelized, even in environments where it was not deeply rooted at the beginning. For my part, I have no opinion on what their chances are, only to say that the successful design platforms that we’re most familiar with tend to be ‘born that way,’ whether it’s Apple or Adobe or even Windows Phone, which had to essentially reboot the notion of Windows to properly integrate the kind of design culture that Microsoft aspired to. There’s plenty of prior evidence that design can come late to a company and still succeed, of course; there’s less evidence that design can come late to a platform and still win over that platform’s whole ecosystem. Anyway, it’s going to be fascinating to watch.