Android Doubles Down on Design

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.


Design for Everybody

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.

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9 Comments

  1. I do not necessarily think they are in this to make develop a seperarte Android experience from iOS or the WindowsPhone Experience. It is though they just want a cohesive “look and feel” which has been fractured by the different phone manufacturers who skin the OS. At this point, the only recourse is to start getting the developers on board to help push the visual design language forward since the manufacturers have all the leverage.

    I believe a sign of possible doom is that the director is saying that more information is coming “soon”. I feel like this is par for course at Google – they launch something half-baked and end up “sunsetting” the initiative a year later.

  2. I may be wrong, but doesn’t Apple also ENFORCE their design requirements?

    I see on the Android page: “Design apps that behave in a consistent, predictable fashion.” I haven’t submitted an app to Apple, but I was under the impression that this wasn’t an optional thing with them. Am I wrong?

  3. @Ben, Apple doesn’t often enforce UI requirements. Developers are given considerable leeway, as can be seen by the wide variety of UI styles in the App Store, not to mention the considerable number of lousy, ugly, and hard-to-use UIs in the App Store.

    It’s good that Google is encouraging its developers to raise the bar, but it’s the Android developer culture—and its ability to change—that will determine success or failure of this effort. As stated above, Apple doesn’t enforce good UI. But there is a culture of good UI among iOS developers, and that, combined with a market that—for the most part—rewards good UI and punishes bad UI, is what creates high-quality apps, more than any set of rules published by the OS provider.

  4. I think the whole initiative of creating this guidellines repository (even if it looks a bit like a promotional website) is to be praised. It clearly states the design foundations of ICS and it explains some of the choices made for the UI. the fact that it is such easy read and illustrated also makes it a great resource for the millions of design students around the world. We all know that Apple HIG is not as easy to digest as this nicely laid out website.

    I hope in the future it does mature into a proper “library” and that indeed gets traction amongst designers and specially engineers, who I suspect most of the time do the design work for Android apps.

    Better late then ever – well done!

  5. Do not overlook the simplicity and security of the underlying operating system.

    I recently talked to someone who worked on an evaluation of the big mobile oparating systems and he talked about the ability of the OS to grow more secure yet provide consistency for application developers.

    Now, this is where you will have to help me but, isn’t the Android platform more open that Microsoft or Apple? If so, then you have the ability to drive the direction of Android in a fashion unavailable to the iPhone or MS community.

  6. Android’s design at first sucked, right now the latest ICS looks good but is still behind iOS or Windows Phone but it is improving not like iOS design that haven’t been changed since it’s launch back in 2007.
    If we speak about Android Design website then I like it but it could be centered as it on my 27″ monitor it feels in the corner but the rest is minimalist and that’s how I like it.

  7. This was a good read. It is definitely interesting to follow what Google is doing with Android. Although I think IOS (and the Iphone) are still better in usability I really believe google will once dominate the phone operating systems. They just always have a way of creating a product that is easy to use for everyone.

  8. I think, Google had a chance to make something special. Something what will be go over the edge of traditional design for desktop mouse-based systems. But it looks like they just don’t want to do this.

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