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Building a Better Android [Opinion]

Twitter on Android

Designing Android apps can be a monstrous challenge. Between multiple screen sizes, resolutions, Android versions, and manufacturer skins, developers have enough variables to make it nearly impossible to make an app that both looks like it fits the design language of your phone and is enjoyable to use on the devices you own. While Google has taken steps to try and guide developers in the right direction to solve these problems, many Android apps still are not optimized for modern devices, especially tablets. Worse still, Android apps have historically been static and boring. Many Android apps still have the old Android 2.x or below design, which forces users to peck around the app to access content.

Twitter apps have been especially representative of the need to have adaptable, scalable, and natural design. In particular, the official Twitter app for Android has been derided by users, journalists, and Apple executives as an example of an app that does not scale up to higher resolutions and larger screen sizes. Through the lens of Twitter apps for Android one can see how Android app design has had to evolve since 2008, pushing Android to become a more fluid, scalable, and fun to use platform.

In my opinion, the first truly revolutionary app for Twitter was TweetDeck. TweetDeck was one of the first (if not the first) Twitter apps to use swiping between panes as a way to navigate between your timeline, mentions, and direct messages. It didn’t have features like location, muting, or streaming, but it presented Twitter in a simple, easy-to-use package. If this sounds mundane to you, then you may not remember what Twitter’s first official app on Android looked like. Most Twitter apps did not adopt a swiping pane UI, instead opting to use a button-based UI. Seesmic placed the buttons for timeline, mentions, and DMs on the top while Twidroyd placed them on the bottom. Designs like these were simple, functional, and banal, but they couldn’t anticipate the shift that was about to happen in the phone space.

Starting around 2010, Android phone screen sizes began to shift towards 4 inches and above. 2010 was the year of the Droid X, the Streak, the Evo 4G, the Galaxy S, and other phones that by today’s standards seem small (with the possible exception of the Streak), but in 2010 were considered huge. As screen sizes grew, app design became more important. Reaching for the top of your screen over and over on the Droid Incredible was easy, but it was becoming more challenging on larger screened devices.

I believe that the move towards larger screens was one of the reasons that Matias Duarte and Google’s Android team improved the design guidelines for Android apps. In an effort to avoid what Google calls “pogo-sticking,”¬†Android Design recommends using a swipe gesture to move between pieces of content. Google recognized that swiping gestures were a superior navigation method to on-screen buttons because screens change size and orientation.

While Twitter for iPad and iPhone have each respectively been hailed as examples of how UI should adapt between screen sizes, Google has maintained the argument that completely different UI paradigms aren’t the best solution. Responding to The Verge’s Joshua Topolsky on this very issue, Duarte said:

“One of the things that I don’t think you want to do is have a completely different experience for the phone and tablet. You could only get away with that if you were going to say that there’s [sic] only two screen sizes or two window sizes. That’s great if that really is the case, but that’s not the case for Android. There is this infinite variety of sizes. Just like on the desktop, you can stretch your windows to all these different sizes. When people are making PCs they make PCs with all sorts of different configurations and screen sizes. That is the real future of computing. That kind of variety is going to exist, so you want to have a platform that can scale that way, and developers want to start to design applications that scale that way.”

Duarte went on to ignore the Twitter example and instead point to Google’s own apps for UI solutions that scale. Google+ shows the exact same content on tablets and phones, but scrolls horizontally or verizoncally depending on device orientation. Gmail uses a paned UI that is spread out on a tablet display and stacked on a phone display. While Duarte has evangelized the “one UI fits all” approach, even Google doesn’t always follow its own rules (Chrome, for example, has a different UI for navigating content on tablets and phones). The reality is that scalable and selective UI paradigms are both needed and both work better when users aren’t forced to hunt around for buttons to interact with content.

In an interview with Gizmodo, Duarte explained, “I want to transform the types of interactions we have with computers that are today really all about hunting and pecking and picking and menus, into an experience that is a much more gestural, physical, emotional experience.” I believe we’re just beginning to see what Android apps are capable of with gestural, scalable design. Every time I pick up my Palm Pre 2 I’m reminded of how simple the UI was and how fun it is to swipe and gesture on a device to use it. I think Android is headed in that direction as a whole (just look at the new camera app or the gesture to toggle settings in the notification shade in Android 4.2) and it’s exciting territory. We’ve already seen apps like Pocket use swiping to reveal an action sheet or swipe to archive in Gmail, but I can’t wait to see what else developers can come up with when more subtlety is employed (despite its age, CyanogenMod’s lock screen gestures is a fantastic example).

Android has been a beautiful operating system that is far too often defaced by poorly designed apps. Many Android apps follow Android Design’s recommendations or have come up with their own solution, but there are still so many apps that either half-ass Android Design’s recommendations or are still using the same tired Android 2.x design templates. Apps like Falcon Pro, Tweetings, Slide Messaging, Eye in the Sky Weather, Tasks, and others demonstrate that Android users are willing to pay for quality apps that are well-designed. We are beginning to see Google and third party developers work together to build a better Android; one that is fluid, scalable, and fun to use.

  • Tom Snow

    I for one, really love the ability to swipe between page or headings. Google currents is a great app to use as i don’t have to work much at it, simply swipe. Same thing with Falcon Pro, it really makes my Tittwer experience better. Especially with a DNA and smaller hands, I’ve even set up my NOVA launcher so I don’t have to reach the notification bar, I can just swipe it down. Makes for a great operating system, developers need to catch up, so consumers can see the true potential of Android!

  • http://profiles.google.com/adamtruelove Adam Truelove

    Android’s strength is also its weakness: customization. You’re allowed to do whatever you want as a user and as a developer and sometimes they makes Android awful.

    • bananatroll

      And this is exactly why Google desperately needs something that is Google across the board… like the rumored X Phone. If folks want “Android” and not some cartoony looking crap from every OEM except Google themselves, then they have no where to turn, and as a result the Brand loses consistency and suffers fragmentation so bad, that people stop referring to their smartphones as “Android” handsets whatsoever. Galaxy Phone, DROID, and others have made a name for themselves in the last 3-4 years. But Android has not, and Google has lost recognition and realization from consumers as a result of this. Many smartphone owners have no clue that they are even using a Android device in the first place, much less what OS version it has, or even what real Android looks like. Applications are hard enough to write as it is, without OEM’s screwing up the OS on the Kernal level to the point of making it even worse.

      There are reasons Apple has been so successful in this business:

      Consistency
      Reliability
      Quality
      End User Friendly
      Excellent Tech Support
      Excellent Customer Service

      And most importantly of all…

      BRAND

      Google Branded Smartphones, Google Updates, Google Mandated OS Uniformity, and Stock Android direct from the dudes at Mountain View… Just the way it was meant to be.

      Open licensing is great and all, but it ain’t making them any money yet, so having a Google Series of handsets on ALL carriers with the same type of relationship Apple has would be awesomefest… And it would make them MONEY!

      • michael arazan

        And a Google Carrier that will update the os the same week or month it comes out, unlike carriers that decide’s whether or not the customer needs it, or delays it to sell newer phones with the newer os, or any BS reason not to.

        9to5 Google says dish/ google trying to get the carrier up before the end of the year

  • Spencer

    Meanwhile at Apple HQ:

    Hey guys, do you think we could make glass infused aluminum? I don’t know if people would like it, but we can just make a video with a white background to get them to like it a lot.

  • Austin Warren

    IOS has been the same for many years. While android keeps getting better and better. Project butter has been my favorite. And the lockscreen widgets.

  • James

    what app is that at the top?

    • Michael

      It’s sad when people don’t even know what stock android looks like and asks the above question :(

      • Ronaldo

        It’s sad when people post condescending comments like the above comment.

        • Mack

          Do as you say, not as you do right?

          • Justin Barrett

            Multiple personality disorder?

          • Ronaldo

            It’s sad when people post condescending comments like the above comment.

        • Droidzilla

          It’s disconcerting when people post snarky responses to condescending responses to comments showing the poster doesn’t know what stock Android looks like.

          • Ronaldo

            It’s disconcerting when people post bellicose comments to snarky responses to condescending responses to comments that show a poster doesn’t know what the newest version of stock Android looks like because it hasn’t been rolled out to everyone.

          • kixofmyg0t

            It’s disconcerting when people post a dubious amounts of laundry while facilitating the perpetual eventually of equally in response to copious amounts of high fructose corn syrup in conjunction with multiple purple stuffed worms in flap jaw space with the tuning fork to show that a poster is only as good as the beholder while continuing to FACKWORS.

            Am I doing this right?

        • TheWenger

          Not meant to be condescending. Meant to be a slam to what OEMs are doing to Android.

      • http://twitter.com/HitchIsANoun Shank Moody

        Lmaooooooo!

      • sirmeili

        Well, if I dont have android 4.2 and I’m just checking out this article (as in I don’t necessarily keep up with Android news), how would a person really know that this is stock android? There aren’t that many 4.2 devices out there.

        • C-Law

          that’s what sucks about android. Fragmentation. But there’s no way to fix it without closing it off

          • sirmeili

            Well, honestly, while there are core features that are missing between versions, I’d think that most apps work across most of the version that are most popular today. I’m sure there are exceptions, but I would think that would be few.

            I don’t see how this is any different from iOS once Apple decided to start leaving out features for older devices (ie: Siri).

        • Josh Shaw

          I have AT&T Galaxy S3 and had 4.2.1 in January, and got 4.2.2 in February. Obviously you’re not doing Android right. Root, ROM, Smooth, Sexy.

    • Josh Haug

      Android 4.2.2 quick settings menu.

    • http://ronoffringa.wordpress.com Ron Offringa

      It isn’t an app. It’s the settings toggles that are built in to the notification shade in Android 4.2.

      • Chris

        Hey Ron, whether you read this or not or reply, I just want you to know I enjoy your articles, and I hope you continue to make them. Don’t worry about what some people say (in the other articles you’ve posted I’ve seen some hateful stuff)!

        • http://ronoffringa.wordpress.com Ron Offringa

          Thanks. :) I appreciate that.

    • Futbolrunner

      oh brother..

    • anon

      oh honey

  • Rob Kein

    OS requiring better UI is as old as time. I still agree.

  • ddevito

    Not only is Android more functional than iOS it’s starting to kick its ass in design too. Great article, Cheers!