Building a Better Android [Opinion]

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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.



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