4 Management Lessons From The Overhaul Of Android’s UI

Matias Duarte, the designer who was brought on to make Android gorgeous, offers lessons in persuading stakeholders to embrace a turnaround.

There are a lot of things you might say about an Android phone–that it’s more powerful than the iPhone, more customizable, better integration with Google services. But one thing you probably wouldn’t say about an Android phone is that you love it–can’t-live-without-it, rip-it-out-of-my-cold-dead-hands love it. When Matias Duarte (the designer behind the T-Mobile Sidekick and Palm’s WebOS) joined Google a year-and-a-half ago as senior director for Android user experience, he set out to change that.


But Duarte has been around the block a few times. He knows you can’t just walk into a place like Google, wave a wand, and make large-scale changes–especially when the inmates probably don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with the way they’ve been doing things to date, thank you very much.

The fact that the latest version of Android, release 4.0, code-named “Ice Cream Sandwich” (shipped in December on the Galaxy Nexus), is such a leap forward, and perhaps, even, bordering on beautiful, means that Duarte was able to convince Google’s Android team to see things his way. Here’s how he did it.

Know that no one else might think there’s a problem, even if you do


Duarte walked into Google knowing there was a long way to go with the Android interface. But he was also aware that it’s one thing to try to convince people to change what they’re doing when things are going poorly. It’s another entirely when things are actually going quite well. “I was going to have to ask them to change the way they’d been doing things for years,” he says. “And the way they’d been doing things [led] to great commercial success.” If he tackled his assignment without acknowledging that, he would likely run smack into opposition.

And so he decided to …

Run a baseline study to identify users’ core issues


“I needed to have a mechanism that would both give me confidence that we were making the right changes and would also really engage everybody and not make them feel like we were arbitrarily throwing away work that had worked for them in the past,” Duarte says.

So he built up his research team–that was his first major step–and then initiated a study to establish users’ baseline attitudes toward Android. The three principle questions were: How did users feel about Android? How did they actually use Android phones? And how did Android compare to other platforms?

The first thing they found was perhaps predictable: People who have started using smartphones feel like they are an extension of themselves. They can’t imagine going back.


But the team also found two other things. The first was that users felt Android was hard to learn–though they didn’t actually phrase it that way. “They felt that, even though the device was powerful, maybe they weren’t smart enough to unlock that power,” Duarte says. “Of course, that’s not really their fault. That’s our failure.”

The second thing they learned is that users didn’t really love their Android devices. “Oftentimes there was enthusiasm, but beyond that sense of necessity, that sense that ‘This is my lifeline, I can’t live without it,’ there was seldom the positive that goes beyond that, the sense that they really loved it.'”

“It’s kind of funny to talk about something that you don’t hear as a finding,” Duarte says, “but when you do research, you have to be alert to the things that are unspoken as much as the things that are said.”


Bring your stakeholders along on your research

As they were doing the baseline study, Duarte’s team brought engineers out into the field with them to observe what the users were saying. “Engaging people in the research gives it credibility,” Duarte says. “They see first-hand what people are saying. So it’s not somebody else telling them, ‘Oh, by the way, maybe there are some issues that we should look at.’ They can see the real customers, and they can see the kinds of problems that they’re having, and that provides an opportunity for us to have a dialogue, to say, ‘Look, these are some things we could do to alleviate that.'”

Use the baseline research to establish your design goals


After seeing users’ attitudes to the operating system, the team established three goals for the next phase of Android design, which would serve to give the team focus and, as Duarte said above, confidence that they were investing their efforts in the right places:

1. Transform Android into an OS people fall in love with.

“We knew as designers that, for a really successful product, people should be having a stronger emotional reaction,” Duarte says. “They should be talking about how much they love it, how much they desire it, how much they appreciate it.”

2. Make Android truly simple and straightforward to use.

“People know that Android is powerful, and they’ve felt a little bad about it when they can’t figure it out,” Duarte says. “We want to turn that around and make you feel like you completely understand the system.”

3. Have users associate Android’s cutting-edge innovations with things that will turbo-charge their own lives.

Google is constantly turning out pioneering features, like voice actions or, the latest, Face Unlock, which allows you to unlock your phone using facial recognition software. Android wants users to have the feeling that “the technology is not just there for technology’s sake,” Duarte says, “but it’s there to make you an amazing person–to essentially unlock your own digital superpowers.”

This is part one of a two-part story on the design overhaul of Android. Stay tuned for the second installment, which will detail how Android is meant to create a visual look that recreates the experience of the printed page.

[Top image by GWImages/Shutterstock]


About the author

E.B. Boyd (@ebboyd) has holed up in conference rooms with pioneers in Silicon Valley and hunkered down in bunkers with soldiers in Afghanistan