5 Ways That Android Is Trying To Break The Mobile UI Paradigm

Android’s design chief asks why we’re still designing smartphone applications as if they were desktop software.


When designers create applications for smartphones, they often hark back to principles inherited from desktop software. After all, they’re all computers, right? Android UX Design Chief Matias Duarte thinks it’s time to jettison that idea. The technology available in the average smartphone today is vastly more powerful than the desktop computer of 30 years ago, when those standards were first created. So it’s time to rethink the paradigms and invent new ones for today’s technology and devices. “I want people to stop thinking of an application as a bucket of buttons and think of it instead as a canvas,” he says.


That was one of Duarte’s guiding ideas as he went about leading the team that redesigned the Android UX for Ice Cream Sandwich, the latest Android operating system, which was released in December. Duarte says he took his inspiration from cutting-edge graphic design. “We’ve had 2,000 years of development in visual communication, and mobile computers typically don’t take advantage of that,” Duarte says. That was particularly important in light of one of Ice Cream Sandwich’s primary design goals: Turn Android phones into objects their users love passionately, instead of simply devices they find useful. “It just makes sense that the next step in connecting to people and, especially connecting to them emotionally, is to look at the best lessons of how people have been connecting emotionally for the last thousands of years.” Here’s how he did it.

Lose the Feel of Buttons and Be More Like a Magazine

Application interfaces have always felt like functional assemblies of buttons. Because, after all, they took their cues from machines. Want to make a machine do something? Push a button. But as you flip through Ice Cream Sandwich’s screens, you get a much different feeling. Each screen feels lightweight, as if it were a page in a magazine, rather than a set of knobs and switches. Even the phone dialer looks light and sleek. It’s clear how to use it, of course. It just doesn’t feel so … buttony.

All of that is intentional, Duarte says. Each screen is designed to heighten the emotional impact. Take the contact card, for example. Many smartphones allow you to include photos of the people in your contact list. And many of them store them as thumbnails in the contact card. Not so in Ice Cream Sandwich. Instead, the image takes prominence in the layout, consuming a third of the screen. “We’re really visual creatures,” Duarte says. “We want the person to be the point of emotional contact.” So the image gets emphasized, while the actual contact information recedes. It’s still there, of course, but the emphasis is on the visuals, not unlike, say, in a magazine.


Building Blocks That Are Light as a Feather

Any UI toolkit has a series of elements that get re-used throughout an interface–checkboxes, dropdown menus, lists, and so forth. Typically, Duarte says, each one of gets “designed on a silver platter”–a lot of time is spent making each one beautiful in its own right, with beveled edges, perhaps, and a full 3-D feel. The problem with that, Duarte says, is that when you assemble the individual elements on a screen, each one becomes prominent on its own. (Go ahead, pull out your iPhone, and look at a contact card, for example. See how each element on that card seems to have equal weight?)

Duarte says that overwhelms the layout. He compares the overly designed elements to pieces of Victorian hand-carved ornamentation. “Each is very pretty, but when you try to make a wall or a house out of them, all the embellishments fight with the larger building.”

So for Ice Cream Sandwich, the UX team designed each building block to be as minimal as possible. Individual screens still use the elements, but it’s the overall layout that captures your attention, rather than the individual units.


Who Needs a Menu Button Anymore?

“The menu button was a source of frustration for users,” Duarte says. “You never knew if there was going to be any functionality hiding behind that button or not.” While doing baseline user research, the Android team discovered that many users felt dumb using the system because they couldn’t figure out how to access all its features. “We went through and eliminated all the hidden affordances [controls], places in the system where it wasn’t clear what you had to do, or where somebody would have to teach you, or where you’d have to just try it [to figure out what it did],” Duarte says. To reduce the learning curve, all essential actions in each application are right up on the surface screen. “That makes everything much more discoverable and much faster.”

The Words You Say Should Feel Different

The Android operating system used to use Droid Sans which was a basic workman sans serif with notes of “computer” about it. Duarte felt strongly that the font needed to be upgraded and optimized for high-resolution screens–so much so that he assigned a team to start designing a new font without being sure they would be able to complete it in time to ship with the new operating system. They did, and the result is Roboto, a crisp and friendly sans serif that is both pleasing to the eye and exudes a sense of style. “It just feels right,” Duarte says.

The Text You Have Should Share a Voice

Every magazine has its own personality, and every article within it adheres to a tone of voice that reflects that personality. “That didn’t really exist for Android,” Duarte says. There were no writing guidelines, so the text on the interface ended up being overly technical and unintentionally overbearing. “In an attempt to be clear, it fell into the habit of being aggressive,” Duarte says.


To fix that, the UX team created a “writing” style guide which lays out the tone for all text. “It should be something that is instantly helpful and supportive,” Duarte says. “Not cutesy, not apologetic, not omniscient or overbearing, but simply the perpetual supportive character.”

Duarte says he didn’t get any pushback from Google’s top leaders as he went about ripping apart a design that, based on sales, had been working just fine up until then. Android head Andy Rubin, Google CEO Larry Page, and co-founder Sergei Brin were all behind him, he says.

“They really want to push Android to the next level, to take it into totally new directions, to make it something that is phenomenally successful, critically regarded by designers and consumers alike,” Duarte says. “And also to really use this as a platform to break new ground.”


“The mobile industry is changing faster than we could have imagined, and that comes after two or three decades of complete stagnation on the desktop. The interface paradigms there have been static. Mobile is an opportunity to take us to completely new types of ways of interacting with other people and having computers make our lives better.”

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