The Android Design Philosophy

In an interesting interview at This Is My Next, Android’s Head of User Experience Matias Duarte described how Android’s UI conventions (or lack thereof) are evolving with the new version, Ice Cream Sandwich:

“The problem with going too starkly systematic, forcing everything into this completely constrained, modernist palette […] you’re not leaving any room for the content to express itself.”

“The incredible diversity of applications and content providers… that’s the reason people have these machines. Not for the five bundled apps and the beauty of the OS — they have them for the hundreds or thousands of games, or books, or movies.”

“Instead, I offer the web. Here there’s beautiful examples of very customized, very different feeling websites.” Matias flips through slides in his deck, a variety of websites, some news-focused, others which are services or shopping sites. “These look completely unlike each other, but people understand how to use them because the right things are standard conventions, and other things are flexible.”

"That’s what we tried to build with the Ice Cream Sandwich conventions. We started throwing in a few hints in Gingerbread, and took it further in Honeycomb. We tried to create a palette and a language and a sense of being that’s clean and modern and graphic, but isn’t a straightjacket.” He adds, “We’ve taken what Honeycomb has done and pumped up the snooty design quotient, and we’ve toned down the geeky nerd quotient. We’ve made it a lot more accessible. But we haven’t taken it in a new direction.”

In other words, the official design philosophy behind Android is that there is no design philosophy, and apps on Android should be built like apps on the web, through “best practices” and with limited structural guidance from the platform and ecosystem. I had been hoping that Google was hard at work developing more substantial user interface scaffolding and documentation for developers, something analogous to UIKit and the iOS Human Interface Guidelines, but, sadly, that does not appear to be the case.

Given the pitifully low quality of most apps on the Android Market, I am surprised that Duarte still believes the “anything goes” web-like interface model is the best one. iOS, and even his own WebOS, have proven that when a platform owner creates great default design and interface guidelines, the overall experience becomes better for everyone. With a default style, it’s far easier for developers to build their apps, and it’s much easier for users to learn how to use them. I hope Duarte changes his mind (and sooner rather than later).

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