Sometimes, when we talk to potential clients, they ask, “What’s your specialty? web? phone? desktop?” Our answer is usually, “Yes.” While developers may have more experience with one platform or another, great developers bring their fundamental skills to any platform. Sure, there may be a bit of a learning curve here and there, but the core principles are at play no matter where you are. We think the same is true for user experience design.
I’ve played with Android devices (both smartphones and tablets) from day one. But I’ve never lived with one. Not really truly depended on one. I’ve been an iOS guy from the start, but to be honest this past winter I hadn’t fallen in love with any of Apple’s releases in awhile. My trusty 4S was getting a little long in the tooth, but the next iPhone (with a rumored larger screen) was still months away. And then suddenly a slew of new Android devices came out and I thought… why not. If I’m going to design software for Android I should really truly live with it for awhile.
Strangely, now that I have lived with Android for awhile, the experiment has been kind of a failure in that I didn’t really learn much more than I knew already in terms of details I can use to make the software I design work better. But I did learn quite a bit nonetheless.
My first problem (of course) was picking which Android phone to buy. It seemed clear that either the Samsung Galaxy or the HTC One M8 were the ones to get – for several reasons. I wanted a phone that was representative of the Android experience. The software design nerd in me wanted the cleanest experience possible. But responsibility to our consulting clients demanded that I get a phone that a big chunk of people actually use. I’d heard rumors that the pure Android Nexus phones were going the way of the dodo, and the market share of the Google Play editions wasn’t huge, so it looked like a phone filled with Samsung or HTC “value added functionality” was the way to go. I used to work on Windows so I know how hardware companies fantasize (often mistakenly) that their software additions layered over the core OS experience differentiate their products effectively. Since most Android customers go through that, I figured I should too. Maybe things had changed since my Windows days.
I did bow a little bit to my values in choosing an HTC One M8 which had really pretty hardware, and also by choosing an unlocked version, so while I got the add-ons from HTC, I wasn’t subjected to the add-ons from my carrier. (In this case I decided to go to T-Mobile as Verizon, even with their superior network was making me insane with their crappy customer service, and incredibly high pricing.)
One final note before I dive in here… When I worked on Windows, I used to hear Microsoft employees working on the old Windows Mobile platform and on the Windows desktop platform deflect criticism of the end user experience as OEMs would “crap it up” with their software add-ons. Yes, those were the contracts that Microsoft signed. Yes, the OEMs insisted on “differentiation”. But I never felt that was a fair defense. Microsoft put out the product. The fact that they used to let their partners turn it into a garbage heap was not their partners fault. It was Microsoft’s fault. No excuses. And yes, Google now works with partners to put out Google Play versions, but if they can’t find a way to distribute and market those versions so they are experienced by the vast majority of their customers, then I think the responsibility is Google’s. So, any rebuttals to my criticisms along the lines of “HTC made that decision” are simply not going to hold water with me. Sorry. Android phones are Google’s product. And they need to be accountable for the end user experience. No excuses.
A couple of final notes before I dive in. I’ve now been using my Android device as my only phone for more than a couple of months and feel pretty confident that I’ve got the gist of the experience. I believe that user experience design is a craft. Part art, part science. Like cooking. And what tastes good is subjective. I’m not claiming to be the final word on the things I found, but I do think my observations have merit.
I found a long list of issues with my phone. I tried hard to discount issues that were just different than iOS. I don’t think it’s fair to criticize Android for being different than what I’m used to – for example the direction in which you scroll the “wheels” smartphones use instead of long popup menus. It would be nice if iOS and Android went in the same direction but they don’t. I can’t make an argument that one is better than the other. There are other things like this and I’ve tried not to list them here.
There are also a series of issues with the hardware or the hardware manufacturer itself. The screen seems way too sensitive – especially when just holding the phone. It keeps reacting to the side of my hand holding it which makes it do all sorts of things unintentionally. Just today I hung up on a call accidentally by just picking up my phone by the sides. Using the phone one handed is almost impossible because when I stretch a finger to tap on something the skin at the base of my thumb touches the screen and confuses the OS. And finally, HTC has added a bunch of special gestures that work about 80% of the time. Double tap on the phone to wake it up, or click on volume up when the phone is horizontal to launch into camera mode. These are great when they work. But not consistent enough to depend on.
In the end there are two main categories of problems with the user experience of my phone. The first are a result of Android’s business model. The second are, in my opinion, unfinished design.
User Experience problems that are a result of Android’s business model
The Android team at Google took a page (or three) out of Microsoft’s Windows playbook. They depend on OEMs (in this case the handset manufacturers) to distribute Android on their own “differentiated” hardware. Each hardware manufacturer (as well as the carriers with which they partner) are trying to compete against very similar Android offerings so wherever they have a chance to do something different, they do. Typically whether it has customer value or not. And often, even if their change is an improvement, it’s detrimental to the overall Android ecosystem as user skills aren’t portable if they switch to another device. Manufacturers like that, but app developers don’t. And in my experience, users find it an irritant at best.
- Two Apps — Which app should I use on my phone to manage my photos? Gallery? Or Photos? Honestly, I still don’t know. One of them looks more green (I’m talking the color of the user interface not environmental impact). But that’s about all I can figure. And the moment the OS has two options, it has to bug the user to select one over the other for each action, or make them crown one as the default. Android solves this problem with their ubiquitous dialog asking me which one I want to use. And I can choose to use my selection “always” but I invariably pick “just once” because I don’t really know the difference between my choices. I have no real idea what the tradeoffs are in picking one app over the other. And if the difference is so negligible, why do they even offer both.
- Choose Your App, But Not Always — The messaging app doesn’t have a built-in photo previewer, so when I tap a photo, I have to choose which app I’ll use to see the image. But at least in this context I can choose Photos or Gallery. If I want to Attach an image to my text, then I get the choice dialog again, but only Gallery is available. Maybe this is a bug, but this bug wouldn’t exist if this piece of user interface wasn’t necessary in the first place.
- And even more — I don’t think it’s too much to ask that the default experience – especially given the fact that Google wrote the various apps that are fighting for control on my phone – doesn’t require to make choices like these. The Google Hangouts app bugs me all the time to make it my default messaging (SMS/texting) app. I have no real idea how that would be a good choice or a bad choice, so in general I just ignore the question. I suppose I could just pick and see what happens, and I imagine many people do. But how would I reverse the decision if I was unhappy? It’s probably buried somewhere in settings. Honestly, why do I even have to think about this. If they had all this time to make two photo gallery apps, couldn’t they have put some of that time into just making one great one and making it the default? Of course, I’m sure this issue has something to do with the licensing and the OEM and Google fighting between whether I should use the vanilla Gallery that comes with Android, and the souped up special more “Googley” version called Photos that Google really wants me to use.
- Hardware Manufacturer Differentiation — HTC has installed some sort of special dashboard that appears as one of my home screens. It’s a tile-based visualization of my Facebook and Twitter feeds that can occupy my entire home screen. Of course, there are apps that do this and I don’t install them. And I already have Facebook and Twitter installed on my phone. But HTC is relentless. They bug me all the time asking me to log in with my credentials, as well as sign up for other services they provide. All of course in the name of making my experience better than it would be on a competitor’s Android device. In the end, of course, all they’ve succeeded in doing is interrupting my experience and making it less predictable.
- The Fine Print of an Unlocked Android Phone — Now that I’m a T-Mobile user I’m quietly suffering through their subpar coverage — especially indoors. Imagine my excitement when I heard that T-Mobile let you make actual phone calls over WIFI. Perfect. That would be amazing when I’m traveling internationally too. But since I got an unlocked phone my phone came without a bunch of the T-Mobile Android modifications. (It took me forever to realize that I had to download the T-Mobile voicemail app to get my voicemail.) T-Mobile support kept directing me to a settings page that didn’t exist. I finally realized that T-Mobile has a different settings app in the version of the HTC ONE that they distribute. Really? The Settings app is a place that needs to be differentiated in the UI? Why is the Settings app a place where OEMs are allowed to replace the app? Windows made so many of these same mistakes. It feels like Google has learned much less from Microsoft’s old Windows judgment errors than Microsoft itself has. I did find a feature called “Internet Calling” and once I even accidentally got a related dialog to come up in the dialer, but I could sooner repeat Pi to the 25th digit than tell you how I did that. I truly don’t know and I’ve never been able to bring it up again. The T-Mobile folks tell me that I’m SOL since I got an unlocked phone and they have no way to enable wifi calling for me on my device. Thanks Google/HTC/T-Mobile. You’ve made me very very sad.
I am completely speculating of course, but I believe that there are people at Google who understand that Android still needs a fair degree of polish. And I suspect that there are Google leaders including Larry Page himself who speak passionately about the fracturing of the platform and the user experience. But in the end, if I were to judge solely based on my experience with my phone, the people who represent the OEM and Carrier interests within Google are winning the battle over the people fighting for one seamless experience. And as a result, Android users are being screwed. I know that Nexus phones were, and Google Play phones are Google’s answer to this problem, but they don’t count if Google can’t get anyone to buy them.
User Experience problems that are a result of poor design
This next class of issues is really the biggest deal for me. Because these aren’t issues that are just a result of me being used to something else. They’re also not a result of the fracturing of the Android platform due to its business model. And while I know for a fact that there are smart and talented designers working on Android, in my opinion, the following issues are just a result of unfinished design, and a lack of conviction or execution ability when it comes to getting the details right.
- Unlocking the Phone — Front and center on Android is the unlock screen. And at the bottom of the unlock screen there are several icons. Dragging on each icon unlocks the phone while taking you to the app represented by the icon — the camera, the dialer, etc. This is nice as you can launch into whatever “mode” you need for that moment. And even better (for more finicky users) this is customizable. You could launch into Instagram or Angry Birds. Whatever you decide. And if you do launch into the regular old home screen that same set of icons is docked to the bottom of all of the home screens (except for home screen on which HTC put its social media dashboard thingy). But once you’ve unlocked the phone you don’t drag those icons to launch into them, you tap them. This is because on the lock screen, an errant tap would be too easy a way to unlock the phone. But once you’ve unlocked, a tap is all you need. As UX designers we overload one piece of user interface with multiple functions all the time. And when those functions are closely related, it can be a boon on many levels. However, on my Android device, the row of icons at the bottom of the lock screen and the row of identical icons at the bottom of the home screen are rendered, well, identically. After more than two months of using the service, I still periodically tap when I’m supposed to drag, and drag when I’m supposed to tap. I can’t develop the muscle memory to do the right thing because the cues are identical and my brain’s wires keep getting crossed. (As a side note, since five spots apparently weren’t enough in the bottom bar on the lock screen, you can also take the middle icon and drag it in multiple directions with each direction launching a different app by default including the useless HTC social media home page. This adds to the
- Universal Back Button — I consider the back button one of the great user interface inventions of the last two decades. I’ve always been a proponent of having a universal back button. Android has one. iOS doesn’t have one, and I have to confess, I hadn’t missed it on my iPhone (so maybe my conviction on this issue bears further thought). Unfortunately, I don’t have a great comparison as the implementation on Android is far from perfect. In fact, sometimes it’s just downright confusing. The problem is that each Android apps implements their own back button behavior. So if an app misuses it, then there’s nothing to be done. Another issue is that the back button is also used to dismiss the keyboard and dismiss modal dialogs. If I am in app A, and then I navigate to App B which I left in a state where it had a dialog displayed. It actually takes two “backs” to get back to app A. The first “back” dismisses the modal dialog, and the second takes me back to where I was. A capital crime? No. Unpredictable and annoying? Yes.
- Navigation Bar — And then there’s the issue of the navigation bar (I’ve heard it referred to as the “soft key” as well.). On my HTC One M8 it’s Back, Home, and Launched Apps (i.e. Windows alt-tab). I tried a Samsung Galaxy recently and the buttons are in reverse order. Cause you know — differentiation! (And yes I know this issue is another example of the fractured platform, but I thought I’d put it here as we’re talking about the nav bar.) Samsung also has this toolbar semi-integrated with the hardware (it lights up below the main screen) where my HTC just draws the toolbar on the screen. On the HTC the toolbar moves around depending on the screen’s orientation. This can be annoying when you’re about to hit the button and it moves. But even more annoying in HTC’s implementation is that they know that the buttons clutter the screen in some cases. So, on the camera app for example, rather than show the three buttons, they show three dots. What happens when you press a dot? The icons appear. Then you can press them and perform their functions. I’ve never seen a piece of UI that so contributes to clutter that it needs an extra step to unhide itself that provides ZERO additional functionality. (A drop-down menu isn’t analogous as it is compressing several options into the space where only one can fit.)
- Background Image — Maybe this is another bug, but you would think after so many versions of Android, they would have this right. I tried to choose an Instagrammed photo to be my background and placing it so that there was no letterboxing, and the image was in the spot I wanted was a guessing game. The preview didn’t match the end result. One other insane thing on this front, regardless of whether I choose Photos or Gallery to get the image I want to use, tapping the in-app back button to go “up” the hierarchy to pick a photo from a different album than the default one I got dropped into, simply doesn’t work. Does it go “up” the hierarchy? No. Does it go “back” to the Set Background dialog? Nope. It just dumps me out of the whole process and makes me start again. Another side effect of distributed implementation of back button logic? A bug? I don’t really know.
- Notifications — The notification bar is always oozing like an open sore. I clear my notifications periodically, but inevitably a pile of tiny incomprehensible turds appear at the top of my screen, uglifying it to no end. Sometimes I swipe it down but the logic of what shows there is completely incomprehensible to me. But when I actually need a notification, for example, to see a little number of unread messages on a third party messaging app like WhatsApp or Kik, there isn’t one. Maybe there’s a way to enable that. But on iOS it just happens by default. Not here in Androidland.
- The Notifications Drawer — If you pull down the list of notifications and want to dismiss it, just swipe up from just past the bottom of the screen. Except of course if you pulled down the notifications menu when you were on the lock screen. In that case, swiping from below the bottom of your screen won’t work. You have to carefully find a tiny strip at the bottom of the menu and swipe up on that. You know. Just because! And when you’re swiping, and you inevitably pass one of the semi-permanent navigation toolbar buttons, the phone gives you a bit of haptic feedback even though it knows that you’re not interested in those buttons. Also, just because.
- On App Notifications — And since I’m talking about notifications, I’ll admit I sure wish the content of my texts showed up in my lock screen notifications instead of just the number of texts I’ve gotten. I debated whether I was just being a baby about this since I’m used to iOS, but in fact, I think iOS has the superior design in this case. Maybe there’s a way to change it on Android (short of doing my own Android deployment) but I haven’t had the time or energy to investigate.
- Third Party App Permissions — The permissions screen when I install an app on Android always feel like the list of possible side effects I hear on a television pharmaceutical ad. “If your memory leak lasts more than four hours, go to the Emergency Room!”
- Copy and Paste — Is there a reason the clipboard user interface shows up on object everywhere but in Chrome where it shows up at the top of the screen? Oh right. The operating system and the browser are made by different companies. Oh wait. They’re not. Shouldn’t copy and paste be a system function with a coherent user interface?
- Small Icons and Too Much White Space — This next issue is a visual design issue. And i recognize there’s a lot of wiggle room here for different opinions. But here’s mine. Let’s put aside for the fact that I feel like the visual design of Android is just not super attractive or polished, I’ll leave that for another time. But with my new enormous screen I thought I’d get some benefit. But the home screen neither shows more icons than my iPhone, nor does it show the icons at a larger size. Icon sizes, and space between icons just don’t feel balanced. The space isn’t used effectively. Not to maximize utility. And not to give the right balance of breathing room. It’s like I’m seeing a concert in a stadium where only 100 people are in the audience. But I still have to stay up in my seats in the nosebleeds.
- No Panorama Shots for Me — This may be an HTC issue, but the panorama feature on my camera was effectively impossible to comprehend. I still don’t understand how to use it. My suggestion to whoever designed it. Just copy Apple until you actually know how to improve it (if that’s even possible.) And in this mode, they didn’t even give me the three dots to show where they’d hidden the nav bar. They just turn the icons off cause they’re distracting. But when you tap on one of these invisible icons – it works! So they have hidden icons that take you out of your current app. Honestly sometimes it feels like I’m being punked.
- Facebook keeps covering up my UI — One of the “features” of Android is supposed to be its openness. And this type of thing lets Facebook put it’s little chat circles over my UI, even if I’m not in the Facebook app. I’m sorry, no non-OS app should get to obstruct another app’s user interface. No matter how important that message from my cousin is.
- Typing — Typing just sucks. It just feels so innacurate. I have no idea why. But I know it’s worse. Yep, I know I’m supposed to SWYPE. But I haven’t gotten around to that yet. And shouldn’t the default typing experience that came with my phone be at least as good as the iOS experience? One bright spot however, the suggestions at the top of the keyboard are nice though. I especially like how they start showing me the kind of words I usually string together. Some funny stuff there.
- Ugly Seams Showing — I downloaded a third-party photo editing app from the Google Play Store. I tried to save the image, and it exposed me to the ugliness of the underlying file system. All sorts of weird computer-y folder names. I’m sure the developer could do a better job here, but why is it even possible for the developer to expose this stuff to an end user?
- Quick Access Isn’t So Quick — So often when I use my Android things just feel half-baked. It’s like the team had an idea and then didn’t have time to follow through on all the details or even see if their idea worked. Take for example Android’s decision to cluster phone numbers by contact. In principle that seems logical. But there are a couple of times when the principle interferes with functionality. Example #1: Dialer favorites makes me pick a person and THEN pick their number. Most people I know have one main number I call them at all the time – their cell phone. But Android wants me to select it every time. Example #2: When I message someone in the texting app I text THEM and not their phone. That makes conceptual sense except that Android dedicates a ton of space a the top of the messaging window to let me send my text to a different number for that person. I know of almost nobody among my hundreds of contacts that has more than one phone number that can be reached by text. But just in case I have to switch that a bunch, Android makes it super easy! Of course I thought that number up there was so I could call the person I’m texting. Nope. That’s buried under a menu which brings up a dialog. Can I just tap a number in that dialog to press it? Nope. A tap only selects that number, and then pressing Call at the bottom finally makes the call. It’s like the Android team didn’t think about the main things people do in their software.
- Unhold? — Another example of the Android design team dropping the ball at the one yard line: A couple of years ago my iPhone stopped gracefully handling multiple calls. I would get a second call, finish talking, hang up, and the first person would be hung up on. No idea why. Haven’t had time to investigate. Android does it right (like iOS used to). I hang up on the second caller while the first person is on hold, and my first caller is not unceremoniously dumped. Yay! Except, when the second caller disappears the UI goes back to the main dialer screen with no obvious way to take the user off hold. Have no fear, just tap the three dot menu and then buried halfway down the menu is the “Unhold” option. Super irritating. (After writing this I figured out I could just unmute the first caller to get them back. But Android uses Mute and Hold interchangeably, so I would argue this is distinctly not obvious. If Android said my first caller was “muted” when I spoke to my second caller, then I might understand. But again, this is a detail that feels unfinished at best.)
I forgot to mention a couple of things I found, so I’m going to add them here. And as I said above, as far as I can tell these are not HTC customizations.
- What day is this? In the calendar app, I would pay cold hard cash for it to tell me what day of the week am I looking at when I’m looking at my calendar a day at a time. Is the day of the week not something anyone cares about anymore?
- Directions? Nope. When I try to use my phone as a GPS/nav system I always start with Google Maps which I think is an amazing app. I tap on directions and then invariably I get a dialog box saying: “Location mode isn’t supported” It then goes on to tell me that “Turn-by-turn navigation is only available in these location modes: *High accuracy *Device only” I can then cancel or go to settings. Why do directions not work out-of-the-box without any tweaks? Isn’t this one of the things my phone is for? And never mind the question of what a “location mode” is. Because I have no clue what that is. Seriously. Zero. Clue. I did tap on Settings which only made things more confusing. I might have surmised that there was a place to change my “Location Mode”. Nope. There wasn’t. At least not that I could tell.
There are many additional examples, but you get the idea. I never did find out how to make the Siri equivalent come up. Or maybe I did. As the Google Now page would display intermittently. The page seems to come up periodically by accident and always when I don’t want it. I’m sure I could Google an answer but I just stopped caring. The whole phone just seems so overloaded. Everything is bursting with functionality, but I don’t feel like discovering any of it. If you have a screen dedicated to interfacing with my voice, why do you litter it with little portal-type modules for me to look at. I truly don’t understand what I’m supposed to do here. Sometimes the voice functionality would come up with some suggestions of what to say. Two of the three examples were “cancel” and “turn off”. If they picked those based on the most popular thing people do at this point, I think the Google folks need to do some soul searching.
I design software for a living, and none of it is perfect. In fact, some of it has been quite challenged. So I understand that there are likely some talented and visionary people working on my phone over at the Plex. And yet, despite their best intentions, my day-to-day Android experience is almost never pleasant. I don’t blame any individual there, but I do think it’s fair to hold the company accountable. It takes big teams to make software/hardware systems (and ecosystems) come together. And getting big teams to speak with one voice is difficult. And typically, that’s not an issue that signifies lack of design talent, it signifies lack of design leadership. That appears to be what Google is missing. In spades. But of course, I have no idea. I’m just speculating from outside.
But the single most awful part of my Android jaunt has nothing to do with anyone at Google. It’s all Apple. Right after I began to write this post, I started seeing reports in the media of widespread problems with former iPhone users receiving their texts from iOS users. I ran into that very same issue. It took an e-mail to Tim Cook to get me into Apple “executive” support. They were more helpful than regular support and very nice, but when all their recommendations failed to solve the problem they told me that my friends who couldn’t text me would have to call them and install debugging software on their phones for Apple to do anything to fix the problem, and short of that Apple could do nothing. This was a terminally unsatisfactory answer in my opinion. It’s annoying enough to my friends and co-workers that it appears that I’m ignoring their texts. I can’t conscientiously ask them to become unpaid testers for Apple to solve the problem. The Apple support person I spoke to didn’t understand my objection and that’s when our conversations ended.
My recommendation is this. Every month, one twelfth of Apple’s employees should be required to switch to Android for the month. I promise that before the second month is out this problem would be fixed for all of us.
The Bottom Line
My HTC Android phone is fine. It’s not awful. It’s not great. It’s fine. It basically works. But it’s death by a thousand cuts. These little awkward moments in the UX add up, and in the end I don’t love my Android phone. I don’t love using it. I prefer not to browse with it. I’m not excited to install new apps. And the e-commerce and browsing usage numbers for Android versus iOS bear this out. Yes Google is kicking ass in market share vs. iOS, but I doubt the Googlers working on this would claim to feel proud of carpet bombing the market with products that are good enough. I can’t say why Google hasn’t yet had the discipline and commitment to deliver a world-class polished smartphone experience, but so far in my journey, that opportunity is still before them.