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Some observations of the pluses and minuses of Android's user experience

For the last few weeks I’ve been playing with an Android phone, a Motorola Droid X. The UI takes some adjustment for an iPhone user like me, not unlike they adjustment I’ve made going back and forth between the Mac and PC several times over the years. In evaluating the Android user experience (including aspects shaped by Motorola), the following points seemed interesting to me.

  1. On a touch device, it’s easy to constantly forget the presence of the hardware buttons. A glowing, colorful screen with detailed interactive elements is just too visually compelling to remember that, in some applications, critical features are only available via the hardware Menu button. A typical experience for me has been to stare at a screen looking for the UI element I’m certain should be there, and only a frustrating minute realize, “Oh, that’s right, I forgot to check what’s hidden behind the Menu button.” If it’s not on the screen, I can’t be bothered to keep checking it. It took me forever how to get out of “directions” mode in Google Maps because I was in a maze of twisty little passages (all alike) each of which produced a slightly different Options menu when the Menu button was pressed.

    I think the Menu button flies in the face of evidence that users do better when they have a clear and consistent search path for finding the commands available at any given point. Jensen Harris wrote on this topic in his discussion of why the Microsoft Office team invented the Ribbon to provide “the one and only place to look for functionality in the product”.

    The same thing goes for the other hardware buttons, especially the Search button. It seems like a shameless ploy to plug Google search out of all proportion to the button’s utility. Even if an application has a Search feature, it seems like they’d want to be certain users remembered it was there by offering an on-screen UI to invoke it. Given that, why burden the user with an extra hardware button?

  2. Long press to invoke commands = Win. The ability to hold down one’s finger on an object to invoke what’s essentially a context menu (“Quick Actions”) is a gain for power users, and doesn’t impact users who are unaware of this facility. When I go back to the iPhone, this is the Android feature I miss the most. Thankfully, this useful UI convention is already starting to make its way over to iPhone apps.

    On the downside, this UI will likely lead to a wave of “long press people”. Their habit will parallel that of “right-click people” on Windows: users who, at some point in the past, found the right click button produced some interesting commands. They therefore now right-click on everything—the Windows Start menu, OK buttons, everything—whether it has a context menu or not.

  3. Dear Google: Thanks for taking the iconic dropdown arrow, an element which otherwise universally communicates “Click me”, and using it as a completely static element that offers no interaction whatsoever.

    That little arrow-in-a-circle next to "Map mode"? Users want to click on it. They want to click on it because every other app they have ever used has used a similar icon as an affordance for interactivity. By abusing this dropdown arrow icon, Google might untrain users from clicking on it when they see it. Google’s non-standard use of this arrow is precluding the standard use of it on Android. (Cozi’s own mobile UI plans called for using a dropdown arrow-in-a-circle very much like the one above, and we’ve had to abandon that for fear that Android users wouldn’t click on it.)

  4. Motorola made a curious decision to set the geeky robotic “Droid” sound from a Droid X marketing campaign as the phone’s default error sound. So Motorola has decided that, at completely random intervals throughout a customer’s day, the device should proclaim in a loud robotic voice, “MY. OWNER. IS. A. GEEK.”

    If you like that, great; I'm all for self-expression. If you want to customize your phone to announce new emails with Worf's voice stating, "Captain… Incoming message", more power to you. That's your choice. Having a phone manufacturer make a choice like this without user participation seems unaccountably presumptuous.

    This one tiny experience made me feel like Motorola views me as nothing more than a marketing tool, and they don't care if they make me feel stupid in front of my friends. I disabled the sound at the first opportunity. It took a bit of hunting around. Let’s imagine there’s a normal person out their who doesn’t want to have their phone scream that they’re a geek. How quickly will they learn to hate their new phone?

  5. Motorola has managed to completely conflate Droid and Android in the minds of mainstream consumers. Perhaps this is due to the aforementioned marketing campaign, but it’s more likely a result of Motorola’s savvy willingness to pay Lucasfilm through the nose for the rights to the “Droid” name. I’ve personally seen the effectiveness of this branding decision—on a daily basis I see requests from Cozi users asking when we’re going to have a “Droid version”. It’s certain that many of those users are actually asking for an Android version (which we’re working on, BTW)

    [UPDATE: A reader pointed out that Verizion, not Motorola, is the firm that licensed the "Droid" trademark from Lucasfilm.]
  1. I still don’t see the high value of Home page widgets. Maybe my usage will change over time, but it still seems odd to have to, say, swipe my Home page to the left twice in order to see a few calendar appointments, when I could also just launch the Calendar app and see all my calendar appointments. When I go back to the iPhone, I don’t miss Home page widgets at all. Widgets seem like a great idea in theory. In practice I’d imagine most people just can’t be bothered to invest a bunch of time optimizing their phone’s Home page in order to get a miniscule gain in efficiency. YMMV.

  2. It’s fantastic to be able to install apps without valueless interference by the carrier, manufacturer, or OS provider. Freedom to install the apps you want is a core part of the Android value proposition. It’s good for users. It’s great for ISVs during app development. Platforms that make ISVs happy often do well; the conventional wisdom is that it’s an unnatural—and probably unsustainable—state of nature for developers to hate the OS they’re developing for. Installing a prerelease build of Cozi’s iPhone application is a pain: I have to get my device ID to a developer, who has to embed that ID in a list of devices approved to run the prerelease build, and then have to go through shenanigans with iTunes to install the app. Installing a prerelease build of Cozi’s Android application is a breeze: just click a link to download and install the app, and I’m done.