Small Screens, Not Small Designs

Android Applications Need More Designer Input, Not Less

I have had a few conversations, and picked up a vibe in a few blogs, about how Android applications look worse than do corresponding iPhone applications. My interpretation of these feelings is that while both products have a bell curve of UI quality in the contents of their respective app markets, Android's curve may generally be lower than is that of iPhone. So, while there are any number of high-quality Android UIs, and presumably some truly awful iPhone apps, on the whole, Android apps fare worse in the comparison.It is not completely clear why this is the case. It is probably partially due to toolkit emphases, and partially iPhone's ability to tap into OS X design experience. There is probably also a bit of the “reality distortion field” at play — I have seen ports of an iPhone app on Android and thought, perhaps irrationally, that the iPhone one looked better, despite both having the same design characteristics.However, I get the sense that a lot of the problem is that Android applications may not get the GUI design attention that their iPhone counterparts get.

Certainly, with iPhone seeming like a financial slam dunk, firms targeting that platform may feel they have the budget to afford GUI design expertise. Conversely, Android's developer base may be more implementers than designers. Certainly, that describes me — I can implement a nice GUI fairly readily, but I suspect there are hamsters with better senses of aesthetics.If I am forced to create a GUI from scratch, I get one benefit in developing for mobile that I would not get in a desktop or browser-based app: lowered expectations. People expect streamlined GUIs because there is only so much you can do in a small screen. This is on par with expectations for Web applications in, say, 1998. Now, of course, a Web application is expected to have serious design polish, and code jockeys like me who lack those design skills either need to get design help or have to live within our limitations. However, slowly but surely, raised expectations are coming to mobile, and the iPhone is leading the way.Another case in point: the “wow” factor of the HTC Hero's UI with “HTC Sense”, compared to the stock Android home screen. Many reviews have touted how great the Hero looks. That look is obviously possible on Android — in fact, there is an Android developer who has created similar widgets that you can use on other Android devices. However, I get the “sense” that putting the Hero's face on took more than a handful of Java engineers, but rather involved a strong design team to define every last bit of the look, so it would sizzle.If you are serious about making applications for mobile, get design help, particularly people who have expertise in mobile designs. Even if the designer cannot implement the GUI — leaving you with Photoshop mockups or perhaps a Flash animation sample — just having their specifications can make a world of difference in terms of the application you wind up with.Just because the screen is small does not mean the designs can be small.

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