The Experience Disparity

“Android shows up on a car, you’re gonna see the same kinds of improvements, the same design philosophy, the same usability improvements, the same new paradigms, new tools… they’re all gonna be a part of that.”

The above quote is by Matias Duarte of Google, in an interview with Engadget at CES, and coincidentally captures a big part of why I’m concerned about Android. Mainly, many of those “same” kind of fundamental design patterns and principles don’t apply equally to all these diverse devices, screens and use cases. The design patterns for a car’s navigational interface are very different to the ones used on a handheld tablet in your living room, and so forth.

Google’s goals with Android seem too Microsoftian to me, with their huge emphasis on “get Android on every device” rather than actually focusing on the end user’s experience and use case(s) first, and seeing how Android can fit in to that second.

Kyle Baxter nailed it in his recent post about Android, when he pointed out the following:

Google is building Android not so they can make great mobile devices and sell them to consumers. Rather, they are making them for these two simple reasons: (1) to disrupt Apple’s growing dominance of mobile devices, both so Google doesn’t have to rely on Apple for access to their users and to eliminate their paid-for application model; and (2) so Google can control the mobile industry and thus secure advertising from it.

Read the full post (highly recommended) for more context, but that snippet adequately captures, in a nutshell, what Google’s approach to Android is. The interview with Duarte and the previewed Honeycomb / Android 3.0 platform have, to me, just reinforced this view of Google’s Android plans.

My concerns as outlined above may be of less concern to you or other people, but the problem I see is that these concerns do keep people like myself away from investing time and money to build apps for Android. The experience disparity on that platform is only getting worse, not better, and that keeps me at bay. If I want to build an app and make it a fantastic user experience (or at least try to), knowing the context of the user experience on the platform is crucial to doing so. Knowing that the context of the user experience on a platform is perversely disparate just gives me headaches before I’ve even started building the app.

Duarte later on explains that manufacturers using the Android platform can build on it to make it a more ideal software platform suitable for the device they’re selling it with, which is of course a good thing. That’s kind of ideal for some cases, even. However, as the smartphone segment of the Android space has shown us, some restrictions on this freedom are necessary. Android comes with virtually no restrictions, and that can seriously hamper the user experience. Why? Because left to their own devices (excuse the pun), each individual manufacturer only has their own company’s gain in mind, along with hopefully the user’s overall experience. But clearly, none of them have their competitors’ customers in mind, as evidenced by the disparate button placement on Android (not even getting into the huge problems caused by there being more than one button anyway, but that’s for a later post).

This is not unexpected: Samsung should not have to be mindful of LG, and neither company should have to make some sort of agreement with each other on UI consistency whilst actively competing against each other with what they’re selling to consumers. That’s just two companies; the Android ecosystem comprises dozens. Obviously, all these competing companies won’t be working together with each and every one of them whilst at the same time trying to steal customers from one another. However, Google, with its Android policies and approach, has completely failed to live up to the much-needed role of arbiter in this market.

Amusingly, Microsoft is now doing the right thing and decreeing certain user experience and technological aspects of the Windows Phone 7 platform, to ensure that competing manufacturers don’t fragment the market from a User Experience point of view on their own platform. Perhaps Google will continue in their quest to mimic almost everything Microsoft does, and one day wisen up and enforce a couple of rules for the benefit of the Android platform as a whole. Until then, Android users are guaranteed to suffer through conflicting user experiences if they ever switch to an Android phone from a different manufacturer. And that may just be the least of their hassles.

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