Fans of Google’s Android platform like to extoll how “open” the Android software development world is, especially in comparison to the “curated” experience offered by Apple in its iTunes App Store. However, as many Android users can attest, that openness can generate a huge variation in the look, feel, behavior, and interfaces of Android applications. One Android app might handle content navigation a particular way, but another app may use the very same icons—and even icon placement—for entirely different purposes. Similarly, a gesture that does one thing in a broad range of Android apps might do something totally different in another app—perhaps because the developer was feeling “creative” or “innovative.”
Google won’t pull apps from the Android market just because they’re fugly and do things weirdly—in fact, Apple won’t either—but even Google recognizes the value of a consistent interface and design across the Android platform, particularly as it extends itself to embrace not just smartphones but tablets and even television. To that end, Google has unveiled it’s first design guide for Android apps—and it was created by Matias Duarte, formerly the lead designer at Palm and (before that) Helio and Danger.
The design guide is intended to enable developers targeting Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich to offer a consistent set of elements and behaviors that will enable users to apply skills they’ve picked up elsewhere in Android and in other apps to their own app. To be sure, there will always be new apps that have to push interface in new ways, but things like bringing up a menu, selecting text, and presenting alerts ought to be consistent across nearly every app. The design guide goes into handling universal Android 4 elements like the action bar and gestures, along with multi-pane layouts, content navigation, colors, and even typography. The guide goes into design proportions that will help apps and their elements feel Android-native, and even makes suggestions for writing style. (Hint: be brief and conversational.) The guide also warns people against borrowing icons and behaviors from things like iOS and Windows Phone—it may be tempting to emulate behaviors of other mobile operating systems, but Android has its own native ways of doing the same things that will help users have a more consistent experience.
The design guide only applies to Android 4.0, and is intended to help developers look at Ice Cream Sandwich as a fresh start on the Android platform. The problem, of course, is that Android’s first distribution was all the way back in 2007, and millions of Android devices are already in customers’ hands. (And, despite a wave of ICS devices and upgrades on the way, right now only one phone is available with ICS, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus.) As much as a design guide might be useful in the Android 4.0 world, it’s not going to be much help to developers who still have to cope with the realities of the Android marketplace: millions of people running Android 3.x HoneyComb, Android 2.3 Gingerbread, Android 2.2 Froyo, and even Android 2.1 and 2.0 (Eclair). Nonetheless, it does back up Google’s repeated assertions that it does care about design and consistency in Android—and that it’s trying to provide necessary information to developers so their apps can be good Android citizens.