If you know anything about User Experience (UX) Design, you’ve read Steve Krug’s popular book “Don’t Make Me Think”, now an industry manual on how best to approach Web usability. The basic premise of good UX, according to Krug, is to reduce the amount of thinking a user is required to do to successfully use a Web site. This is also known as the K.I.S.S. method (“Keep It Simple, Stupid”), and is today being applied not only to Web sites, but to all software, including mobile operating systems.
Hit the break to find out why this may not be the most elegant approach to mobile OS design.
Who Does Simple Best?
Apple, of course, is considered the king of simplicity. Stories of toddlers navigating iPhones like they’re diminutive Wall Street executives abound on the Interwebs. (Hmm, is that where the e-trade baby came from?) Apple’s iOS unquestionably changed the mobile landscape by bringing the UX ahead at least a decade. When mobile OS’s were stuck with awkward Start buttons, quirky stylus controls, and clunky directional pads, Apple produced a user interface that was so simple by comparison, it became the epitome of Krug’s mantra.
Fast forward half a decade and we now have Android in its current Jelly Bean form being praised for its improved UX, but still considered more complex than iOS. It’s an OS “for the geeks” they say. In many ways, that’s true. Android’s open nature attracts those who understand its benefits… geeks, nerds, hackers, tweakers, modders… but the general population has no idea, nor do they care, what Android is all about. They just want a device that works and is easy to operate. This is Apple’s biggest draw. Pass along the message that iPhones are easy to use, and people who don’t want a technical hassle will naturally gravitate toward that option. Who doesn’t want easy to use devices?
This Garden Has Walls
Unfortunately, what ends up happening is that these people are absorbed into a world where, yes, everything is beautiful, but it is a very controlled beauty. Stray a bit from the lines and you’ll bump head-on right into one of the walls of this beautiful garden. Not satisfied with one of the base elements that make up the garden? Too bad. That’s the way it is. You’ll use it and like it. Many people are fine with this. They like the simplicity and safety of this world. It is non-threatening. It is understandable, relatable, and most of all, easy.
Many UX practitioners call Apple’s design “elegant”. If “elegant” simply meant “simple”, I’d agree. But the definition of the word includes the phrase “pleasingly ingenious and simple,” and this is where I believe Apple falls short and Android is starting to pull ahead.
It’s obvious what side of the wall I’m on, and for a professional UX Designer, I believe I’m in the minority. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in all my years working in Silicon Valley, it’s not to underestimate the user. Sure, in most cases we have to design for the lowest common denominator because “if they can use it, anyone can”. Traditional UX and usability principles all reinforce this way of thinking. But when we’re talking about a product that is used by millions of people from all levels of expertise, the lowest common denominator may actually be too low.
Less Is Less
The Cupertino approach is to simplify by removing options that could be confusing to some. For example, iOS does not support widgets on their home screens. As a matter of fact, the home screen is simply a grid of icons each representing the actual app that is installed. That’s easy to understand, but the functionality has been reduced to provide that simplicity. Android has one level of abstraction with its home screens since they contain app shortcuts that can be added and removed without affecting the installed app, as well as home screen widgets, which can be thought of as pieces of an app that can be displayed right on the home screen without having to launch the app. The complexity lies in having to have a way to manage your shortcuts and widgets… a problem Apple avoids all together by not allowing this feature.
Elegance Requires Ingenuity
Elegant design is one where a user is made to feel like the UI is just at the right level to be able to discover new features easily and not get lost. The experience needs to feel tailored to their level of expertise. Rather than removing functionality to make it easy for everyone, why not hide the more advanced features where those who know where to look can find them? That seems a lot more “pleasingly ingenious” to me. Simply designing for the lowest common denominator is more of a brute force approach of only including the bare minimum. It is denying the more advanced for the sake of keeping people from thinking too much.
I’ll be the first to admit that Android is not without a slight learning curve. Most versions of Android have a ways to go before becoming the simple candy colored shell that hides the more complex chocolatey goodness inside. Versions prior to Ice Cream Sandwich spill their chocolate all over the candy shell, exposing advanced options right alongside the options everyone would use daily. Add to that some of the manufacturer skins that change some of basic Android elements and you have an inconsistent design across multiple devices, adding to the noise.
But Google has been consistently honing Android’s UX for the better, making it more accessible for the mainstream, while maintaining the more advanced options for us geeks. Pre-ICS Android devices included four device buttons (home, search, menu, and back). The Menu button in particular was a huge UX problem since the user had to remember to try it to see if the app had any hidden menu items. ICS and Jelly Bean have reduced device buttons to only three (home, back, and multitasking) and exposed the Menu icon in the app’s action bar instead, greatly improving the discoverability of menu items.
Developer options have been further hidden in Android 4.2 by requiring the user to actually unlock it with a series of touches. Non-developers would never be bothered by confusing and very technical menu items, but developers would know to unlock those options.
The Future Is Elegant
There’s still a way to go to find that perfect balance between iOS simplicity and Android functionality, but seeing the current direction Android is headed, it won’t take long. Under the leadership of UX guru Matias Duarte, Android is certainly in good hands. It might be a bit behind in ease of use when compared to iOS right now, but keep in mind how much of a head start Apple has had, and also remember that Google is not removing advanced functionality for the sake of user experience. It wants to keep both, and in achieving that, it will certainly earn the badge of “elegant design”.