Andrew Travers Andrew Travers is an interaction designer and researcher. He’s the author of Interviewing for research.

Andrew Travers

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Paranoid Android

It's been a week since I switched from an ageing iPhone to a Nexus S. Here's how I'm getting on.

I am, by any measure you care to use, an Apple devotee. A fan boy, if you will. I have more Apple devices strewn around my house than I’d care to admit, and they bring me an enormous amount of pleasure, ‘delight’ even. So why, then, have I switched to an Android phone?

For the past four years, from the day the iPhone first appeared in the UK, I’ve been looking at iOS practically every waking hour of every day since. I love it, it has kept me informed, entertained, and in touch. But I’m also tired of it. I need to look at something different.

More than that, I feel obliged to do so. Working on a touch screen UI project recently, I found myself in conversation with a group of fantastic designers, all of whom shared one thing: a frame of reference. iOS. We had a moment of collective awkwardness in recognising just how little experience we had of the mobile market’s fastest growing and, now, most prevalent OS, Android. In fact, we had more experience between us of Windows Phone 7 than Android. I wanted, for my own sake, to rectify this. And the way you do this as a freelancer - without recourse to a lab, evaluation devices and more - is to use it.

My Android experiment is fuelled by a need to widen my frame of reference, to observe a different perspective and improve my own practice in how I design for mobile as a result. Not just with a quick play, but the sense of an operating system you get from using it every day for a long time. Casually, urgently, in moments of boredom and need.

I’m evidently not alone in this. Ryan Heise is doing a formidable job in documenting his own experiences in My Dinner With Android and Chris Clark’s My Month With the Nexus S is a fabulous write up too. I don’t think there’s anything that either Ryan or Chris have said that I’d take issue with.

I opted for the Nexus S as a means of ensuring I got something that would get updates, and wouldn’t suffer from Google’s somewhat odd relationship with carriers and handset manufacturers, where updates are uneven or delayed. And I wanted to see Android as Google intended it, not how others interpreted it. Forgive me for my scepticism about the collective abilities of HTC, Samsung et al to add much in the way of user experience that I’d care for.

First impressions

As a physical device, the Nexus S feels insubstantial, fragile even, and I’m already a little worried about it coping with the battering my various iPhones took over the years.

That said, I rather like its baby got back shape - you find yourself naturally and absent-mindedly spinning it round, right way up, without glancing at it. It reminds me a little of Naoto Fukasawa talking in Objectified about designing a mobile phone.

The Nexus S setup was great, after I’d had to remind myself of exactly what you need to do to prise the back off a phone and add a battery and SIM to it (yes, it’s been a while). Add a Gmail account and you’re pretty much done. Much of what you’ll need to make your phone usable is done there and then.

The good

As someone who’s spent much of the past four years carrying round a little white USB docking cable for phone and iPad, there’s something almost shocking about the slow realisation that you’ll never hook your phone up to another computer. There is no parent, no master device - the phone is the computer, updating over the air. Independent and stand-alone, it really is a post-PC device. And there’s something rather beautiful about that.

Android is quiet, more polite, less intrusive. Its notifications don’t shout for attention, and I’ve come to like the fact that I decide when to give it my attention (not the other way round).

Getting my iTunes music onto my Nexus has been far less painful than I’d feared, thanks to Double Twist. Not so podcasts. (On which point, recommendations are welcomed… Google Listen doesn’t feel ready yet to me)

Most of all, though, I’ve warmed to just how ‘computery’ Android is. No redundant skeuomorphs, no apologies, it’s a computer. Down to the ringtone, there’s no reassuring old style phone, just lots of bleepy futuristic stuff that made me smile unexpectedly.

The bad

In her talk at UX Lisbon, Ji-Hye Park observed that what matters about cross platform computing is less consistency than coherence. If you apply the same logic to the relationship between apps on a single device, it’s here that the Android experience really falls down.

Android isn’t coherent. It’s careless in places, really quite neglectfully so. There’s a lack of thought about the handling of basic user interface elements that contributes to the ugly mess of third party apps, and a lack of personality in even the best apps. Its characterless grey buttons, with no depth, no texture, have no sense of inviting touch. Form fields can look childish and cartoonish. Android doesn’t invite you to interact to anywhere near the extent that iOS does. And yet, so much of what we feel the character or personality of an interface resides in these details. It feels trivial to solve, for Google to impose a little more here, to set the tone and guide (rather than impose) towards a more joined up experience. I can’t help feeling that as WP7’s Metro evolves and iOS continues to be, well, iOS, this has to become a priority.

I feared the worst about the Android Market. And it is bad. iTunes is a poor way of discovering apps, but the Android Market leaves you wading through dross that, if you haven’t already written it off for a hideous icon, will leave you despairing at screen shots that, depressingly, someone honestly thought would encourage you to download it. I’m not even mentioning the reviews.

I’m really missing Reeder, and apps with the polish of Deep Green or the joy of Instagram.

The one thing I’d ignorantly assumed is that a Google phone would be efficient, short on frills perhaps, but fast. I’ve solved my own battery life issues through a pretty simple tweak to settings after resorting, on day 3, to geeky forums that no non-geek should have to go near. I find this really out of character for Google. For a company that prides itself rightly on its engineering strength, performance is all that matters, and Android hasn’t got it.

The story so far

There is no getting away from the feeling that Android is a second-class experience. It’s not in the same league as a year old iPhone 4 - which given the speed to evolution is more damning that it sounds - and it’s difficult to see a compelling reason why someone would choose a Nexus S ahead of an iPhone given a choice.

A week in, however, I’m enjoying the phone more than I thought I would do - though, I concede, that might be partly novelty factor - and I certainly feel I’m learning a lot and see a few new different UI patterns. I’m looking at something different and feeling refreshed for it. There’s also, whisper it, something nice about not being Just Another iPhone. For a while at least.