Android Ice Cream Sandwich UI Study: Don’t let your users melt away.

Nov 10 2011
Android Ice Cream Sandwich UI Study: Don’t let your users melt away.

The Set Up

Google’s new operating system, code named Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) promises to do many things in the realm of application development. Developers are rejoicing at the ability to develop one application that will work on both tablets and smart phones. Users can’t wait for the boost in phone performance and sleek new interface features. Electronics manufacturers and Cellular service providers are waiting with baited breath to finally be able to support an operating system that has a defined and scheduled release pattern. But what does it mean for designers? Understanding the nuances could mean the success or failure of your next app.

The Back Story

Up until now, the freedoms that have been inherent in Google’s Android platform for developers have also been extended to app designers, but yielding arguable less than desirable effects. The yen to the Apple yang, Google has seemingly put no restrictions on design of any sort. While there are standards docs to be found online, a quick peruse through their app store quickly reveals that they have rarely, if ever, been enforced. Icons can be whatever. Menus can look however. The continuity and familiarity of Apple iPhone’s interface, strictly enforced by Apple’s design guidelines and excruciating approval process, is clearly not present in the Android OS. It’s every app for itself…until now?

If you haven’t seen it, the new previews of the ICS operating system are quite amazing for many reasons. Minimal interface colors, flat and gradient-free icons, muted, dark backgrounds with bright, robust accent colors…From a design standpoint, what we are beginning to see Google create a consistent, visual identity…one that is again, 180 degrees different than Apple’s visual style. In creating a uniquely distinct user interface, we have to consider how it will affect users and designers alike.

The Pudding

Looking at screenshots taken during the unveiling presentation, you’ll note many nuances that are a clear indication Android is transitioning out of its Ugly Duckling beginnings.

First impressions are rarely forgotten.

The new user interface experience for Android’s ICS begins at the phone’s lock screen. Sleek, minimal – designed.

Google Ice Cream Sandwich Lockscreen
Android’s new typeface, Roboto, is reminiscent of Eurostile, but with modern accommodations for mobile interfaces and legibility.

High contrast and high design work to maximize information and clarity while minimizing what has to be shown.

Flat colors and high contrast again, work to highlight only the most important information.

Icons are an interesting mix of high-fidelity and ultra simplification. This unique mix clearly means that designers will have to understand the fine balance in order to feel integrated with the OS.

Google Ice Cream Sandwich Data Usage

Dark backgrounds provide added clarity and vibrancy. Clean design makes boring data enjoyable to view.

Google Ice Cream Sandwich Camera Editing

Icons in the Options Menu have lost bevels and embosses, becoming pristine, one-color examples from a Logo 101 class.
While not completely abandoning the back button and not fully copying the Apple “Back” button, the new navigation allows users to understand where they are in the app while also giving them options on how to navigate.

While the above screenshots are good for reference, it is often more helpful to study a working example. Google’s flagship application, Google+, has typically provided many clues as to the upcoming look and feel since it was first introduced. Looking at some screenshots as the app exists today (build version, there are several aspects that are worth noting. If you already have the app, why not join our circle?

Google+ Dashboard

Although dashboards have been nothing new to Android users, Google has made this a designer’s playground. Consistent color pallets, shapes and flat, solid colors.

Google+ Stream

Again, Google is modifying its in-app navigation in two important ways.

  1. The use of the icons (which clearly have to work in reverse) in the top nav bar
  2. The ability to slide left and right to access other verticals of the section.

Clean typography and white space (recently implemented across the board on Google Apps like Gmail and Google Calendar) help to make the information easily digestible.

Google+ Huddle

Subtle use of arrows and background colors help users to understand who is speaking in what could be a potentially confusing group chat.
Keeping information tight but legible is key to providing a quality user experience.

Drop shadows are use selectively and are subtle at best.

The Take-Away

For users, the expectation, and hope, would be to create an experience that is cohesive and recognizable. Creating a consistent interface and user environment allows users to create a clear “brand” for Android phones as well as creates a sense of comfort and shared expectations – something that Apple has achieved extremely well. But in order to truly succeed, Google will have to enforce it’s style across the phone interface and, more importantly, the app design.

For designers and developers, choosing to ignore (if there is indeed a choice) these new design components and standards could potentially be disastrous for an app’s chances of success. For apps looking to enter the market, aside from potentially not getting the app approved to go to market, extreme deviations in the user interface design can quickly lead to confusion and frustration for the user. For apps already in the market, they run the risk of being abandoned for the “the next big thing,” which will simply be a BETTER LOOKING mousetrap that jives more cohesively with the OS. In a world ingrained in planned obsolesce, designer and developers alike cannot underestimate the value of design as it pertains to familiarity, continuity, and user interface.

5 Comments to “Android Ice Cream Sandwich UI Study: Don’t let your users melt away.”

  1. This Lab Note raises a great point of view and one that I hope both Android Developers and People/Businesses will consider with the new ICS launch. The hardware that supports Android is really rising to a new level of awesomeness…and the Android OS is so good in many ways. But the selection from the Android MarketPlace has cheapened the value and intrigue….and ultimately degraded the user experience. The simple point is, we CAN do better.

    By Chris Ronan on November 10th, 2011 at 4:17 pm
  2. Grt article…. Very useful and to the point.


    By Aditya on January 11th, 2012 at 1:44 am
  3. Awesome info here Rob. Looks like Google just released the new Android Design for ‘Ice Cream Sandwich’. Check it out:

    By Colin Mitchell on January 15th, 2012 at 10:43 am
  4. The problem with using only icons like in the second picture is that in most apps the users will have no idea what the icons do. It’s easy for Google apps because they have a whole OS and web infrastructure built around the semiotic domain they’ve created. When you’re one app trying to poke your head into that domain with fresh ideas and fresh symbols, the users are easily confused. Giving them only pictures to find their way around makes them even more confused.

    By Jeff on February 24th, 2012 at 12:03 am
  5. While I would agree with you that Google does indeed have their own, semi-established visual language, I would argue that the onus is really on the designer to create, or reinterpret, iconography that is easily understood for the user. When done well, pictures can be even more clear than using words…We are visual beings after all. Good/bad/right/wrong, Google is really pushing the app developers and designers to produce effective, clear icons that work within the Google language. This is quite different than iOS, where weak or confusing symbols can be “clarified” with supporting text.

    By Rob Karlovetz on February 24th, 2012 at 8:09 am

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