Google’s Plan to Make Android Beautiful: Carrots And Sticks

Yesterday Google unveiled Android Design, a very nicely done (and sorely need) portal that instructs third-party developers on how they should go about designing their applications, both in terms of making them look nice, and in providing a consistent experience for users.

But while these guidelines are a big step forward for Android, there’s another issue: Google doesn’t really have any way to ensure that developers actually follow them. After all, there’s essentially no approval process for an application to get admitted to Android Market — provided you aren’t bundling malware or violating Google’s Terms of Service, you’re in.

So what is Google’s plan?

Yesterday I spoke with Matias Duarte, the Director of User Experience for Android (and the man ultimately responsible for its look and feel). And while he was coy about Google’s plans, he did give some hints. Namely, that Google will be working to give developers significant incentives to follow the UI guidelines.

Below is a transcript of my conversation with Duarte (note that I was transcribing on the fly, so the responses may be slightly paraphrased).

Q: Google isn’t going to block applications from Android Market that don’t conform with the design guidelines you’ve laid out, so what’s your plan to help ensure that developers follow them? Have you considered allowing developers to go through some sort of optional approval process that earns them a badge or some other kind of distinction indicating they have a good design?

Duarte: We don’t have anything to announce yet, but I think something like that would be a terrific idea — we’d love to do positive incentives for developers. We can have workshops and office hours… developers could submit their applications or even their mock up designs for feedback or to get a stamp of approval, or a seal of acceptance — something along those lines.

Q: Some of the complaints I hear regarding Android design have more to do with the tools available than with the best practices that were laid out on the new Android Design site. Are there any updates coming to the set of developer tools available?

Duarte: Nothing specific to announce, but we do generally want to continue to improve developer tools. There’s a lot of stuff planned for this year. And the Android Design site is just the first sapling of what we want it to grow to be. There will be more content on Android Design, more code examples and workshops to help get the most out of it. And tools to help make it easier to follow the guidelines without additional work for developers.

Q: Consistency seems to be a big focus on the new Android Design site, but isn’t the issue for a lot of applications pixel-perfect design (or lack thereof)?

Duarte: Screen metrics and typography and color and all of those sections (on the Android Design portal) should help. But the thing about pixel perfect design is that we actually don’t think it should be a challenge to develop beautiful designs just because they have to be flexible. People have to think more like web developers and less like console developers.

There are 20 bajillion beautiful sites on the interweb — they all manage to accommodate a variety of screen and window sizes. Developers just need to use the same kinds of tricks to do beautiful designs for Android. That’s what we did for all of our (official Google) applications — they work from 3.4 inch to 10 inch screens and higher while maintaining correct ratios.

Q: How much of the ultimate design of Ice Cream Sandwich was really known and mapped out when Honeycomb was released? Or were you figuring a lot of it out on the fly?

Duarte: While working on Honeycomb, we had some ideas of where to go with ICS. We knew some things would be open problems that we’d have to solve, and didn’t know how we would. Then as we started on ICS we were able to take some of those ideas and some worked out exactly as we thought — others we realized, “Shoot, now we need to go back and redo this”… Almost everything had some tweaks when took it back to the tablet (for ICS), the most dramatic being some of the fundamental look and feel.