With the unveiling of Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0) at the beginning of the year, Android also revealed its first suggested app design guidelines, departing from its long heralded stance that apps for Android don't have to abide by any rules as long as they aren't malicious.
While these guidelines are by no means mandatory, they do imply that Android's flexible policies are getting a little more structure, which has us asking a series of questions: Is this good for the industry? Is it necessary for Android to continue to compete with Apple? Or should Android revert course and return to its "anything goes" cowboy roots?
I whole-heartedly welcome the 4.0 guidelines. The new UI offers more structure without being confining, and it helps fix usability issues that left Android feeling less design-forward than Apple.
For example, in previous versions of Android, if users were in a gallery and wanted to delete a photo or multiple photos, they had to first click the delete icon before selecting what they wanted to delete, which is counterintuitive. The new guidelines utilize a contextual action bar wherein users can select a photo or multiple photos via a long press and then select delete, copy, save or any other action they would need to perform.
The action bar also has a new "overflow" area where less frequently used functions are stored. It used to be that these actions were hidden in the native menu, which was arguably one of the most confusing things about Android for users and designers alike.
The new guidelines are extremely helpful for applications that include a lot of content. Updates to the top navigation help filter information and give users a seamless way to search through different categories of endless content. The new Google Play Music, Books and Movies apps are good examples of this integration.
For years, Apple had the best out-of-the-box UI guidelines, and apps on iOS just looked better. This was compounded by the fact that most designers had lots of experience working with Apple products. I've worked on a Mac since 2003, but I bought an Android phone in 2010 to learn the platform better and keep up with new Android developments.
While iOS feels like second nature and is easy to jump into as a designer, until I got into mobile I didn't know that much about Google. Traditionally, developers were drawn towards Android while designers stuck with Apple.
There are so many devices that run Android, and in this instance, a little bit of structure is good for the industry because it makes designing for Android less intimidating. With the new UI, designers and developers can come together on Android, largely for the first time.
There aren't a lot of mobile designers out there. On LinkedIn.com only 4,000 professionals claim to have skills and expertise in mobile design, while 585,000 state experience in Web design. Anything that Android can do to streamline its UI and remove barriers for designers to learn their platform is, without question, good for the mobile app industry.
While I understand the appeal of Android's Wild West, no restrictions approach, in practice, I rarely, if never, feel constricted by Android or Apple's UI guidelines and don't find myself running into roadblocks or problems being innovative on either platform.
With businesses ready to implement Android's new standards, users can look forward to higher quality, better-designed apps across Android devices--you could call it a new era for Android app development. Be on the lookout for the new sheriff in town.
Alicia Waters is a graphic designer at Metova, a software company that develops custom mobile applications for smartphone and tablet platforms, including Android, iOS, BlackBerry and Windows Phone 7. Alicia handles mobile UI/UX design for smartphone and tablet applications. She also has experience in illustration, print, Web design, media content and event design. You can find Metova on Facebook at Facebook.com/Metova, Twitter at Twitter.com/Metova, or on the Web at Metova.com.