HTC's head designer on what's exciting in designing for mobile right now

HTC's head designer on what's exciting in designing for mobile right now

How you design something that's better than Google's phone interface and experience design

Drew Bamford isn't quite HTC's answer to Apple's Jonny Ive, but he's the person responsible for making the manufacturer's experience design - how the company's devices feel and work like 'HTC phones' rather than just another Android handset.

Unlike Jonny, HTC's head designer's purvue is focused on the digital part of the phone - the experience design of which the company calls HTC Sense. This incorporates HTC's custom version of Android - which features an innovative apps module on the home screen that changes what shortcuts it displays based on where you are and a Highlights feed that brings together prominent information from your social networks.

The phones - which include the HTC One M9 (below) that I've been using in advance of interviewing Drew (courtesy of my colleagues at TechAdvisor), as I'm a day-to-day iPhone user - also include HTC's own apps that offer features that Google's core apps don't, or are designed to do it better. These include a Kids Mode for parents like me whose children are regularly asking to play on their phones, and the Zoe social-media-focussed video editing app.

I saw down with Drew on his recent visit to London to discuss his approach to phone interface and experience design, how you design something that's better than Google's, and how you design interfaces for those used to similar-but-distinctly-different ones (like other Android variants and Apple's iOS). We also talked about HTC's recent moves into VR with its Vive headset and controllers, and how to design phones for the very different expectations of users in Asia.

Neil Bennett: The terms 'experience design' and 'user experience' are bandied around a lot, sometimes without a clear definition of what they are beyond a focus on the user rather than the process. What do they mean to you?

Drew Bamford: "There are a lot of definitions of user experience. We think of it in quite a broad sense: everything from the out-of-box experience when you're unpacking the new product to the first five minutes of setting it up - to the first five days in which you move in to the experience and you're making it yours. Then the end of life experience. How do you transition to the next HTC product? We're really trying to think about that whole lifecycle.

"The way that we approach it is fundamentally focused on the people who are using our products. This is pretty standard now. User-centred design has become an industry norm - or at least people talk about it. But we really practice what we preach. We really do spend a lot of time to understand who our users are and then use lots of different mechanisms for finding out what they need, what they want - everything from the classic contextual inquiry ethnographic project where we go observe people in their homes using products to much more casual things. I think actually the most powerful insights we get are often just the designers observing trends and observing people in their natural environment doing stuff with their phones.

"For me, the most important part of research is just hiring the right designers. Hiring people who have empathy, who can understand how people who are not like themselves might encounter our products and what problems they might have and what needs they have that maybe the designer doesn't have. It's that empathy that really allows us to design products that are more universal."

NB: Some users who are first starting using one of your phones will have used HTC devices before, some will have come from a different brand's Android phone and some from the iPhone. How do you design something with is flexible and easy for people from all those backgrounds that come to you?

DB: "That's certainly a challenge. We're somewhat helped by the fact that smart phones are a pretty mature product category at this point. When I started at HTC in 2006, it was like the Wild West. From a design standpoint it was a green field, which was exciting but also somewhat daunting because there are no standard patterns.

"But now we're at a state where the standard patterns for experience design on a smartphone are pretty clear: everything from pinch to zoom to pull to refresh. We pride ourselves at HTC on innovating even within the confines of those standard patterns, but fundamentally the user experience is pretty standard - especially within a particular ecosystem like Android, where we're trying to design the products in such as way that if you come from another Android phone you're not completely confused by our product.

"On the one hand we want to differentiate, we want to do new things, but we need to help people make that transition by putting some familiar landmarks in the UI."

NB: How do you decide when something you design is good enough to be worth doing differently from the stock Android UI?

DB: "That's just really a source of constant debate for us. The way we decide is it has to feel like you're getting enough benefit out of that change to make it worth the pain of learning something new.

"In some ways that's the most exciting part of designing [for] mobile right now: treading the line between familiarity, which helps people to start using your product and not having too many problems; innovation, which lets us do new exciting things; and a consistent brand image, which allows it to feel like an HTC product. Balancing those three forces is the design project.

"What we do [to find the line] is create a lot of variations and then we debate which ones are the best expression or maximise all three of those categories the best.

NB: What external factors - physical product design, societal or usage trends - are driving what you're designing most currently?

DB: "The screen size trend has been towards bigger consistently. As a company, we're relatively unanimous on the fact that around five inches is actually a pretty good standard size across all the regions. Of course, it varies somewhat regionally. In Asia there's definitely an appetite for bigger phones and that's picking up in the US as well. I think Europe will probably be the last region to adopt the big phone.

NB: How do larger screens affect the way you design interfaces and apps?

DB: "On very large screen products we think there's an opportunity to be more productive. I think that the smaller screens are more about consumption and it's relatively casual consumption of information. As you get to the bigger displays, you can actually create more: not only in a classic productivity sense - with spreadsheets and emails and that kind of thing - but also from a pure creative standpoint with photos and videos and creating artifacts out of those raw materials."

NB: Why do you think us Europeans still prefer smaller phones - do we just have smaller pockets?

DB: "[Laughs]. It may be. You have better tailoring - the suits are not as big. Maybe it's just the overall environment: In the US you can imagine things getting bigger because everything's big in the US.

"Whereas in Europe people are driving small little cars and they're living in smaller apartments. Now the same is true in Asia, which makes it somewhat surprising that people have giant phones. But for a lot of our Asia customers, the phone is their only digital product. They don't have a PC."

NB: How else is designing phone interfaces different for Asia?

DB: "We've had some interesting examples over the past few years on the phone where we've just encountered different kinds of expectations. An interesting example based on the home screen that we discussed earlier is that in the West there's a pretty standard Android home screen. There's an All Apps drawer, and then there's sort of like desktop panels where you put shortcuts. That's the defacto standard.

"But if you look at China, there are quite different expectations. What's evolved is that almost all of the local Android manufacturers in China use an iPhone model. There is no App drawer - all of the apps are spread across the home screen.

"Now we're having to have this internal debate: should we try and enforce a global standard for HTC and then be kind of the only manufacturer in China that has this weird Western Android home screen or do we adopt a different model in China where we actually localise the UI to work the way people expect it?

"The debate is still going."

NB: Are there other differences, beyond the different characters of course?

DB: "It's not only just the localising the text, I think there are even much higher level differences in expectations. For example, in Asia in general and especially in China, there's a much higher tolerance for high density in the UIs and people just expect you to put more stuff on every screen.

"Whereas in the West people really like to have a lot of white space. [We like] breathing room - it makes you feel more calm.

"My theory is that in Asia the physical environment is so stimulating and is so dense. You walk down the street in China [and] there's just signs everywhere. You're bombarded with stuff. I think people get used to that. When they see a UI they expect to have a similar kind of level of density. We struggle a bit with that and I think over time we're going to have just adapt to it in our Asian products and adopt a more dense style."

NB: This concept of a UI that changes depending on where you are is something unique to HTC right now. Why did you want to create it?

DB: "As you launch apps in a given location, we notice which apps you're using and the frequency of use - and then we bubble those apps up into that special area of the home screen. We track you from home to work to the office so that you get the right apps in the right scenario

"It's a great example of a place where the industry as a whole has not really gone there. The industry has settled on the idea that users should manually configure a grid of apps, and that's the way to launch apps. We have a strong feeling that that's not good enough.

"Based on our research, we see people struggle with finding apps all the time. When you download apps from the app store on Android, the default behaviour is that it just puts it on your home screen somewhere. Over time, as you download apps, you have these app shortcuts just littered all over your home screen in no particular organisational scheme.

"We've noticed people just flipping through screens, waiting to see the right app. It just felt like this is an opportunity to make somebody's life a lot better on a daily basis. It's a latent need and the holy grail [of user experience design] is identifying latent needs - needs that people won't articulate themselves.

"If you ask somebody 'how can we improve your home screen?', they might say, 'give me more pages or make it look 3D'. They're not going to say, 'what if it could automatically suggest apps or organise itself' because it's just not within the realm of possibility for typical users. You have to observe them identify their needs and then try to come up with creative ways to meet those needs.

"The one criticism I have of our current implementation is I think we can do a better job [of] helping to set up people's expectations for how it works. Right now it's not totally clear what it's going to do at the outset - and so people don't know what to expect."

NB: In the past, UI and app design followed product design. The hardware was created first and the software came last. How do you work now?

DB: "We try to start every project with both disciplines interacting and collaborating. It's helped by the fact that we co-locate both industrial designers and user experience designers in our studios. When we kick off a project the first thing [we ask] is what's the goal of this project? Who is this project for? What's it trying to do? Then they'll split apart and go into their detailed work at times but they always come back together to make sure everything's in sync. Because it's that hardware/software interaction that gives us the great advantage over just a third party software developer. [This lets us] do things that can't be done just in software."

NB: Some of the features in Google's forthcoming Android M OS have been co-opted from HTC Sense - such as the vertically scrolling app menu.

DB: "This is not a new trend unfortunately. We consider it quite flattering that Google likes to adopt our design work.

NB: How do you then decide to not carry on with your own version and use Google's own?

DB: "We have occasionally stopped or slowed down on our custom version as Google's have gotten better. It's my observation that Google's first version of something like that is usually not their best. It's a version 1.0.

"Google does have a good track record for steadily improving things. So after two or three releases it can be pretty good. Then we often move on because we need to focus our efforts where we can create the most value. If Google's offering something that's every bit as good as something that we did, there's no point in us spending time on it.

"There are still areas where we think the custom HTC version of something is actually better than the Google one, even though Google's been steadily improving theirs for generation. A good example for me is the recent apps screen on our phone. It's quite different from the Google one. It's because fundamentally we just have a different point of view about what's important on that screen.

From HTC's point of view, it needs to be really easy and quick to access just the absolutely most recent apps. We show nine apps at the same time. Google seems to be more focused on enabling a very large number of recent apps, so you can scroll through this big list. We just don't think that's an important use case.

"We think most of the time you're switching between those nine apps. You're not going to go back 18 apps ago and use that app. It's just not a common use."

NB: HTC recent financial results were poor. Can design help turn that around?

DB: "I certainly hope so or I wouldn't be here. I love design just for design sake, but I don't think we're successful at design unless it's selling products. It's my belief that design's already played a huge role in HTC's evolution from, we started off as an ODM back in the 90s. Then even as recently as 2006 - just before I joined HTC - we were still making [PDAs like the] Compaq iPAQ and Cingular 8525.

"The transformation from ODM to global smartphone brand was enabled largely by design. I mean we created an industrial design language that built the brand, we created HTC Sense - an experience design language - and I think without those we never would have been able to create a consumer brand.

"Now we're in kind of a transition to our third act. That's what I like to call it, which is beyond smartphone brand to kind of personal technology brand or experience brand. We're going beyond phones to fitness, to VR, to home, other categories, imaging with our Re Camera. I think it will be design that carries us into those new spaces."

NB: What's your approach to VR for your RE Vive headset (above)? Unlike phones, it's an area where there aren't set conventions for interaction design.

DB: "It's almost the opposite of the smartphone. It's super exciting for my team because we're really in that phase where we have the opportunity to define the way that people interact in VR and to ask them to come up with those new patterns. It will take probably years for standard patterns to emerge in AR and VR. So we're in that super creative phase where we can just try lots of things.

NB: Where do you see the usefulness of VR in people's lives?

DB: "Of course the early adopters will be gamers because many of them already have the PC that will be required to power such a high-powered high-fidelity experience. But beyond games, one area that's really exciting for me is this kind of emerging new type of film or cinema experience. I think it won't be regular linear films of course, because you're immersed in the film. You can actually change your perspective, maybe even change the course of the film. I think there already are a lot of people working on that in Hollywood, for example. That's pretty exciting.

NB: The Vive is designed to track you moving around wearing it, using Kinect-style base stations. It also has two Wii Remote style controllers. How does this setup allow for more immersive experiences?

DB: "We're super excited about our hardware. We think it enables much higher fidelity interaction than [Oculus] because we have this tracking system that not only tracks the [headset] with these laser base stations, but also tracks our controllers with super high precision.

"What's unique about the interaction is that the tracking of the controllers is so precise that they feel like extensions of your hands and you can actually interact in really high fidelity in the environment. I think that's unlike any of our competitors so far.

"That will give us a real advantage in interactive experiences. Gaze tracking and selecting stuff with your gaze is [like ustwo's Lands End], it's nice if you don't have any other controls. But it's actually pretty unsatisfying because you have to constantly pause on things and it's very deliberate and slow and very low fidelity. Being able to use your hands with these controllers is really cool. That combined with our room scale experience, with an Oculus or a Gear, you're really just swiveling your head around or turning around in a desk chair.

"With our experience you can get up, stand up from your chair and walk around to the other side of the table and look underneath things. I think that will enable all sorts of new experiences that we haven't imagined yet."

NB: There's been a lot of buzz around Microsoft's HoloLens augmented reality headset. Is AR interesting to you?

DB: "We're definitely interested in AR. We have to focus on VR in the near term because that's what we're about to launch. But actually, in VR, we can do similar experiences to that with scanning.

"We're also looking into different ways to capture the physical environment. Even just with a single camera now we just were playing around the other day with some Adobe software, for example, where you just capture a series of 20 images. Feed them into their software and it recreates a 3D model based on the images."

"With that or a stereo cameras or with depth sensing technology, you can create a 3D model of your physical environment and then you can do things like redecorate your room."

NB: All of the VR systems on the market are very much 1.0 products. Are the users you're targeting comfortable with that?

DB: "I think wearables are already at the point where people expect something quite polished. I think with VR, we probably have a little leeway still. [However] I think the early adopters will be quite technical. They're going to be PC gamers, which is a pretty technical crowd. I think they'll understand that this is the early days of VR and we're still experimenting with it a bit.

"What I found over the past few years is people's tolerance for that has gotten smaller. I think people will give you maybe one iteration to start getting it really right. Whereas 10 years ago you could release a technology product and it could be quite rough and people were a little more forgiving. But now, the industry I think, has gotten to a point where consumers just have higher expectations.

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