Will the Android Design Guidelines Affect Users?

While I’ve taken a look at the language of the Android Design Guidelines already, today I want to think about how it will affect developers and users, if at all. It’s fine and dandy for Google to release these guidelines, but Android applications aren’t going to start following these rules overnight.

What stands in the way of these guidelines being adopted? Short answer: a lot. Long answer: well, read on and find out.

Adoption Rates

At the beginning of February Android 4.0 managed to double its adoption rate… to 1% of Android users. Yes, you’ve read that right: the latest version of Android is only running on one percent of devices running Android. As ridiculous as that sounds, that’s an issue for another article.

Nevermind the fact that this image may be irrelevant in the near future.

Never mind the fact that this image may be irrelevant in the near future.

Right now it’s a matter of fact that most people aren’t familiar with Ice Cream Sandwich’s new interface. Not only will they notice that applications are different on their Android device, but they’ll also wonder why it’s different. What fits with Ice Cream Sandwich may not fit with, say, Eclair.

So what do designers create for? The newest version of Android, with its clean and modern look, or the most popular version of Android (Gingerbread) which still looks nice but is different from the latest version? Is it better to please the early adopters, the masses, or some combination of the two? Who knows?

Speaking of Which…

Another issue arises from the custom skins manufacturers insist on slapping on the Android interface. I’ve talked about this before, but it bears repeating here because it’s just another obstacle to creating a unified, whole operating system. Now designers aren’t just wondering whether they should create for the newest version of Android or the most popular version, they also have to decide whether they want their designs to fit in with TouchWiz, Sense, Blur, etc.

What’s Your Size?

Designing for multiple screen sizes is easier said than done. While it seems simple enough, the reality is that a 3.7“ screen is vastly different from a 4.1” screen, which itself is hugely different from the enormous 5.3″ screen of the Galaxy Note. With each screen size you have varying levels of vertical and horizontal space to work with, which can fundamentally change the way that users interact with applications.

I'm sure there are some that even Google doesn't want to recognize.

I'm sure there are some that even Google doesn't want to recognize.

Let’s consider an item in the top corner. For someone with a smaller phone that’s an easy enough target to hit; they can move their thumb about the screen without having to shimmy their hand around on the phone. Now let’s imagine that that same person has that Galaxy Note. All of the sudden that element isn’t quite so easy to reach.

So designers have to worry not only about the operating system, its version, and whether it’s skinned or not, but also about what is roughly half a million different screen sizes. I don’t know about you, but even considering the amount of work required there makes my entire life seem gloomier.

When You Aren’t Making Money…

Now, what kind of motivation does someone have to create an excellent design if there’s just going to be an advertisement displayed somewhere in the middle of that design anyway? Unless those advertisements themselves are done properly (see: The Deck, Fusion Ads, etc.) then that design is going to be ruined either way.

Besides, where’s the money in it anyway? I imagine that some Android developers are making more money than I picture (which isn’t that much) but based on the number of applications that are free-but-ad-supported I don’t imagine they’re exactly rolling in cash. We’ve already established the huge amounts of work that go into designing for all the different Android devices, so now imagine you can go through all of that and make a little bit of money, or forgo all but the most basic of designs and make just slightly less?

Sure, there are some companies that are going to pride themselves on designing excellent applications no matter what. More power to them. I’m a sucker for a good design, and I’m sure that many others are as well. Unfortunately, they’re in the minority.

Now Back to Our Original Question

So, will these design guidelines change anything? I don’t know. I see many obstacles standing between where Android applications are now and where Google wants them to be. Are they insurmountable? Probably not.

Still, it’s going to be a long process between here and there. These design guidelines are a good first step, but it’s going to be a long while before we see real change.