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In Love with Android: Q&A with Matias Duarte

The lead designer of the Android user interface has the job of making Google’s mobile operating system desirable to consumers.
November 7, 2011

The Android operating system for smart phones commands about 57 percent of the global market. But Google, which developed Android, has long known something was missing. While people liked and needed Android, they didn’t love it. Not the way they love their iPhones.

Interface wrangler: Google’s Matias Duarte is responsible for the look and feel of the Android mobile operating system.

The task of seducing phone (and tablet) users has fallen to Matias Duarte, a former game designer who started his career creating titles for PlayStation and later built the user interface for webOS, the acclaimed (but commercially unsuccessful) phone operating system developed by Palm. In 2010, Duarte jumped ship to join Google as Android’s user experience director.

This September, Duarte’s work was on display when Google and Samsung unveiled the first phone using Android version 4.0, an update to the operating system also known as “Ice Cream Sandwich.” New features include Face Unlock, a facial-recognition system that opens the phone, and Android Beam, which allows users to share screen information by tapping two phones together.

TR business editor Antonio Regalado spoke to Duarte about how games influenced the redesign of Android.

See the rest of our Business Impact report on The Business of Games.

TR: I see that games are three out of the top five paid apps on Android Market, Google’s app store. How important are games to the Android platform?

Duarte: Games are a huge use case for mobile. People talk about consuming mobile content, and they think about listening to music or watching movies. Well, it’s that—and playing games. We know Android Market is a big opportunity, and we have done a lot of upgrades there. We go out and find people who buy a lot, or buy very little, on phones and tablets, and we try to find out everything we can about their motivations, their context, and how they shop. Then we do lots and lots of usability testing where we take people and ask them to do tasks with as little guidance as possible, to see how successful they are. We do eye tracking and all sorts of things.

What motivates you professionally?

The biggest motivation is trying to advance the state of human-computer interaction. The basic paradigms for interacting with computing devices and information are still crude and incredibly primitive, because the nature of operating systems is to become monopolies and ossify very quickly. There is not a lot of evolution in the ways that people try to interact with stuff. Like the fact that you have to save files. Or even have the concept of files. There are just so many of these absurdities in the way that people are expected to interact with this incredibly powerful, promethean technology. Mobile is the best opportunity—our last, best hope, as it were—for breaking out of the patterns of the desktop.

Is the Android user interface a game? If it is a game, what game are we playing?

I don’t think it’s a game, although it was very useful for me to spend time in the games industry, because there are elements in games that are completely underappreciated in the rest of experience design. For instance, when you are playing a game, or designing a game, there is absolutely no question in anyone’s mind that “the experience is the thing.” Right from the beginning, everybody knows the game has to be compelling; it has to be a gripping, emotional, immersive experience. Whereas websites, computer programs, and operating systems are kind of an aberration, where people are desensitized to the nuance of the experience.

But I see people playing with their phones all the time.

Compelling products have a playful quality that engages you with them. Great games have that, but any great product or tool has it as well. Think of a Swiss Army pocket knife, or the Zippo lighter. The mechanism has such a satisfying kinetic function that you find yourself fiddling with them. When the affordances of your tool are compelling and seductive to the hand and to the mind, you will play with it even if it’s not a plaything. We absolutely set out to create those playful moments in Android. You see people play with the face unlock on Ice Cream Sandwich—they will just sit there and watch the phone recognize them.

Clean Screens: Screen shots from the latest version of Android, “Ice Cream Sandwich.” Left to right: the home screen; data usage controls that allow people to limit the data demands of individual apps; and a list screen used to manage multitasking apps.

You’ve said your design goal was for people to love Android. Are there tricks from the psychological side of gaming that you used to make them love it?

There has recently been much made of this so-called gamification of services, of kind of intentionally creating tiers or goals and rewarding users for their progress toward them. I actually think that is very slippery ethical ground, and that is one of the reasons why I left the games space. I wasn’t comfortable with it. When do the rewards you create become the thing that people are genuinely looking for, and when are they traps that you are generating that form destructive behaviors?

Do you mean like Vegas slot machines?

Sure, like that, or just spending too much time playing. In general I am very wary and highly critical of trying to create behavioral reinforcement for objectives that are not what the user clearly is intending to do. The things that we’ve embedded in Android to try to make users love it are really trying to make sure it’s an aesthetic experience that is beautiful. We are removing all the irritants that make it not aesthetic, all of the—what we call jankyness.

Were there any techniques from the game world you relied on in redesigning Android?

Games are often running on hardware that is a decade behind the state of the art. Similarly, all the growth we are seeing in gaming is mobile gaming, and so it’s the same challenge: you face very strict technological limitations. The immediate response is that you can’t do anything that is rich, or nuanced, or compelling, or animated, or subtle, because c’mon, this is a phone. What do you expect? But having worked in the game industry, I come from the mind-set there is always a trick, there is always a shortcut, there is always a way that you can pay attention to the experience and deliver something that is evocative of the things people see when they go to the movie theater. Android is an interesting system, in that a lot of its architectural roots are quite old. They were certainly born in a pre-iPhone era, before anybody thought of doing systems that had nuanced, animated transitions, or even touch interactions. So we had to do a lot of cheats to get Android to sit up and do those tricks. For instance, we invested a lot of time creating transitions between totally different activities that know nothing about each other, but despite that constraint, trying to make those transitions look good, and make it feel like one connected experience.

What do you think is the future of games on platforms like Android?

I think it will lead to even more types of games. As we start seeing phones and televisions and everything else get more and more intelligent, having all these devices talk to each other and create game spaces is something I think is going to outpace what any console manufacturer can do and make for some really cool games. You could take two phones that can detect gestures and touches and can dynamically show stuff, and a television as an output device, to create environments where multiple people are playing simultaneously. The possibilities are almost endless.

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