David Zax

A View from David Zax

Can a Design Firm Differentiate an Android Device?

Frog’s going to try.

  • July 18, 2012

Sometime this summer, a new Android smartphone from Sharp will hit the Japanese market. But if you take a look at this video, you’ll realize it doesn’t quite look like most other Android phones you’re familiar with.

What’s going on here? Sharp is capitalizing on the openness of Android to try to make an attempt at differentiating itself in a sea of other Android phones. It’s a clever idea, and what’s most interesting here is the central role a design firm is playing.

Frog is an international design firm with locations as far apart as Amsterdam and Vinnytsya. Though it works in design of all stripes, interaction design is a pillar of what they do. “[F]rog was one of the first design firms to recognize the importance of software and user interfaces,” the company writes on its site, “and we have made them a core part of our offering since the early 1990’s.”

With Frog, Sharp is trying to inject a bit of iOS sexiness and showmanship into its brand. The Sharp Aquos page on Frog’s website says “Redefining Android” in big type. Sharp and Frog have even decided to give their new Android skin a name of its own, as though it were an operating system update: they call it the “Feel UX.” (In this, of course, the Sharp/Frog alliance isn’t entirely unique: HTC has it’s “Sense UI”; LG has its “Optimus UI,” and so on.)

When you try to gussy up your Android user interface, though, you walk a fine line. As Frog writes, “Unlike other handset manufacturers who historically customize Android by simply adding another layer on top of the platform, the [F]rog team carefully curated the experience to create a new device that is straightforward for beginner Android users, yet has the flexibility in customization that advanced users love.” (And no, I won’t consent to Frog’s confusing styling of its name as “frog.”)

I’ve of two minds about the Sharp/Frog partnership, and the way it’s been touted in some corners of the tech press as being in some way revolutionary. On the one hand, it’s a good idea for manufacturers of Android phones to think flexibly about design, and to create the most elegant user interfaces possible. On the other hand, the partnership smacks a little bit of preening. It’s all well and good for the Aquos phone to have a sexy home screen that will make it “stand out”–and perhaps that will boost sales. But fundamentally, does the phone really offer a better experience than its competitors? Or is the new interface just a bit of razzle-dazzle on what is, basically, just another Droid?

The Japanese market will have to determine that; there are no plans to see the phones in Europe or the States anytime soon.

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