App Design 101 - October 2014

Every smartphone platform has their strengths. For iOS, it’s speed and simplicity. For Android, it’s web syncing and customizability. For Windows Phone, it’s uniformity and at-a-glance information. I’d like to talk a little about the state of writing a “well designed” app from the perspective of someone who is thinking about writing something cross-platform.

All platforms have very different UI guidelines. The #1 mistake you could make is to design a new app that looks the same on every platform, and requires a learning curve. Users, whether they know it or not, are trained to look in certain places and expect certain behaviors depending on location of buttons, input fields, and other elements. Some examples:

iOS Apps


Apple’s iOS Design Language

iOS apps sometimes deviate into gesture-based and non-standard UIs, but as a general rule, they look like this. There is a back button in the top left and a tab bar at the bottom to get to different places in the app. Apple values simplicity and minimalism in their apps designed for iOS 7 and up. Thank goodness, too. Apps have turned from a gradient-filled mess to clean and beautiful.

Maps Before:


Maps After:


Apple is definitely moving in the right direction; One inspired by Windows Phone and Android. For more information on Apple’s new UI elements, watch this video:

Android Apps

I am admittedly more comfortable and familiar with the Android Design Language, as that is my platform of choice. Android apps are also in a state of transition right now, only much more early in the process.

Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) introduced “Holo”, a clean and minimalist design that is easy to develop for. Most apps in the Google Play Store today are based on Holo. At Google I/O 2014, Matias Duarte introduced “Material Design”, the upcoming design for Google’s web services and apps.

Holo Android apps center around the use of the Action Bar, a consistent bar located at the top of the app. It contains commonly used tasks with an overflow menu.




For more information on Holo’s design guidelines, visit the Android Developer section on design. Holo is a set of UI elements that comes together to create this look:


However, Material Design is coming soon.

Material Design is the set of guidelines that Google will be using to revamp it’s web services and apps on both major platforms. It revolves around using clean, bold graphics to show depth and movement. There are examples of this today in many popular Android apps, including Google Chrome, Tumblr, Google+, Textra SMS, Wally, Google Docs/Sheets/Slides, and more. It will be very interesting to see how Google will continue to blend together Material Design with the iOS UI Guidelines in their iOS apps.


Put simply, ignoring each platform’s individual strengths means that you end up with an app that only panders to the lowest common denominator between the two platforms. It’s how you end up with abominations like these:




Don’t be like these. Develop for your platform’s native UI.

For more information, visit Sloppy UI or Holo Everywhere's Archive.

The State of the Smartphone Market, April 2012


Apple is continuing to dominate the smartphone market, but not quite as much as I had originally predicted. We know that Android devices, by their very nature, outnumber iOS devices. I imagine that Android users are numerous for three reasons:

  • Android devices offer variety, and flood the market with differentiation
  • Android devices are far more advanced with chipsets, screen technologies, and LTE (on top-tier devices, of course)
  • Older Android devices offer a cheaper entry into the market for first-time smartphone buyers

So, in order to attack these points, Apple has a pretty clear need to fill with what is hopefully named the iPhone 5. “The New iPhone” will be an irritating and unnecessary brand nomenclature change.

In order to attack those Android advantages, Apple first needs to have two or three differentiated devices at different sizes. The iPhone 3.5”, iPhone 4”, and iPhone 4.5”… obviously branded differently. Second, Apple needs LTE. Badly. 3G felt it’s age two years ago. Just slapping the 4G logo on your AT&T devices doesn’t work, guys. Finally, Apple needs to bring the price down. I know old models are going for cheap, but we all know the iPhone 4S was originally planned as a low-end phone before the 5 was postponed. Can you imagine, the iPhone 3.5”, now for $50? LTE, quad-core, for cheap?

It certainly wouldn’t be the Apple way of doing things.


Ice Cream Sandwich is pretty.

I have been running it stock on the Galaxy Nexus for a few months now. When compared to Gingerbread, ICS is leaps and bounds more consistent and cohesive of a UI paradigm. The pitfall of the Google app model is now all that’s holding back the platform from being a unified idea.

Giving developers free reign to do what they like with their apps is a very unique approach in this market. On the plus side, apps like Cerberus and custom launchers can exist that have deep system access and can even change the core software experience itself. Other app stores can also open up the options for users even more. However, with great choice comes great learning curves with devices such as these.

Android is still difficult to pick up and understand.

And while I love the open source model to death, Google needs to figure out a better way to tell a cohesive story. They’re on the right track with 4.0.

The HTC One X was just released in Europe, and is coming soon to the US on Sprint (sort of) and AT&T. This phone is a fantastic piece of hardware. Perhaps the best ever made. What it isn’t, is a Google phone. Google’s UI ideas, Google’s native applications, and Google’s design principles have been changed and distorted to what HTC wants. Is that a good thing? I suppose. Differentiation can’t hurt, when used to improve.

However, it doesn’t improve upon stock Android. And this model continues to destroy any mindshare Android may have with consumers. What is Android to people? Something about Google, lots of phones have it but they all look different. The fragmentation delays updates, confuses UI paradigms, and ultimately confuses users looking for a new phone.

Google needs to take control of Android before it completely loses authority over it’s use and direction.

Windows Phone:

Nokia, Nokia, Nokia.

Boy, did I underestimate Nokia. The Lumia 800 and 900 are possibly the most attractive devices ever created. Essentially, Microsoft has Nokia to cling to. HTC, Samsung, LG, and the other Windows Phone manufacturers seem to have given up on pooling resources into Windows Phone. Seriously, HTC? The Titan II? You didn’t even bother making any changes! It’s now with LTE and a different camera. That’s cause to be ashamed.

Windows Phone is starting to show some lag behind the competition, and I’m not quite sure how to solve that problem. There are so many little features that make Windows Phone great. The Metro UI paradigm and consistency. Group contacts. Social integration. Xbox Live. So what do they need to add?

Here’s what’s missing: excitement. It’s not the “cool” brand to have. Some of that may have to do with the Windows name, but I think there’s a deeper problem at work. Windows Phone just isn’t being picked up by the power users. If Microsoft makes an effort to embrace the tweakers, computer nerds, and server guys, then the rest will start to trickle down.

So, Microsoft, start asking your small but loyal userbase what exactly they want.

Enthusiasts define what’s cool.


RIM is dead.

I’m calling it.

Current devices have no appeal whatsoever. The OS was dated 5 years ago, and the only unique thing BlackBerry brings to the table is BBM. BBM, a chat protocol easily replaced with iMessage, Kik, WhatsApp, or even AIM or Facebook Chat.

BBX, or BB10, isn’t supposed to hit consumers for another several months. What will that bring that will be enticing enough to convince a user to jump from iOS or Android? What will make that new BlackBerry look better than the iPhone 5 or Galaxy S III sitting next to it?

RIM hasn’t been one to impress me for many years, and I see no indication that they have changed their ways.

We’re inching, ever so slowly, toward the “Big 3” of the smartphone choices. The impending fall of RIM may give Windows Phone the boost it needs to make a presence known. This market absolutely needs at least three players to stay competitive. In the not-too-distant future, we’ll have our three left standing.

The State of the Smartphone Market, October 2011

The last few months have changed the smartphone market in many, many ways.

I hope to start this “State of the Market” as a regular segment every few months, starting with this post. I’ll break down where I see each player and hopefully make a few predictions that turn out to be true. Here we go!

Oh, Apple. You came along and changed the world, only to settle with what you had as “good enough”. With another few developments on iOS that were just as good as  your iPhone introduction and App Store keynote, you could have won me over. I see Apple today in a lot of ways like I see Texas Instruments' calculators; They made the best of their time and refuse to change much after the fact. The iPhone 4S, released last week, perfectly highlights Apple's attitude towards the market. “We made the best thing. Why try to innovate when what's out now is good enough?”

Apple is going to have a great short-term future. The majority of civilians, as I lovingly call them, are convinced that anything Apple is the best. However, with the tragic passing of Jobs, Apple may start to slide into “average”. It happened before, the last time they lost him in the mid-90’s. Now, I’m sure they’re going to release several compelling products in the meantime. You don’t get to be the #1 manufacturer in several product categories without some good ideas. Unfortunately, with their current iterative attitude, I see people getting just plain bored. iOS 6 will bring NFC and some neat little trinkets, but the boring grid of icons is definitely starting to feel some age. 2007 was a long time ago. iOS just hasn’t evolved.

Google has finally turned over a new leaf. The introduction to 4.0, dubbed Ice Cream Sandwich, took place last week. Matias Duarte led the tour of ICS in Hong Kong, and the one take-away I had from it was this: Duarte is reincarnating his work (WebOS) in the form of Android. It’s a freaky robot-riverstone hybrid. I love it.

If I had written this post two weeks ago, I would have continued to rag on Android for it’s inconsistent interface and inability to make the user feel in control. Duarte and the team finally fixed this in 4.0. Running Apps are shown in a list and “tossed”, like WebOS cards. Native Google apps finally feel consistent and fluid across the OS. The Samsung Galaxy Nexus that is coming soon also looks fantastic. Long story short: this is my next phone. I was done and finished with Android. The next update was plenty to convince me to stay.

I see Android’s future as very good, if not excellent, if they fix one problem. Manufacturer skins. They are terrible, no one enjoys them, and they cost the end-user time (waiting for updates) and money (phone prices go to the developers who spend time on this awful stuff!). HTC Sense, MotoBlur, Samsung TouchWIZ… Google needs to pull a Microsoft and mandate that all phones run a vanilla Android if they want the official Market. That way, manufacturers can actually innovate in a place where it really matters: Hardware.

Windows Phone:
Microsoft is destined to be the 3rd ecosystem. I love it.

The Metro UI on Windows Phone has always been my favorite in terms of design and consistency. The 7.5 Mango update is rolling out to just about everyone right now, with what I believe is the best update rollout that I have ever seen hit dozens of phones. Microsoft did a fantastic job here.

Where I’m very disappointed with Microsoft and manufacturers is in hardware. There are currently two HTC phones that have the new, Mango-generation hardware; the Titan and the Radar. While the Titan looks alright, it’s not mind-blowing. I want to see as big of a push with new hardware as last year, when Microsoft first debuted Windows Phone 7.

In a little less than a month, I’m going to go to Verizon and buy my next phone. Right now, that phone is going to be the Galaxy Nexus. I really hope Samsung, HTC, LG, or someone else steps up and wows me with an equal-spec phone running Windows Phone Mango.

The Blackberry enthusiasts are quickly dropping in numbers.

Unfortunately, I don’t see a future for RIM. At an event this past week, RIM unveiled “BBX”, their next-generation platform. What one device does this OS actually get to see in the foreseeable future? The Playbook. BBX is supposed to be the next-generation platform, running on both phones and tablets. Right now, we have no phones and one failed tablet to try the new OS out on.

Old Blackberries are awful to use. New Blackberries are still a long ways out, and don’t offer anything that can’t be done better by someone else. RIM is dead in the water.

I have no idea. Why? Because I live in America.

But in all seriousness, I can’t see Nokia ever mattering in the US (besides with Windows Phone) and I can’t speak to the foreign markets. Windows Phones with mind-blowing hardware will be the only thing that would bring them back to greatness at this point. Anything less than mind-blowing will only keep the struggle going a bit longer.

The smartphone market has seen companies rise and fall in rapid succession in the last 5 years. At this time next year, I expect Apple, Google and Microsoft to be the “Big 3”, with everyone else being of little to no impact. And I’m okay with that.