Yahoo! released their beautiful new weather app on Android! Congrats!
Of course the interwebs are OUTRAGE!  so I'm gonna talk about it...

Because I am hopelessly naive and idealistic I see this as an opportunity to talk about designing for Android, the role of guidelines and design consistency, innovation in design balanced against user expectations and consistency, and the "brand versus platform" issue.

So what's the big deal? Yahoo! made a beautiful app. It also happens to deviate in some ways from the Android Design Guidelines:

Depending on who you are this is either "a brave and liberating stand for creative freedom, releasing Android from a stilted hegemony of cookie cutter designs," or "a horrifying violation of the one true design, confusing users to no end, and reinforcing the image of Android as an incoherent jumble." Yeah. 

Rather than dive into that fray, perhaps I can offer some perspective on what the design guidelines are for, and how you should approach them.

Maybe some day computers will tailor their interfaces exactly to each and every user, but until that day comes designers and developers need to make difficult decisions about how to present their functionality to their users. This is true for seemingly simple choices like what icon should represent "my profile", as well as far more complex choices like how exactly should scrolling decay over time, or at what delay should touch feedback be displayed in order to avoid flashing in appropriately when the user is trying to scroll.

These choices are hard not just because the problems are complex in of themselves, but they are extra hard because often times a single question can have many valid answers. This is made worse because some of those equally valid choices will interact with each other in unforeseen ways - some choices are fine by themselves, but actually kind of terrible when you consider other choices that you've made in the design.

That's where consistency fits in. The whole point of consistency is to make it easier on users to understand and use things. Let's take a trivial example. Say you're designing screw top lids for jars of marmalade. It would seem you could have complete creative freedom here right? I mean if you made the lid solid colored or checkered, short and wide or tall and narrow it'll work just fine right? Your primary concern is how well does the lid represent your brand right?

Obviously not. WIll your lid unscrew with clockwise rotation or counter clockwise rotation? By itself it's an arbitrary choice right? I mean they both open the jar. Of course we know that's not true. If you make your lid unscrew in a clockwise direction you will drive everyone crazy because everyone expects lids to unscrew in the opposite direction. 

Oh sure, it only takes a second to adjust. I bet in user tests of the bizarro world jars most users would eventually succeed at the task. No biggie right? Good luck with that. I hope we can all intuitively understand why this seemingly trivial inconsistency would become maddening. So unless you're interested in selling frustration instead of tasty fruit products, clockwise jar opening is a bad move.

Can you think of other ways in which your lid design is constrained? How about a lid which says, "Push to open" ? A lid with arrows in the wrong direction? Those are obvious, but then there's more subtle ones like the graphic pattern on the lid unintentionally implying the wrong rotation direction? In reality you could get away with doing all of those things because the power of convention is so strong most people would just try to open the lid by rotating counter clockwise. The point is convention and consistency is powerful.

But why not clockwise?!

Sure. Why not?

Imagine a country where everyone decided lids should open in the opposite direction. It might have happened - heck we can't all agree what side of the road to drive on so the fact we're on the same page when it comes to lids is kind of amazing. However if there was such a country and you did want to import your tasty jam to that country what's the right design? Do you stay "consistent" to your brand? (Here's a hint: Popular Japanese car brands in America do not have the driver's seat on the right hand side, and yet have tremendous international brand loyalty and recognition).

Oh sure, if you were the only source of jam in that entire country, you might be wildly successful! But would that make it a good design for users of that country? Would you really be proud of causing a million little bits of frustration every morning as your brand or innovation get in the way of legions of adorable doe eyed children and their morning treat?

Connecting this metaphor to the topic at hand is left as exercise for the reader.

Consistency and conventions are there to help your users. They help users get things done and not worry about how to get things done. Design guidelines are there to help you understand the consistency and conventions, especially if you're not from around here.

Does that mean you should slavishly adhere to all of them? Of course not. Especially if you have something new to add that brings unique value to your users. But if you're being different for the sake of being different, or simply because "that's how they do it in my country", you might find that you're not doing anyone any favors - even if they good naturedly tolerate your eccentricities. 

Also not all guidelines are created equal. Visual conventions like a color palette, typography, tactile vs skeuomorphic vs flat design approaches - these are all more about comfort and emotional acceptance than fundamental usability. If you try and sell homey distressed handwritten hipster jam in a culture that expects only clean bauhaus typographic jams you may find yourself rejected or appealing only to a small sub-audience. However if that's a conscious choice, particularly because the benefit is precisely in offering that specific emotional and aesthetic response, more power to you.

On the other hand conventions that relate to behaviours - especially behaviours that are invisible (like which direction do you have to twist the jar, what part of the UI element is a valid touch target, or what will happen when you scroll) - there's very seldom a benefit that's worth the frustration that comes with inconsistency - even brand or cross platform consistency.

If you do this you should be doing it consciously.

 As usual a good litmus test is "are you actually proud of what you've made?" If you actually saw somebody struggle or hesitate over that little inconsistency - both in your design and they when they go back to use the other products that they know and love on their platform - are you actually proud? If you met that person at a party and you heard them gush about how much they love your product and they're so happy they can use it, but they just wish one small thing worked they way they were used to - would you actually feel good about the part that frustrates them?

Here's where a pithy one line summary of my position would go - but it's hard to capture a nuanced position in a pithy one liner. Maybe :

Most of all, do the right thing - we're here to help if you'd like.

P.S. If it doesn't seem like we're here to help, that just means we're probably not doing a very good job. Just let us know and we'll try and do better!

P.P. S. Yes I wrote this post at breakfast, how'd you guess?
Design | Android Developers
Design | Android Developers
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