April 26th, 2013

Flat does not have to be boring

I’ve talked about item details pages in the Play Store before. It’s a very interesting content hierarchy, with blocks that vary by their internal complexity and the overall logical importance.

Some blocks are more important than others. For example, the item cover and (in this case) the movie trailer are very visual, and we want to put them above the fold. There’s the item name, and some additional secondary info (such as movie genre, ratings, release date or running time) that “deserve” to be above the fold. There’s a certain logical hierarchy to that information that needs to be consistently exposed on the screen no matter what the device configuration is – some blocks “belong” together, no matter if it’s a single-column or a double-column layout.

And then there are action buttons. The buttons that keep us in business. We want them to be immediately identifiable, and – as much as we can – always there no matter how far you scroll the content.

Our previous solution for the buttons was twofold. Visually, the buttons are using a light blue color that sets them apart from all the other elements on the screen (apart from the rather awkward rating stars). Then, as you scroll the left column, we have the scroll-to-snap thingie where the buttons actually snap to the top edge of the viewport and stay there as you keep on scrolling that column.

As we started working on redesigning the main streams, it became quite clear that we need to redesign the details pages as well. Removing the heavy dark grey boxes and pinstripe textures was kind of a given, but that left us with the question of how to create a lighter, flatter look while still maintaining the same logical hierarchy of content. What you see in the latest Play Store release is the first lightweight iteration of where we’re heading.

The summary section has been redesigned to be more consistent across all device configurations. The title is more prominent, and the action buttons have moved to the right edge of the screen. The global rating stars and count have moved into what we call the byline section, going back to a consistent layout across the devices as well. And now, the space vacated by the action buttons and the stars in the left column can be given back to display larger, more visceral cover art. This is particularly relevant for “traditional” media that encodes additional information in the cover art – information that is lost if you start downscaling it by too much.

Going beyond the summary section, we’ve “lost” quite a few visual elements that helped separating the sections. No more colored headers, no more fancy textured footers. We’re going for a simpler, flatter look that uses typography and thin separators. Losing all this color has a nice side effect of making the action buttons maintain their visual importance. We removed the blue color that helped them stand out. But not having too many elements that use the same main color makes them stand out in the new design.

Finally, one of my favorite pieces is how the new design keeps the nice alignment of content above the fold. If you trace the bottom edge of the dark gray box in the left column and the bottom edge of the trailer in the right column, you’ll see that they align perfectly. This helps delineating the blocks that we consider to have more logical importance. The same delineation is maintained in the new design as well. Note how we’re able to move more information into the “main” section while still displaying larger cover art. Also, note how the visual alignment works across the bottom edge of the trailer and the bottom edge of the white area in the left column – not its drop shadow.

April 26th, 2013

Android bits and pieces: overscroll edge effect

The EdgeEffect class provides a standard way to draw overscroll effects at the edges of scrollable containers. The EdgeEffectCompat class from the support library wraps it so that it can be used across multiple platform versions in a backwards compatible way. I’ve had my eye on this particular class for a while, and I finally got a chance to use it when we were working on improving the accessibility support for the video/screenshot gallery section on app details pages.

For a number of design requirements we have implemented our own custom scrolling component for the section that displays the application screenshots and the optional video trailer. The downside of doing custom scrolling handling is that you have to take over pretty much everything, including accessibility. This has been the last major piece that was lacking proper support in that area, and the latest Play Store release has finally closed that gap. And while we were in that section, I also fixed the missing overscroll indication.

  • You get proper overscroll effects for “free” when you’re using the core views, such as ScrollView or ViewPager. And if you’re doing a custom scrolling implementation, EdgeEffectCompat is your friend. Here’s what you need to do in order to do it properly:
  • For every edge that should show overscroll, define its own EdgeEffectCompat object.
  • Call setWillNotDraw(false) on your container.
  • For MotionEffect.ACTION_MOVE, call EdgeEffectCompat.onPull() when you detect overscroll at the matching edge.  If that method returns true on at least one object, call invalidate() on your container.
  • For MotionEffect.ACTION_UP and MotionEffect.ACTION_CANCEL, call EdgeEffectCompat.onRelease(). If that method returns true on at least one object, call invalidate() on your container.
  • Override draw() method, and after calling super.draw() go over all EdgeEffectCompat objects. For each one that returns false from its isFinished(), apply the matching chain of transformations (rotate, translate), call EdgeEffectCompat.setSize() and EdgeEffectCompat.draw(). If at least one draw() method returns true, call invalidate() on your container as the last line of your draw() method.

There’s the usual hand-waving involved here, and the source of ViewPager provides a complete example of doing custom overscroll draws. The two more complicated points are about updating the objects only during dragging, and about applying the correct sequence of transformations depending on which edge you’re drawing.

January 7th, 2013

Unsolicited redesigns and focus on visual

Circling back to the topic of unsolicited redesigns, the discussion over at Branch largely talks on one of the points I mentioned last week – focusing on visual instead of interaction.

Looking at the existing screens of a product (be it a web site, web app, mobile app or desktop app) and making them prettier is all about visual design. Playing with colors, fonts, alignments, paddings, margins, gaps – or adding crisp stock photography – is a very visceral way to show your skills as a visual designer. This process sometimes omits certain technical aspects, such as, say the impact on the loading time and network (monthly bill) consumption, limitations of the underlying platform and the impact on framerate for some transitions, font rendering capabilities that can make your nice typography look quite bad and more.

But what about the interaction design? What about taking a hard look at some of the products you’re using on the daily basis and seeing how you can smooth the bumps that you encounter along the way of completing a certain task.

How about the process of finding the certain episode of your favorite TV show, buying it and watching it? How many screens does it take? How many taps, swipes and flings does it take? How much do you type on that small virtual keyboard? How much of that annoyance can you shave away without degrading the functionality scope?

What about making an hotel reservation? Direct messaging somebody on Twitter? Muting an annoying hash tag? Finding what is the closest movie theater that is playing The Hobbit in HFR 3D? Buying a ticket to that movie? Bookmarking the location of that movie theater? Navigating to that theater a few hours later? Taking a few pictures of yourself and your friends in the theater lobby and creating a booth-style photo strip? Ordering a pizza after you get back home?

There’s plenty of apps that do these tasks. You can redesign the outer layer of each one of those. But what about looking at the navigation models of each one, really looking at them and trying to improve them? Talking about what bothers you in the particular flow, showing how you restructure it and convincing the reader that your changes are an actual improvement? Taking those changes and applying them to the rest of the app? Making those change consistently better across various form factors where larger devices may combine two or more smaller screens at the time?

This is not shiny. This is not sexy. Interaction designers operate on the level of wireframes and flow charts that show transitions between various screens.  A vibrant pixel-perfect mock with glamorous stock photography is visceral. Easy to look at. Easy to consume. Easy to understand the change. A wireframe that rearranges the content to move some things above the fold, or group related things is not. It takes time to understand. Words from you to describe why your change is better. Attention from the reader to look at how things were arranged before, how they are arranged now and what is your reasoning behind this.

January 3rd, 2013

Unsolicited redesigns

Fred Nerby’s “Facebook – New Look & Concept” is the latest in a stream of unsolicited redesigns of well-known products.


Some random thoughts having survived a few redesigns myself, and having seen quite a few unsolicited redesigns for other apps.

  • The mockups always (really always) use full-bleed nicely balanced pictures of young smiling handsome people. The vast majority of the actual content as seen during the development cycle is somewhat less appealing.
  • 50% of the replies say “I hope Company X is listening”. Another 25% say “Company X should hire this guy”.
  • Companies are listening, and in quite a few cases the redesigns live in an ideal world divorced from harsh business and marketing realities of the specific product.
  • “Hiring the guy” assumes that “the guy” is actually willing to do the dirty work of understanding all the non-glamorous details of various scenarios and tweaking the initial mocks endlessly to adapt. A non-trivial number of proposed mocks are a no-go to begin with.
  • Static mocks are static. It’s only when you start putting them on the actual device / browser that you start thinking about the myriad dynamic aspects of layouts, transitions, animations and other pixel-level mechanics.
  • On a related note, most of such redesigns that I’ve seen focus on the visual design, and put very little emphasis on addressing problems in the existing interaction design or moving between the redesigned screens.
  • By the time an actual implementation is ready to ship, the pixels on the screen don’t bear much resemblance to the original mocks. They are not necessarily less pretty. Just different.
  • In a world of an almost continuous spectrum of device form factors, it’s very rare to see a redesign that bothers to address how the layouts respond to changes in screen size and orientation.

If you’re doing such a redesign, it’s an opportunity to show your skills. If you get noticed, people will link to you, and you might get hired to work on good projects – or even on a product that you’ve tried to redesign.

If you’re a reader looking at the redesign, you can look at the nice pixels and do “your part” by saying that Company X should hire this guy or do exactly what he did. You essentially did nothing, and you’re feeling superior because if Company X is not going to do this today, they’re a bunch of clueless dudes. It sure gives you a nice warm feeling, but otherwise is  a waste of time for everybody involved.