Friday, January 9, 2015

How intuitive is Android Lollipop?

My wife and I spent Christmas with my in-laws, as we've done for the past several years. When we arrived, they made their request for this year's "tech support project": they wanted to move their emails and calendar from MSN to Gmail. If you're the go-to IT person for your family, you're probably thinking "Just what I wanted to do on my Christmas break...migrate thousands of emails and contacts to Gmail"... but I was thrilled. See, what my in-laws didn't know is that we were already planning on giving them each a Nexus 4 for Christmas and having their email, contacts, and calendar already in Google's realm would make it much easier to start using their new Android devices.

Out with the old...

Their old phones were tiny-screened, heavily OEM-modified, extremely buggy Android phones running the four-year-old Gingerbread operating system. They used them for phone calls, texting, and the occasional Hangouts group chat, but they weren't really capable of much else. Doing something like email on their phone was unimaginable, because email was something that was (in their minds) tied to their laptop.
For years they have paid for MSN Premium and have continued to pay for the antiquated service because, let's be honest: it worked well enough for them and why put the energy into learning something new? But they had finally gotten fed up with waiting multiple minutes for their email to load and were ready to make the switch.

...and in with the new

I migrated all their data to Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Contacts and then it was time to show them how to use their new tools. For the most part, the web features were pretty simple; maybe a few buttons have moved around, but an email program is an email program. I explained Gmail's label system and how it was different from folders, showed them how to send email from their MSN addresses through Gmail, and how the Social and Promotions tabs keep their inbox clear of clutter. Making new Calendar appointments was similarly simple. The most interesting insights came when it was time to set up their Nexus 4 devices.

Give me tricks that work everywhere

As I walked them through how to use the device, it was fascinating to see them interact with each new app. One of the Android Design Principles is "Give me tricks that work everywhere" and I can definitely confirm that worked for my in-laws. My father-in-law quickly latched on to the swipe-to-dismiss gesture and merrily tried to swipe away anything he didn't want to see. The cool part? It usually worked! The pattern is now pervasive enough that swiping away a card, an email, or a notification will usually do what you wanted. Another trick I showed them was tapping on a contact picture to enter multiple select mode, which worked across many of the apps they used.

Web & App consistency is a win/win

Question: Where do you find your labels in Gmail? Answer: On the left side. Wait, was I talking about the Android app, the iOS app, or the web? It doesn't matter! How do you write a new email? There's a big red Compose button. Sure, it's a pencil icon on mobile, but it's still a (relatively) big red button. This consistency helped my in-laws tremendously. All the knowledge they gained learning the web interface of Gmail, Calendar, Photos, and more could be directly applied to the app's Android counterpart. They didn't need to learn an entirely new interface, which greatly increases the chances they'll actually use these things on their phones. From the app developer's perspective, it's also don't need to come up with both a web interface and a mobile interface; you can just make minor tweaks and have your app scale across screens. Interface consistency is a win for everyone.

Visual cues work

Android Lollipop's Material Design encourages using motion to gives users a hint about how to use your app. When you tap a notification on the lock screen, you get a subtle message telling you to double tap to open. When you take a photo with the camera app, the picture peeks out from the right side of the screen, letting you know you can swipe right to view your photos. When you tap the status bar (something my in-laws do frequently as they forget they should pull it down), your notifications peek out and encourage you to swipe down to open the notification drawer. These cues, at least in my limited set of users, work amazingly well. As I watched them interact with their phones, they would try to perform some action, get a visual hint from the system about what to do, and then reach success relatively quickly.

What didn't work

There are still some areas in Android that aren't very intuitive and caused some struggles for my in-laws. The thing we spent the most time reviewing was home screen widgets, which heavily utilize one of the most undiscoverable features of Android - the long press. To add a new widget, you must long press on the background, click "Widgets", then long press again on the widget you want and (don't lift your finger or you'll mess it up!) drag it to the right location. To resize a widget, you must long press it yet again and then lift your finger (which is okay this time, it won't mess things up) and the resizing grabbers will appear. To remove a widget, you must long press it and drag it to the top of my screen. I spent several painful minutes watching my father-in-law try to swipe-to-dismiss a widget before finally intervening and reminding him what to do.

Take aways for Third Party developers

On their old phones, my in-laws used the text-messaging app, Hangouts, and the Dialer. Needless to say they aren't big app users. Now they're using several more of the stock Google apps, but don't really have much interest in installing third-party apps (maybe that will be next year's Christmas project). The one exception is that my mother-in-law uses Facebook, so she installed both Facebook and Facebook Messenger. Immediately she was confused by the non-standard behavior in those apps. "Why can't I swipe away my conversation with Suzanne? Why aren't my groups on the left side like on my computer? Why doesn't it select more than one conversation when I click on a person's picture?" I'd argue that these aren't features of Google apps, they're features of Android apps. Supporting swipe-to-dismiss or a floating action button probably won't cause any damage to your brand and it can really help decrease the amount of new stuff a user has to learn to use your app. And the easier your app is to use, the more likely they are to use it, right?