Designing for Android: an iOS developer’s perspective

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Photo: Diarmuid Miklós/Flickr
A one-size-fits-all hybrid design for Android and iOS apps is not the best of both worlds. Photo: Diarmuid Miklós/Flickr

As an iOS developer, I’m frequently asked, “When are you going to do an Android version?” Like it is just a matter of time.

But the truth is, we’ll probably never support Android. While there are sound business rationales for this, my motives are rooted in design philosophy.

The commercial and technical reasons

I could offer plenty of logical explanations for why we have not yet developed an Android version of our workout app, Reps & Sets.

Like the fact that Android users don’t buy as many apps as iPhone users. That Android devices tend to run older versions of system software. Or that testing on Android is a nightmare because there are so many different devices to support.

All good reasons, to be sure. But they are not my reasons.

The real reason

My reason is simply this: I love iOS and I don’t like cross-platform design.

When I first saw the iPhone in 2007, its interface blew me away. As a designer, using it was not enough. I wanted to work with it. Just like a mechanic who can’t resist lifting the hood of a car to take a look at the engine, I wanted to understand how all the pieces of Apple’s magical new multitouch user interface worked together. And the best way I could think to do that was by designing an iOS app myself. So, my partner Martin Algesten and I did just that.

Tight integration of hardware and software

Apple has always excelled at integrating hardware and software.

The original iMac’s design was perfectly complimented by the look of the first version of OS X. The on-screen buttons were exactly the same hue of Bondi blue as the iMac’s translucent case, while the stripes around the Finder windows matched the screen’s plastic bezel perfectly.

With the iPhone, Apple took its tightly integrated approach even further — beyond surface appearance. For example, the interface is laid out carefully so that frequently used buttons are positioned easily within reach when you hold your iPhone with one hand.

When developers build apps that follow Apple’s user interface guidelines, their users benefit from all this careful planning. Even third-party apps can become an integral part of the overall Apple experience.

This kind of integration is just not possible if you design a single cross-platform interface to work on both iOS and Android.

Hybrid design doesn’t work

As Android has steadily gained market share, many iPhone app developers have gone cross-platform.

In an ideal world, you’d design a different tailored interface for each platform’s unique visual language. One following Apple’s guidelines for iOS, the other following Google’s new Material design style for Android.

But given the cost and time implications of this approach, some developers have adopted a single, hybrid design for both platforms instead. As a result, some Android interface conventions have crept into iOS apps, like the three-dot sharing icon in Google Maps and YouTube.

The problem with this lack of consistency is that the icons on your iPhone become less familiar and intuitive as a result.

Rethinking our app’s user interface to follow Google’s Materials design would certainly be an interesting challenge. But to do it properly would be very time-consuming and our app is a hobby project — we do it more for love than money. Personally I’d prefer to spend time working on our Apple Watch app or some other new feature for our iPhone app instead.

A good user interface just disappears

When I presented our app at a conference last year, one of the delegates remarked that he felt the design was pretty basic, with almost no branding. To him, design was all about using distinctive colors, typefaces and logos.

But the minimal branding in our app was a deliberate choice. We wanted it to feel like an integral part of the user’s iPhone experience. If you do a really good job of this, the interface becomes almost invisible, enabling the user to perform their task so effortlessly that they hardly notice it.

One of my proudest moments as an app designer was when a user e-mailed me last year to ask about our plans for Android support, because he wanted to “upgrade” his old iPhone to a Samsung. I replied with an apology, explaining that we were not planning Android support.

He e-mailed me back two days later to say that he had changed his mind and decided to buy an iPhone 6 instead, because he couldn’t live without our app.

Good user interface design may become invisible, but you notice it when it’s gone.