Designer Matias Duarte on steering the “ocean liner” that is Android

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By Kim-Mai Cutler Comments

When crossing over from leading user experience at Palm to Google two years ago, Android’s design lead Matias Duarte had to reconsider how he would implement ideas in an environment where it would be difficult — if not impossible — to enforce any of them.

“The biggest thing I had to do was just understand how to manipulate the giant aircraft carrier that is Android,” he said in an interview last week at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

It was that complexity that attracted him to the job. By 2010, Android had already gained momentum with pick-up from virtually all of the major handset makers, which were looking to counter Apple’s resurgence with the iPhone. Microsoft still hadn’t offered a credible alternative at that time.

“It was an opportunity to work across an entire ecosystem. I knew things we were going to have to create systems, instead of impose controls,” Duarte said. “But it was much harder and much slower than I expected. You want to move so fast. But it’s like you’re driving an ocean liner. You try to turn left and somebody’s got to run downstairs, then put a paper into a tube that goes down to the engine room.”

Case in point: even now Android Gingerbread, a version of the OS that was released in late 2010 is still the most widely used one more than a year after its launch. Newer versions of Android like Honeycomb and Ice Cream Sandwich have just under 5 percent market share.

Duarte said, “Even if you move quickly, the rest of the ecosystem is like a wake that dissipates behind your ship. The steps that you take will fan out like ripples, impacting the ecosystem for years. And it’s an ecosystem where you can’t directly control the levers.”

That said, if Google’s $12.5 billion acquisition of Motorola goes through, the OS maker will have a hardware manufacturer under its belt for the first time. But Duarte declined to comment on how Google might potentially influence Motorola. “I don’t think we can even speculate about that,” he said.

On Google’s design culture

When Duarte came to Google, he entered a company that had long valued brute force engineering over showmanship and design. But Google is in the midst of change, and that’s in no small part due the competitive pressures it faces from more design-centric companies like Apple.

“Google as a whole company is starting to take design very seriously. You’ve started to seeing it roll across products,” he said. “The company has always prided itself on being open-minded and very egalitarian. It’s always been very willing to look at itself and adapt to however it needs to be. It’s not about a dogma. It’s about merit.”

Because of the very independent way that Andy Rubin runs the division inside Google, Duarte gets relatively free rein in fashioning the look and feel of Android. He’s been trying to get Android designers to think outside of conventional UI patterns. “I ask my team to think about where we’re going to be five years from now,” he said. “We’re going to have screens everywhere. They’ll be able to recognize your faces and recognize sounds. But there will be all sorts of nuance.”

And he dismisses designs that try to graft real-world metaphors onto touchscreens (hence, apps like Apple’s Find Your Friends or Game Center, which mimic the feel of leather, paper or old poker tables wouldn’t really fly on Android.)

“We gave people the canvas of the screen,” Duarte said. “It’s a machine that can become anything. And yet, there are designers who have built a whole bunch of buttons, knobs and switches that are virtual representations of things in the real world.”
On managing designers
What Duarte likes to do is get designers writing one-pagers describing a problem, an opportunity and what it would mean to solve it. It might be easy to think up a solution immediately, but that isn’t the point, Duarte says.
“All product development is about exploration. If you knew where you were going, someone would have beat you to it,” he said. “If the proposal at the end of your iterative design process is the same as your proposal, it was too obvious.”
He also encourages his designers to use paper. “I’m a huge believer in paper over digital,” he said. “It’s just so much more flexible. We can put everything on the wall.”
To find inspiration, he’s taken teams on field trips with U.K.-based Android designers visiting a Mini factory and Mountain View-based ones going to the Dieter Rams exhibit at the SF Museum of Modern Art.
He also knows the challenge of getting designers away from butting heads with product or engineering. “It’s very easy for teams to enter into an us-versus-them mentality,” he said. “But it’s important not to disregard others’ fields of expertise. There might be good reasons why there might be things that can’t be done. As a designer, you might not know about network latencies and their limitations.”
“One of the things that is absolutely essential is to make everybody realize that everyone else on the team is a user too,” he said. “Everybody will have an opinion about what a features should be included.”

Duarte was a little hesitant to name any design influences, especially in the field of computer science. He instead pointed to leaders in other industries like Pixar’s chief creative officer and Toy Story director John Lasseter.

“I’m really influenced by craftsmen who are artists that really understood the technical aspects of their medium,” he said. “They understood how to leverage that for emotion.”