I now think of Matias Durate as the most important man in the Android team.
When I first used the iPhone 3G back in 2008, I was amazed by the way human interaction was designed. The single home button, how the UI navigated, the simplicity. I remember thinking to myself, this stuff is not just "design and execute", right? It must have taken a lot of trial-and-error research. I imagined Apple employees in a psycho lab experimenting on people. How they'd interact with the phone. People from different intellectual levels and age. Made sure that even 90-year grandmas there could get a hang of it somewhat.
"One of the things I loved about graphics was, while you needed a lot of technology to do it right, when you did it right, the consumer didn’t know anything about the technology. -Steve Jobs
I started using Android OS when 2.x (FroYo) was the latest. It didn't look all that good, even a simple OK/Cancel prompt looked ugly on the screen. However, I quickly fell in love with the functionality of the phone. I spent a lot of time customizing the hell out of it. A theme, a third-party launcher, a third-party keyboard, a mod here and a hack there. I was both happy with the final result and the time spent tinkering to achieve it. Still I was thinking, there's no way these Android guys have the sophisticated human-computer interaction labs I once imagined happening in Apple.
FastForward, I bought the Galaxy Nexus a month after it came out. First things I thought of when I used the phone were: 1) Whoever in Google came up with this new idea of the three on-screen buttons (Back, Home and Multitasking) is a pure genius! 2) Is it possible Android created the lab I believed they never had?
I could not find one, not even one Android theme anywhere that matched the look of the stock look of Android 4.x. Currently, I use a Nexus 4 with the stock ROM, stock keyboard, stock launcher. I know about third-party stuff that can add some features and extend functionality. But I found the stock experience to be extremely satisfactory in it's current state. Especially, the look of the OS and UI interactivity.
I don't know much about how User Interfaces are designed (someone here who knows wants to shine in?). But I got really interested in finding out what has changed since or before Android 4.0. I watched every interview with Matias Durate I could find online, including two by The Verge. Obviously, the man is really good. I like his ideas and the influence he brought to Android. Recently, I found a very interesting interview with Durate which I must have missed before because I was mostly searching for video interviews but this one is written and was actually done by The Verge!
Some highlights from this interview:
"[Android] represents that new type of potential for computer / human interaction. Mobile is exciting because it breaks us out of this stodgy stuff that we've been looking at for two decades. Two decades of windows, and cursors, and little folder icons!.. Finally people's minds are being cracked open, so now the question is, what are we going to do with that momentum?" -Matias Durate
"[Durate] tells me that the company spent a great deal of time and effort watching how and why regular people used their smartphones. Not just Android phones, but all smartphones. The company even had employees "shadow" users, visiting them at their homes and workplaces to watch how they interacted with their devices. -Joshua Topolsky
"What we heard from everyone we talked to in the study was that they love these things [smartphones], they are a part of their lives. They're incredibly passionate about them. They can't live without them. That was awesome. But we also heard a lot of things we didn't like to hear." -Matias Duarte
"With Android, people were not responding emotionally, they weren't forming emotional relationships with the product. They needed it, but they didn't necessarily love it." -Matias Durate
"Matias says that the studies showed that users felt empowered by their devices, but often found Android phones overly complex. That they needed to invest more time in learning the phones, more time in becoming an expert. The phones also made users feel more aware of their limitations — they knew there was more they could do with the device, but couldn't figure out how to unlock that power. It was a wakeup call at Google." -Joshua Topolsky
"Right now if you look at all of these applications that are designed in this real-objecty, faux wood paneling, faux brushed metal, faux jelly button kind of thing... if you step back and you really look at them, they look kind of juvenile. They're not photorealistic, they're illustrations." -Matias Duarte
"We tried to create a palette and a language and a sense of being that's clean and modern and graphic, but isn't a straightjacket." -Matias Durate
Full interview here: Matias Duarte on the philosophy of Android
I think it's kind of sad how a lot of Android users are missing out on the full experience of these design updates. OEM skins can't hold a candle to this highly studied, carefully-executed UI of the stock Android in Nexus devices. I'm looking forward to seeing how the UI is going to evolve in Android 5.0. I'm not at all worried as long as Matias Durate's LinkedIn profile still says he is "at Google".