Want to extend to the Android Tablet? Consider this.

In the mobile touch-interface world, Android continues to generate a lot of buzz and gain ground on Apple’s dominance.  The most recent flurry of activity has to do with the impending blitz Android tablets.

Sequence has been approached by a variety of clients looking for advice regarding this platform. This holiday season Samsung, Dell, Archos, Augen, Gome, Best Buy, Acer and others have been pushing hard to get their Android tablets out in front of consumers.  As a result, many of our clients are required to consider how these devices will affect their business.  Whether or not we recommend a business enters into the Android tablet space at this early stage depends on their individual situation and strategic goals.  But with every case, Sequence wants our clients to be aware of some general observations we have made about this emerging platform:

“Just make it bigger” is not a tablet app design strategy
Anyone who says the iPad is a big iPhone isn’t paying attention. There was a reason why the Apple tablet was rumored for so many years: they were working on it for that long. The iPad flavor of iOS isn’t a hastily modified version of the iPhone OS. It is a complete overhaul. Yes there are many similar patterns and elements between the iPhone and the iPad  but Apple understands that users approaches a larger screen-size in a completely different way than a phone-sized device.  As a result, the interaction models and task flows are often completely different and require UI components designed for that specific type of user experience.

One of the biggest differences between the phone and tablet is a tablet-sized screen allows for discreet tasks. A phone-sized screen allows for a handful UI choices so multi-step tasks often require many different screens.  Its what many call a “hub and spoke” task flow.  The user makes a single selection on one screen which then moves the user on to another screen to continue the task, and so on.  (Example:  The users views a list of options,  they choose one item in that list, the list is removed from view to show only the details of the choice you made.  You must tap “Back” to see the context of the previous step.)

A tablet-sized screen’s increased real-estate  allows multiple interactive components to be spread across a single state of a tablet screen.  This allows users to maintain context to the primary experience (which is hopefully taking advantage of the beautiful media display) while completing discreet side tasks (if you have seen the Calendar on the iPad users are able to edit/view details of single calendar events while never leaving the calendar view itself).  The iPad OS has a number of behaviors and components that allow for discreet task flows: multi-pane layouts that can affect each other, UI containers such as popover modules, light-boxes, and more.  It’s a much richer and intimate experience than a phone-size screen allows.

Android 2.2 is not a tablet OS
TechRadar caught up to the Director of Products for Mobile at Google, Hugo Barra, where he admitted the most recent public version of Android, 2.2 (Froyo), is “not optimized for tablets.”  The form factor was not a consideration when v2.2  was developed.

Android 2.2 does not come with stock tablet components like those iPad elements mentioned above to help make the most of the larger screen size. But that’s not to say Google won’t roll out some/all of these components sometime soon.  The Android design and development community generally agrees that this form-factor cannot be ignored.  Many speculate that the release of Android 3.0 (Gingerbread) will contain tablet components though Google has not confirmed this.

Which leads to our next point:

Any custom tablet components you create could have a short lifespan
Ok, so Android 2.2 doesn’t have a library of components optimized for the tablet experience. “Android is open source” you say, “you can just create them!”  And that’s true, we can.

Almost every handset manufacturer out there using Android has created some custom experience.  They do it to improve the Android stock offerings and to distinguish their product in the marketplace.  HTC has done this especially well, creating a library of custom components that allows for a much richer interaction experience than stock Android is capable of.

The question is, do you spend time and money developing custom tablet components for your specific application when a native library of Android tablet components is reportedly coming soon?

Our general interaction design philosophy is to use the commonly understood language of the platform to minimize the user’s learning curve.  That’s not to say all apps should look and act the same, but basic interactions around accessing information and routine tasks should start from a commonly understood model.  Creating custom components for basic interactions that run contrary to official Android tablet components can make your application less usable.  If custom components are created, there should also be plans to review and possibly update the experience once Google’s native components are released.

The Android app marketplace is not available for all tablets
Barra has also said that “the way Android Market works is it’s not going to be available on devices that don’t allow applications to run correctly. Which devices do, and which don’t will be unit specific. If you want Android market on [a tablet] platform, the apps just wouldn’t run, [Froyo] is just not designed for that form factor.”

Different OEMs can create their own brand specific marketplace for applications that will run on their particular device, but that type of market fragmentation doesn’t work well with most clients’ cost/reward calculations.

Device specifications are very fluid
Google created Android to be a software framework that is installable in a wide variety of hardware form factors.  Therein lies a big challenge for application development. The variety in the hardware specifications can greatly impact the development of an application .  Here are a few of the variables:

Version of the OS - Right now some devices like the Archos 7 use the antiquated v1.5 of Android.  Other devices, like the upcoming Samsung Galaxy use the most current v2.2 and promise to upgrade to 3.0 when its released.  Do you design for v1.5?  You do if there is a large potential audience using that version.  But by doing so it can cost you the ability to design a better experience using the latest Android capabilities.

Screen resolution – There are two common sizes screen sizes for current/upcoming tablets: 7 to 10 inches.  The resolutions range from a 800×480 to 1024×600.

Hardkeys -  Different tablets devices are placing their Android hardkeys at the bottom of a portrait orientation, some at the bottom of a landscape orientation.  Some are even placing them on the side of a landscape orientation.  That decision is going to drive the user’s perception of what is the natural way to hold the device.  Full-screen smart phones were given a portrait orientation because it was the natural way users hold a phone.  A tablet is more of an open game:  Is it held portrait like a single sheet of letter paper?  Is it held landscape like a two page book/wide screen television?  With the iPad, the position of the home button is relatively minor decision since all the application controls are within the app interface on the screen.  The Android hardkeys makes the hardware orientation much more critical.

Conclusion?
The net of all of this is the Android Tablet landscape is an emerging platform without strict implementation oversight.  The result is a great deal of potential confusion as product designers attempt to get a handle on all the variables that are currently in play.  The situation is worsened by a platform that is currently not designed for a tablet form-factor.

If you were looking for a definitive answer of whether or not you should jump into the first generation of the Android tablet, sorry you won’t get that from a blog post.  The unique requirements of each particular project will influence that decision.

But, you can give us a call and we’d be happy to help you figure it out.

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