Feature: Interview with Drew Bamford, AVP - User Experience at HTC
It’s evident from talking for just a few minutes to Drew Bamford from HTC that he’s passionate about what the company is doing. As someone who’s got vast experience in user interfaces for mobile platforms, he’s been a key player in ensuring that the company’s Sense UI evolves with each new flagship phone. I sat down with him to find out what it’s like to design interfaces for HTC smartphones, and what the company has in store for the HTC One smartphone.
As somebody who has monitored the industry and has been with HTC for a while, how do you think the industry has progressed in terms of ‘User Interface’? How has it changed from five to ten years ago?
Ten years is a really long time in this business. Five years ago I was already at HTC, primarily working on Windows Mobile at the time. We were really able to do some pretty amazing things with Windows Mobile, given at the time the operating system was designed primarily for stylus interaction. We soon recognised that the future was ‘using your fingers’ to access features on the phone and we were pushing the envelope on switching to capacitive display and touchscreens on our products.
Since then, we’ve adopted Android for a broad section of our portfolio and Android is a much more modern platform to build on than Windows Mobile was. Of course, Microsoft has came out with Windows Phone 8 which is a much more robust platform, much more modern, much more usable. But despite the fact that we are building on top of Android, there is still a lot of room to improve, and the path we take is to take a very user-centric approach so we have a laser-like focus on ‘What do our customers want to do with their phones?’ and ‘How can we make accomplishing those tasks and doing those things more enjoyable, more efficient, just a better overall experience?’
We started that with the HTC Hero and that was our first project at HTC User Experience on Android. When we released the G1, the Hero was our opportunity to take the core functionality of Android and make it into an experience that a consumer could use. So we gave people all these tools to customise their home screen in the form of widgets, so that you could essentially create your own personal experience on the home screen and take the information that’s important to you. And I think that was very successful for Hero; at the time we clearly had the best experience on an Android phone, and what we’ve done since then, with Sense 2, Sense 3 and Sense 4, we essentially refined that model and extended it - made it richer, introduced new and better widgets, and new ways to navigate the home screen.
We looked at how people were using
our phone with sense 4 on the HTC (the One X for example), we found that they
loved their phones but they weren’t actually using the phones in a way that we
imagined them to, so when we sat down about a year ago in the spring of 2012 to
really get going on the design of the new version of sense for the HTC One. We
started by talking to customers, and observing them, and those are two totally
different things. People say very different things from what they do when you
watch them use their phones. For example, we gave people seven home panels and
actually about 35% of our customers only use one, and most of them only use up
to three. So that was the first major data point. Another important one was less
than 10% of our customers use any widgets, and here we are spending a lot of
our time and resources to create widgets.
Do you find that, where you bring that content to the user, that it won’t kind of bombard them with information? Or are they able to look at the home screen and figure out what needs priority and what they need to look at?
I think there are certain times and environments in which it could be overwhelming and certain kinds of customers that may be overwhelmed by the amount of information coming in. The nice thing about the new design of our home screen is that there are essentially 2 different views. There’s the Blink Feed view which is this live feed of content coming in, and then there’s the all apps view which is how we imagine those two views to be essentially equal partners in the home screen experience.
You can use the ‘All apps view’ as your home screen and that’s the reason we designed it with the weather and clock at the top with the launcher bar, so that you can set this as your home screen. With a traditional model you have this app drawer that’s like the junk drawer full of apps, and then you put the apps you like on your home screen. What we’re trying to do with this model is let you actually organise stuff so you can hide apps that you don’t want, you can put things in folders and organise them in the order that you want and so on.
Why do you think that HTC and other smartphone companies put in so much of effort and resources into designing their own skin that sits on Android? Why not just sell an amazing phone with great hardware with just a stock Android version?
Well there are a few different answers to that. The answer from my point of view as the design guy for HTC, is we think we can do better than stock Android. We think we can create an experience that is better tailored to the needs of our customers and I think there are places in Android you can point out that feel a little bit like they’re designed for technology enthusiasts. I think the guys at Google are fairly focused on that market and we think we can do something that’s a little more broadly accessible to customers. From a business standpoint of course, the other reason to have our own custom UI is we want people to go out and buy an HTC phone. We don’t want them to buy an Android phone made by HTC, so for us to have recognisable branded experience, we need to be able to customize it.
The HTC One is your latest Flagship phone and it has features like the new HTC Sense UI and Zoes. What was the thought process that went into bringing the software that would match the hardware of the HTC One?
Well for this phone we really focused in three or four core areas and we felt in order to have that level of impact we wanted, we didn’t want to reinvent all of HTC Sense. So the first was the home screen which we talked quite a bit about - we felt that we could have a huge impact on the home screen because we have been sort of steadily evolving it over the past four or five years, and we thought the time was right for a complete rethink of how we use the home screen. In Imaging, that was a natural place to focus because for one thing, people are using their mobile phones more for capturing photos. So for the previous phone, for the One X, we focused on the speed of capture; the goal was to make it as quick and easy as possible to capture either photos or videos, so we have the dual shutter button, we have fast start up, we have super-fast burst mode, etc. We felt for this phone, there was more opportunity to look at “What do you do after you capture the moment, how do you enjoy that moment, how do you share it?” and so that was really the genesis of not only Zoe but the Highlight Video or HTC Share Service, all of that was around “How do we make the gallery experience more immersive?”, So the first step was actually in the capture area to figure out a way to capture both still images and video at the same time and that’s really about trying to capture more richness of the moment.
Do you think that its software that dictates how easy it is to adapt to a phone or is it more the hardware that plays the superior role?
I think it’s both actually. That’s a really interesting topic and we spent a lot of time talking about it. The way I think about is if you see the phone on the shelf, you’re judging the phone based on what it feels like in your hand, what the material looks like, what colour it is, that kind of stuff. That’s a fairly superficial evaluation. The software experience is more like a long term relationship and there’s so much depth and breadth to the software experience on one of these modern smart phones, that it could take years to discover all its nuances. I think the part that my team focuses on is more in that ‘not in the first ten minutes’ but the ‘first ten days, the first ten months, the first ten years’ of a relationship with an HTC product. That also sells industrial designs a little bit short because there are, of course, aspects of this physical product that you won’t pick up in the store either. You may not realise that it doesn’t fit in your pocket comfortably, or how does it feel in your hand when you’ve been holding it all day, or does the battery last long enough - that kind of stuff. But really I think it’s in the software, where that long term relationship evolves and becomes really important.
How do you feel from a design perspective about Microsoft not allowing smartphone manufacturers to make any changes with the interface of Windows Phone 8?
We have a pretty good relationship with Microsoft, and we’ve been working with them for years. There are places where we’d like to do more customisation on Windows Phone 8, but what Microsoft has done is taken this approach where they want the interface to be consistent for their customers, they don’t want people to be surprised when they switch to a different Windows Phone. That’s a good approach from a user experience stand point. We’re finding ways to customise it by building applications on top of their systems, so I think you’ll see us do more of that in the future. I personally think going forward, Microsoft may give us a little bit more control because I think they are recognising that for a manufacturer to invest a lot of time and effort into their platform, they need to give them a little more flexibility.
So if they did to some extent allow you to change the interface or change the appearance of Windows Phone 8, what would you do with it?
I think you’d see us do some of the same kinds of things that we’re doing on Android because we have the same goals essentially. For example, what we want to do is bring people content that is relevant to them directly on the home screen. So you’d see us use Microsoft’s home tile structure to bring more of that content to the surface. In the camera app, I think you’d see us do a lot more as you’ve seen on the HTC One. We have a lot of ideas on how to improve the capture and how to improve the experience of sharing and reliving the moment in the gallery. I think you’d see us do a lot more there, if we were able to.
Do you think that there is any other designer or any other company in the market that you can appreciate as well?
I think there are a lot of people who do interesting things in our market. In particular, I find myself being impressed with third-party app developers. I think there are some really cool apps out there that meet very specific needs of consumers. There are actually so few relevant players in terms of Core UX design in mobile phones now that there is not much to look at. I mean you could name two or three companies that are actually making a difference in mobile UX design from a manufacturer’s standpoint right now and of course they are doing some good work. Apple’s doing some good work, Samsung is doing some good work, but we’re really looking at what our customers want to do and what third party developers are doing, because those are the guys who are focused more narrowly on user needs.
Why do you think that so many smart
phone manufacturers are looking to ‘humanize’ the smart phone concept?
The thing that is so powerful with touch technology, particularly multi-touch, is that it’s so direct and so basic. So if you can literally grab onto things on the screen, that’s the most basic way of interacting with a product. I’ve heard some people argue that’s it’s actually a bit too primitive, a lot of the discussion right now is what’s the next paradigm user interaction and of course voice has been on the horizon for 20 years, and finally the processing power is getting to be enough that maybe its viable. But it’s not as basic as touch. Everybody can touch and I think that’s why there’s this fascination with making everything touchable on a phone or even on other types of computer systems like in a car or on your desktop, because there’s nothing to learn. That’s the biggest challenge of voice input, it’s the adaptability interface.
Where do you see HTC Sense moving into in the next five years? Do you ever envision it running on a tablet or a pc or another kind of interface?
Of course we would and you know HTC has a long history of innovation on form factors. The company isn’t afraid to taking risks, so we’re always trying new things. So in our labs at any given moment, you’ll find all sorts of different devices with different sized screens made for different environments, from the living room to your car to whatever you can think of. So yes, of course we want to extend the branded HTC Sense experience across all sorts of different environments and products; we’re very excited to address some new kinds of consumers and environments.
Interview transcribed by Shadan Valentino