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Feel UX for Sharp AQUOS

Recently, Sharp Corporation (Sharp) and frog jointly announced the launch of “Feel UX”, a new Android smartphone experience designed to radically redefine the platform’s interaction paradigm.  In an effort to go behind the scenes and further understand the thinking, design and ultimately, the process that went into creating Feel UX, I spoke with the masterminds, creatives and crafts(wo)men who came up with the vision and brought Feel UX to reality.

What are your overall impressions of Feel UX and the collaboration with Sharp?

Paul Pugh (Vice President of Creative, Software Innovation): I think most Western designers are intrigued with Japan.  I’m certainly no exception, and the opportunity to design a phone with one of the great Japanese consumer electronics companies such as Sharp has been a professional highlight.

When I first met the team from Sharp, it was clear they aspired to do something unique and special with their smartphones.  We find many clients that want innovation but are too timid to take risks.  Sharp was an exception to this.  Throughout the process, Sharp was open to challenge the norm, but the goal was never to push the boundaries for ways that were superficial or gratuitous. Every decision made during the project was based on the users’ interests, how to delight them and uphold the Sharp AQUOS brand.

Can you explain some of the most important factors that the team considered when you were designing and developing the user interface for Feel UX?

Theo Calvin (Creative Director): frog sought to create a truly unique Android user experience.  When you visit a carrier store, it is very difficult for customers to distinguish between the different Android models.  Most manufacturers try to add features or visual designs on top of Android without solving the common usability issues that customers complain about.  We sought to break out of that model and offer something fundamentally distinctive.  We redesigned Feel UX using a bottoms up approach, and the phone stands out on the shelf because of this.

What was the reasoning behind the organizational structure of the home screen, which differs quite significantly from the standard Android models?

Stacy Reinhardt (Senior Interaction Designer): The standard Android model is like a place without any clear rules for conduct and without this kind of behavioral clarity, the home screen has a tendency to become cluttered and distract users from the intended experience.

Theo: When we designed the home space for Feel UX, we wanted to give users the feeling that they’re maintaining order, and we wanted to make it easy and predictable for users to find things.  Content is sorted automatically by type.  Space is created for new widgets to be installed as needed.  We also elevated the application launcher to the same surface as widgets and shortcuts, so users can download and browse all of the installed applications without taking extra steps.

Many of the readers seemed to react quite positively to the lock screen of Feel UX.  Is there anything you’d like to share about the design that went behind this?

Paul: We knew that a special lock screen experience would be crucial to making a great first impression.  It also seemed intuitive that the things people like to do with their phones, such as checking the weather and stocks or sharing photos of their kids should happen without unlocking the device.

Theo: The unlocking motion that we designed is intended to add dramatic flare.  We wanted the screen to part like a stage current to celebrate the act of unlocking the phone.

What about the visual design, or the look-and-feel of this new UX?

Theo: Feel UX is designed to be warm, humanistic and inviting.  The aestethic is as simple to view as it is to use.  It achieves a premium feeling by being well-executed rather than complex.

Matthew Herald (Visual Designer II):
Colors and texture were applied to create a friendlier, tactile interface that people could relate to on a more personal level.  The market is saturated with dark, uninviting devices, so we introduced flashes of colors that would call the users’ attentions.  Since this is a touch device, we also introduced texture as a means of enticing users to pick it up. 

We also applied visual organization to the icons on Feel UX.  Typically, icons on Android devices don’t conform to a particular shape.  Though unique, this can be somewhat disorienting when seen on a screen all at once.  We introduced pillows to bring cohesion to the icons and expand their hit target area, which was an issue of increasing concern for devices with smaller resolutions.

If you scan the comments about Feel UX on Twitter, some have compared it against Metro.  What are your thoughts on this?

Stacy: It was interesting to observe how people were compelled to relate Feel UX to an existing smartphone platform (e.g., Metro, iOS, etc.). The reality is that we all have a tendency to evaluate new things against something we’re already familiar with. This is why brand recognition is so important and sometimes very challenging to achieve. Despite the comparisons, it’s obvious that Feel UX stands apart from the crowd; it’s a new, more intuitive interaction model complemented by a unique style that is appealing to a broad audience.

frog had a 21-person team, spread across 4 time zones, working on this project.  How did this globally distributed model work to your advantage?

Collin Cole (Vice President of Creative): A common failure point between the design and engineering teams is being able to accurately communicate the design to the developers. Too often, the design is misunderstood or not delivered at the level of detail required by the developers. By including frog’s designers from Bangalore and Kiev, we delivered more at a faster rate. These teams produced detailed UX specifications, production-ready assets for each screen resolution, and motion studies for screen transitions. This eliminated the guesswork and allowed Sharp’s engineers to confidently and accurately implement our design.

Hannah Regier (Associate Creative Director): The Bangalore and Ukraine frog studios joined forces to add the final details to Feel UX. We worked with Sharp's developers to design elements like application folders, the multi-touch invoked screen dividers and the weather animations. The shortcut icons were a particularly tricky piece of detailed design consisting of 5 layers: a base tile with a little drop shadow, a photo exported from the contacts application, a custom icon in the lower right corner, a mask layer to create the rounded corners and finally, a layer of 'gloss' on the top.

Any new discoveries from your experience while working with Sharp?

Theo: Our collaborators at Sharp were fearless in their embrace of new ideas.  It was inspiring to work with a team dedicated to bring innovation to market.  Even more importantly, Sharp encouraged the reverence for ideas that provide simplicity, order and cleanliness to the experience.  Those values seem to reside deeper in the Japanese soul than passing technological fads.  Sharp worked with the best of Japanese integrity, and they proved that hard work and ingenuity will win over quick gimmicks in the long run.