I have written before on how Android could be using their software navigation buttons more appropriately. Seeing how Android 5.0 and 5.1 handle screen pinning seems another one of those situations where it could leverage that capability.
For those unaware of the feature, Android 5.0 introduced a feature that allowed you to pin a certain application to the home screen. The primary use case for this feature is to prevent a child or some one you hand over your phone to to accidentally exit an app that you want them to see/use. Since the feature doesn’t require a pin number to exit the app, the feature is not so much designed for security but rather for preventing accidents. Exiting the pinned app requires you to tap the “Back” and the “Overview” screen at the same time. A feature that people may forget (though the OS does bring up a message if you do tap any of the navigation buttons when a screen is pinned). This is probably what prompted a more explicit how-to view explaining the exit action in Android 5.1.
However this feature once again doesn’t take into account the Android soft keys. When a screen is pinned, why not change the graphics for Back and Overview to pin icons. This would also reinforce the fact that the phone is in a separate “pinned screen” mode.
A lot has been said about the lack of UI polish in Android (sometimes rather obnoxiously), but over the last few months I have started debating how much of that is still relevant. When I first saw Android (around version 1.6) I was not a fan, but over the last couple of years having it as my primary mobile phone, I realize that while a lot of the applications lack UI polish, there are a lot of parts of Android that can be customized with very beautiful options. Most of the time these seem to be the work of communities of passionate developers and designers and often lacks mainstream visibility. Thats what prompted me to write this post.
HomeScreens, Launchers and Icons
Nothing gets the point as immediately across as http://mycolorscreen.com/, a site dedicated to customized homescreens (regardless of Android, iPhone, etc). The number of entries under the Android category however completely outweigh iOS since iOS offers almost no homescreen customizations on non rooted devices. On Android however, you can use a variety of launchers, custom icons and homescreen widgets to create a pretty amazing experience. DeviantArt for example is a great resource for custom themes and icons for different launcher themes (for example LauncherPro themes)
LockScreens is another area of a lot of visual explorations in the Android community. For the last few months I have been using WidgetLocker as a lockscreen app which lets me not only use background images, but also widgets on my lockscreen. Additionally WidgetLocker also lets you create custom themes and apply them. This XDA link has a HUGE list (374 pages) of some good ones.
Recently however I also tried MILocker which seems to have even more polished themes (though lacks Widgets-on-lockscreen functionality). MILocker is a port of the LockScreen app from MIUI Rom for rooted Android devices (I talk a bit about that below)
One of the teams that do awesome visual work are the guys behind the Go Apps. All of their apps are completely themeable and often replace (or override) the default Android apps. For example Go SMS (which I used till I recently rooted my phone and swapped for the new MIUI SMS interface) works seamlessly overrides the default SMS app on Android, and has some really fantastic themes available for it. Go Apps are available for very core Android functions including Keyboards, Dialers, etc.
I have also recently come around to Android Live Wallpapers which I originally considered useless and mostly a battery suck (turns out the battery consumption is not that bad at all). These are animated backgrounds that you can use on your launchscreen. While some of them are just beautiful visually, others are actually very functional. For example I used to use Go Weather that had different animated backgrounds for the desktop based on the weather at the location. This kind of ambient information is pretty awesome. More recently I have started using the Aurora Live Wallpaper (see my current homescreen below) since I find it very soothing to look at the Northern Lights every time I am on the home screen 😉 .
Finall, rooting your phone offers even more customization options since quite a few ROMs even offer themes that can be applied to the whole OS, though I imagine thats not for the faint of heart. I recently rooted my phone and am now using MIUI ROM that is just visually fantastic. It has customized all aspects of the OS like systemwide font, notifications and alerts and default applications for music, sms etc. The video below is a pretty comprehensive walkthrough of MIUI. Its just fantastic.
As a user interface developer who is passionate about design, I am pretty happy with my current experience on Android, but it took me a while to find a lot of the options to get there. There are a lot of communities like XDA Developers and ColorMeAndroid (on DeviantArt) that most people aren’t aware of. Hopefully these grow and Android gets more designers on the platform. The open nature of the framework and the apps that allow communities to customize them truly make the visual possibilities exciting.