Drew Bamford is no newbie to the design game. Since the late 90s, he's been putting in work as Lead Product Designer at Microsoft. Nowadays, he’s heading up HTC’s innovation center as AVP of User Experience. Having brought his talents to the Taiwanese mobile juggernaut before the Android frenzy kicked into high gear, Bamford now serves as the company’s graphic user interface virtuoso and oversees the company's Sense UI overlay. If you've read our reviews you know Sense is our favorite Android UI.
During the midst of the One series and Evo 4G LTE hype (and controversy), we caught up with Bamford to discuss the questions on every techie's mind. Curious to know why HTC's newest devices were blessed with the greatest mobile camera ever created? Or why Microsoft’s latest phones have yet to embrace Sense 4.0? What about the company's stance on the Google/Motorola acquisition? The future of smartphones? We picked Bamford's brain in search of answers, and got'em.
So give us a rundown of what the User Experience team does?
My team is responsible for the branded user experience for all HTC products. Of course, phones for two mobile platforms: Android and Windows. The user experience team does things to understand what our customers need and want in there everyday lives. The process includes everything from building wireframe diagrams to interactive prototypes and concept videos showing new user experiences, also running user-ability tests on those prototypes to find out what the problems are and improve designs. Building final specifications.
How do you determine what enhancements get integrated?
That’s a very complicated question, to be honest. The overwriting factor is we’re trying to meet the most personal needs for our customers. What are those key things they want to do with their phone? A great example is with the One S and One X. We focused very tightly on the amazing camera story, which is helping people capture those important moments in their lives because people have been telling us for years the best camera is the one that you have with you, when you need it. Today, for many people that means the camera in their smartphone.
Critics have developed a love/hate relationship with Sense over the years. Why is that?
That’s a good question. To some extent I think you gotta ask the critics what their contention is. But I can tell you that having talked with a lot of press about Sense 4, it’s definitely our most successful version to date, and I definitely believe we’ve addressed a lot of the issues from the previous version. One that you mentioned was the criticism of Sense 3.0 that the overall experience had begun to feel overwrought. We took that criticism seriously when setting out to redesign Sense and I think the result is more elegant, streamlined, and responsive.
So there is a bit of a disconnect at times between the reviewers and the actual perception from our end users. But as you pointed out, there is some mixed feedback from the technology press, and I think some of that stems from this idea that Sense is somehow a skin that necessarily slows down the experience. I’ve been trying to dispel that myth for years now, but it’s a persistent one.
What’s your take on Sense being labeled a “heavy skin?”
If you look at [HTC Sense] carefully, you’ll realize it’s not a skin at all. In fact, we’re replacing nearly 100 percent of the built-in apps with HTC apps, which are part of Sense. And we’re making core improvements throughout the user experience like labeling buttons in our apps, which is huge usability help for novice users. It’s really an end-to-end redesign of the overall experience that’s powered by Android and has all the advantages of its ecosystem.
Every new version of Sense has a core focus. The biggest benefactor of Sense 4.0 is, hands down, the camera and robust software. Why was the shooter such an integral part of Sense 4.0?
I think it was a combination of impact because the camera’s the No. 2 feature used on a modern smartphone, right behind calling. The other factor was we felt the camera experience on the typical smartphone was not meeting the needs of our customers. Typical cameras take forever to start up. You’re always missing a shot because the shutter is too slow to respond. We identified so many problems with that area, then evaluated those with the impact the camera has on your smartphone.
The same can be said with sound. We know a huge number of our customers are using their phone to listen to music. And the typical sound experience on a mobile phone is pretty poor. So we set out to really fix that with our Beats Audio enhancements and all the things we’re doing with software to really improve that whole audio passing to give the best quality sound to our customers.
I'm glad you brought up audio. How close did you work with the Beats team?
We worked really tightly with them. I was just down there this week to talk about doing some further optimization to the sound that custom tune and match up the audio performance of our phone with their headsets, for example. Even for a generic set of headphones, but the particular headset for the sound on Beats headphones takes a lot of cooperation between our engineers and theirs. So that’s a really exciting collaboration.
In an interview with Laptop Magazine, you said if HTC only adopted ICS as it was, you wouldn’t have been able to take full advantage of creating a unique and branded HTC experience. What are some of the difficulties of programming and designing around ICS?
Time is the biggest difficulty. This market moves so quickly and the pace of innovation is so fast, that we’re constantly running to stay ahead of our competitors and create the best new features in time before the product ships. The other thing that was some-what challenging about ICS is Google made quite a few changes to their core experience from Gingerbread. One of our goals is that the experience on our phones should be as consistent as possible with Google and third-party apps. We had to quickly adapt some of our designs to the new design concept from Google in order to achieve that consistency.
HTC didn’t have much time to experiment with ICS before releasing Sense 4.0. What features did you want to include that aren’t present in the latest version?
There are always a lot of features that we’d love to ship. Those are our secrets till the launch. You can be sure there were features related to our key areas of focus, features that make the camera and sound that just weren’t able to be ready for our launch. And you’ll see some of those features in Sense later this year and next year.
There was recently an import ban, that impacted the Evo 4G LTE launch and had postponed shipments of the One X, stemming from a patent infringement issue with Apple. HTC did announce it would remove that specific feature from all its future phones. How far back does something like patent infringement set software development?
It depends on the specific case. All these patent infringements cases are so complex. What we’re doing at HTC on the design and engineering team is working hard to create meaningful innovations for our customers. When patent disputes infringe on that, it of course can slow us down. Obviously, we’re not spending our time thinking about what our competitors are doing, or the lawyers.
China approved Google’s buyout of Motorola. There is uncertainty as to whether Google will still distribute Android to other mobile manufacturers or make it exclusive to its latest acquisition. In the case of the latter, have there been any talks about bringing Sense to another platform?
We love building products on Android and Windows Phone. Both Google and Microsoft are fantastic partners. We have a long history with them. But we’re always looking for new opportunities to provide the best possible experience for our customers. If a new platform came along and was appealing to us, we’d be happy to look at it.
Seems like HTC has all the UI facets to succeed on its own. Ever entertained the idea of creating your own OS and releasing an all-HTC smartphone?
Of course there have been discussions about that. The thing that’s really important to remember in terms of creating a platform is that for it to be successful, there has to be this developer ecosystem that’s really strong to create new apps and functionality for our customers. At the moment, we feel Android and Windows are the best platforms for us because there’s support from both companies.
Speaking of Windows, you have ties to Microsoft. HTC also manufactures WP7 devices. Being that Microsoft mandates its own spec requirements, were there ever any discussions about bringing Sense over to WP7?
Yes. Absolutely. We would argue there are some elements of Sense in our Windows phones. At the moment, they’re relatively confined, but we’re trying to identify the key elements of our Sense experience that we can implement in a Windows environment. And I think you’ll see us focus on the same key areas on the Windows Phone that we focus on Android. We think sound and camera are critical elements and we’re working on improving that on our Windows phones.
Any features found on Mango you would love to expand on?
The Windows' team has done a great job of prioritizing the camera experience. I think they agree with us on the camera being a critical area in the smartphone experience. They were early with great features like the ability to capture an image while the phone is locked. They required that the phones have a physical camera button. I think that is a great area for us to continue to expand.
Your opinion: Any chance of seeing Sense run on a future version of Microsoft’s mobile OS?
[Laughs]. I’m doing everything I can to embody the key aspects of Sense into each Windows Phone device. At the same time, we want to respect the key elements of the platform and be good partners with Microsoft. And Microsoft has a strong point of view on how the Windows Phone experience should work. I think it’s a beautifully designed experience: fantastic. So everything we do on Windows Phone, we want to feel seamless and integrated with the rest of the WP experience.
Last we heard HTC was still considering the release of a new tablet. What’s the word?
We continue to show interest in the tablet market. We’re really focused on not shipping a product until we feel we have something that’s truly differentiated and offers unique value to our customers. We don’t want to have a me-too tablet. We feel we’re not ready to release a new product that’s as good as we want it to be. We’re continuing to incubate in that area, but we’re looking at it, and there are some interesting opportunities and we’re pursing those in the labs.
In terms of future mobile development, what type of UI features should we expect to see on our smartphones?
There are some macro trends you can look at that we’ll be working on and participating in. You’ve seen a lot of work on speech input in the last year. So speech I think will continue to advance and it’ll be great to interact with your phone in a hands-free environment like your car. There are a lot of continuing innovations with imaging. You’ll see us continue to work on improving our amazing camera by adopting new sensor technologies and focusing on quality rather than number of megapixels.
You’ll also see other kinds of alternate input, using more sensors in a phone to detect different kinds of gestures. I think the whole industry is experimenting with that right now and trying to figure out how to utilize that. We’re trying to figure out how to create interaction that feels natural to people.
Even further out, there are some really interesting things going on in augmented reality. So the idea is overlaying virtual data on a physical scene and that could be in the form of goggles, or using your phone as a window or v-port into a virtual world. In the next couple of years you’ll see that stuff become more applicable in everyday life.