It was early 2012, and we had just announced the HTC One X, the most highly acclaimed smartphone the company had ever created.
But instead of popping champagne corks, our design teams around the world were already studying new customer research that had them pondering the implications for the future of the smartphone experience.
The thinking would soon crystalize into one of the most striking features of the new HTC One: the innovative HTC BlinkFeed experience that turns your homescreen into a stream of the news and updates that matter to you.
Studies of how people use their smartphones showed that they were checking their devices dozens of times a day, often for just a few seconds at a time. They were jumping from app to app, trying to stay on top of all their information.
People are checking their phones dozens of times a day, often for only a few seconds at a time.
For HTC user experience (UX) Design Lead Peter Chin, smartphone users under the age of 30 were of particular interest, since they set the trends that others follow. With nearly 20 years working on mobile design, Chin speaks from extensive experience.
“We found that these users are less tied to specific brands or a specific news source. They also aren’t invested in particular applications. They are more focused on topics and what friends have to say,” Chin said.
A New Idea
These insights led the team to ponder a radical change from the dominant smartphone paradigm – row after row after row of icons — that hadn’t changed for years.
As a relatively young company still building itself, HTC doesn’t have the massive market capitalization or marketing budgets of its main rivals. Instead, we rely on innovation to win customers. By making BlinkFeed a centerpiece of the new Sense user experience, we could offer a dramatic alternative to the industry norm.
“It wasn’t so much about what our competitors were doing. It was more that this is what users are doing, and we think we could make it better,” said Dave Brinda, one of the founders of HTC’s UX design team.
“It’s not necessarily the app that the user cares about, it’s the content. BlinkFeed is about reducing the barrier between the user and the stuff they care about,” Brinda continued.
Recent research shows that heavy smartphone users check their devices up to 150 times a day, more than once every 10 minutes. For many of us, our smartphone is the one piece of tech we can’t live without.
But phones have been stuck in this paradigm based on apps and icons. To get to your content, you have to constantly jump in and out of apps. BlinkFeed Program Manager Scott Jarol calls this behavior “pogo-sticking”, and it’s the consequence of an interface originally designed for PCs, not handheld devices.
“The problem is that everything is an app. Every day you’ve got this problem of opening your phone and going to a hundred different apps to find everything,” Jarol said.
To get the content you want, you have to “pogo-stick”: constantly jump in and out of apps. This is a consequence of an interface designed for PCs, not handheld devices.
“The plan was to make this snackable content on the home screen, that’s timely, and changes frequently. The idea is that you take your phone out and there’s always something new to see.”
Support From the Top
HTC Chief Executive Peter Chou immediately saw the potential of BlinkFeed to redefine the smartphone.
“He would actually live with it every day even though it had limited functionality in those early builds. He was thinking on a global scale, like, ‘If I was in China, what would I want to do and who are the content providers.’,” Chin said. “He got really, really deeply involved and wanted to know the details of the design.”
BlinkFeed builds on the success of earlier HTC innovations such as FriendStream, a widget that displayed updates from Facebook and Twitter in one place.
“We knew that we could do something better. We could do something bolder. Something that would let you spend more time consuming the things you care about rather than digging for it,” Chin said.
Acting Like a Startup
The design challenge of BlinkFeed was just the tip of the iceberg. The technical and business challenges were also daunting. To fulfill its promise, BlinkFeed needed to source content from thousands of outlets, and broadcast it live to millions of users around the world.
That meant a radical change of direction for a company rooted in the world of hardware manufacturing and software design.
“It’s new for HTC to think about services,” said Jarol, whose past stints at Walt Disney’s Internet Group and RealNetworks have placed him at the often chaotic crossroads of content and technology. “It’s really a new way of doing business. It’s really deep integration of services and clients, and it’s taking services to the home screen.”
Media companies, already racing to pivot to mobile, jumped at the chance to have their content displayed front and center. To ensure reliability, we built a server farm dedicated to dishing up content to millions of BlinkFeed users.
“If you look at BlinkFeed, in Silicon Valley that could totally be its own company. We did all that, and everything else with the software, plus we built the [phone] hardware,” Brinda said.
“With BlinkFeed, it all aligned perfectly. It fit a user need. It moved the industry forward.”