At more than 120 years old, the building’s warm brick walls and wood beams stand in stark contrast to the cool gray computers lining the room. Built when Seattle was barely more than a pioneer town, it now houses a studio that’s charting the future of mobile design. Here, at HTC’s Innovation Studio, designers are creating the next version of HTC Sense, the unique software experience at the heart of HTC’s pioneering smartphones.
With the HTC One and HTC Sense 5, the design team created an experience that has earned rave reviews from the tech press and consumers alike. Here’s the journey of how they got there.
HTC Sense, from the first version through HTC Sense 5
Bringing Touch to the Masses
The evolution of Sense can be most directly traced to TouchFlo 3D, a unique touch-based 3D interface for Windows Mobile designed from the ground-up to make it easy for users to interact with their content. TouchFlo 3D debuted in 2008 on the HTC Touch Diamond.
Fully touch-screen smartphones were a new experience for many users so it was imperative that the interface was easy to understand. Many features drew inspiration from real-world situations. For example, selecting a music track was done by flipping through albums, much as you would in a physical record store.
Yet, there was more to the design than simply making it easy to use. “There’s an emotive side to design,” explained Dave Brinda, a founder of HTC’s software design team. “We spend so many hours on our phone. It needs to be a fun experience.”
Also introduced in TouchFlo 3D was the HTC flip-clock. The distinct flip boards proved immensely popular, becoming part of the iconic “face” of HTC smartphones for years to come.
Starting to Make Sense
After releasing the HTC G1, the first Android-powered smartphone, it became clear to HTC designers that there was enormous opportunity in Google’s new mobile operating system, but there were also many rough edges. Drawing from the innovations introduced in TouchFlo 3D, HTC designers began laying the foundation for what became HTC Sense.
“The fundamental idea behind HTC Sense is we’re designing around people”, said Drew Bamford, now HTC’s Vice President of User Experience and, with Brinda, a founder of the software design team. “The technology should adapt to us rather than us adapting to the tech.”
To achieve this goal, the team focused on three pillars:
- People-centric design: Instead of designing around separate applications, Sense was designed so you your interactions with your contacts were centralized in one place, regardless of the medium of communication.
- Personalization: From rich widgets, to beautiful wallpapers, to customizable navigation, HTC Sense was all about “making it mine”, giving users the tools to create their own experience.
- Discover the unexpected: To help bring the phone to life, HTC designers worked hard to create “moments of delight”, simple but clever interactions. On a cold day, digital frost would nip the corners of your screen. When getting off a plane, the time and weather would immediately reflect your new location.
Debuting in the HTC Hero in mid-2009, HTC Sense was quickly praised for its handsome design and diverse customization options, as well as the improvements it made to Android.
A Design Driven Company
Beginning an approach that continues today, HTC intentionally kept its design team small and tight-knit. The intense focus on design extends all the way to the top of HTC, right up to CEO Peter Chou. “HTC is a design-driven company, and it is because of Peter”, said Bamford. Chou is famous in the industry for his attention to product detail, using prototypes day in and day out and giving feedback to designers and engineers.
When working on new features, HTC typically forms a small team with a single visual designer, a motion designer, and a user-experience engineer. This allows for tight focus, a lot of flexibility, and the ability to iterate very quickly.
This structure reflects the early partnership of the small design team, which led to some breakthrough results. The unique HTC flip-clock created for TouchFlo 3D was sketched-out by Bamford with Brinda providing the animation. For HTC Sense, Chou, underscoring the CEO’s hands-on approach to design, had the idea to add a current weather display to the flip-clock. Through this partnership, the iconic (and much copied) HTC weather clock was born.
Evolving HTC Sense
Encouraged by the positive reaction from consumers, HTC made it a priority to refine the Sense experience and add new features. Sense 2, launched on the HTC Desire in early 2010, added FriendStream, a widget designed to deepen the people-centric experience by combining updates from Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr in one place.
Sense 3, which debuted on the HTC Sensation in 2011, revolutionized the lock screen, a necessary but barren and frustrating obstacle for people who want to quickly use their phone. To reduce this gap, Sense 3 streamed content like social updates to the lock screen and allowed you to set shortcuts to jump straight into applications after unlocking.
The HTC One X with HTC Sense 4
With Sense 4, introduced on the HTC One X in early 2012, HTC added new features such as a new camera UI that let you take video and still photos at the same time. Sense 4 also featured a refined visual design with a more minimalistic feel.
“Over the years, we gained a lot of experience understanding what looked great at the start, but also still felt fresh after years of use,” said Brinda.
The improvements were a hit with reviewers. Engadget called the HTC One X a “brilliant combination of branding, industrial design and user experience”.
The most radical change was yet to come. Sense 5, on this year’s new HTC One introduced several new innovations, such as HTC BlinkFeed, BoomSound and the HTC Zoe camera experience. It also brought a new visual aesthetic that has earned praise from users and reviewers alike. Later this month we’ll take a look an in-depth at the work that went into Sense 5.