Making Sense: Creating HTC’s Innovative Software Experience

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

HTC Sense, from the first version through HTC Sense 5

Bringing Touch to the Masses

The Today screen of TouchFlo 3DThe 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.

Evolution of the HTC weather clock

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.

HTC One X with HTC Sense 4

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.

  • Patrick

    Nice read. I have really enjoyed the evolution of Sense.

    • http://www.darrenkrape.com/ Darren Krape


  • Kokusho

    Sense is by far the best third party UI there is for Android.
    I loved Sense 2 on my Desire and now I love Sense 5 on my One X. Stock Android is great in it’s own right but you guy know were to improve it and give it a different feel. Less techky. I like my Android white 😀

  • Adan James Salinas

    Love the sketches showing the concepts.

  • Dario Kršek Novoselec

    Great job HTC 🙂

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000729550566 Aleksandar Petrović

    Tweeted! Good read 🙂

    • http://www.darrenkrape.com/ Darren Krape

      Thanks! =)

  • NightAngel79

    Love me some sense! Even back when I had a Samsung WinMo device. All the good ROMs for it had TouchFlo on it, lol

  • MrMoaks

    An interesting read. I love to read about ‘behind the scenes’ innovation and would love to see more original sketches. I’m looking forward to reading more about Sense 5.

  • Sean

    Sense 5 is pretty stellar, can’t wait to see where it goes for the next version

    • http://www.darrenkrape.com/ Darren Krape

      Me too!

  • John Green

    Please bring back the flip clock to HTC One on Verizon! Also, you took away a great tip calculator as well as the “fake call” widget that was very handy! I miss the Sense on my Incredible 2!

    • http://www.darrenkrape.com/ Darren Krape

      Actually, the flip-clock is still party there. The clock above BlinkFeed actually does flip if you watch it closely. If you’re using the standard Android home screen, the large flip clock is still an available widget.

      • John Green

        There is no flip clock widget in the Verizon HTC One widget menu. Not sure what you mean by standard Android home screen.

        • Marcos André Machado

          Try a factory reset.. (make a backup of all your data first) in a few cases the 4.1 update (sense4+) mess some widgets or functions

          • John Green

            Thank you for trying to help. This is a brand new phone, arriving with 4.2.2, Sense 5. I have not had to update this phone. I am not doing a Factory Reset on a new phone that I just spent time setting up how I want. It is apparent that the flip clock which has been a popular hallmark for HTC has inexplicably been removed from Sense. The odd thing is, if you search Google Play, there are many 3rd party flip clock apps popular with Samsung-ers and former HTC owners who miss it. Odd to remove such a popular branding feature. As I mentioned, the tip calculator was a popular widget in earlier Sense versions, too. Usually, new versions bring more functionality, not less. I wish I could have the Sense from my old Incredible2 on my great new HTC One. Thanks again.

  • http://www.darrenkrape.com/ Darren Krape

    We’re always working to add new servies. I cannot say if G+ will coming, but it is one of the most requested services to be added to BlinkFeed.

  • http://www.darrenkrape.com/ Darren Krape

    Yup, there was TouchFlo earlier than TouchFlo 3D, but the 3D version on the Diamond is a closer relation to HTC Sense (both in design and approach).

  • http://www.darrenkrape.com/ Darren Krape

    Hey! Great to hear you enjoyed reading it. I can relate. I was pretty excited to use stock-Android when I got my Nexus 7. But pretty quickly I realized it was still missing a lot of the features which have been in HTC Sense for awhile.

  • http://www.darrenkrape.com/ Darren Krape

    Me too. =)

  • Kerem Kuzu

    Will the HTC Ville C2 get the Update for Sense 5, too?

    • http://www.darrenkrape.com/ Darren Krape

      Hi Kerem, We don’t have specific dates yet. Best to contact your mobile provider since releases are typically scheduled on a carrier by carrier basis.

  • Daniel Stavrov

    My allredy got official update with android 4.2.2 and sense 5…
    Thnx htc! I love htc sense… I had desire with htc sense 2, then sense 3… On my one x start with sense 4 and now have sense 5. I like it blink feed, its the best thing…

  • Shani

    The reason I bought HTC from the start, Sense ui. Absolutely love sense 5.

  • http://www.joegadgetstore.com/ Joe’s Gadget Store

    Can’t live without Sense… the best UI launcher… 😀

  • http://wishu-blog.net/ Marco Kaiser

    Sense is the only third party UI I flashed on every Android Phone I had, where it was possible. Soon I will have it pure on the blue HTC One 😀

  • http://dengseng95.blogspot.com/ Ang Deng Seng

    all these features are why I am still with HTC until now
    but please make it better this time!!!
    I am willing to spend a few hundred more bucks than the nexus

  • Fernando Rojas

    I love sense 5 but the only thing I miss is the lockscreen ring :'( and the carousel effect

    • http://disqus.com/JHancock8/ JHancock

      HTC was in such a pickle with sense being too bloated. They had to cut something.

  • Divyesh Shah

    can i get this update on my htc desire v?????

  • Ben Brown

    any chance of sense ever working in landscape as well as portrait?

  • Nuwan

    Own an One X+, any idea what’s next for it?

  • Milind Khangan

    I love using this version. HTC Sense 5 is just amazing. Looking forward to upgrade my phone with HTC Sense 6. Any update from HTC for HTC Sense6? I am waiting for the update.

  • Vineeth Raj

    Where’s Sense 3.5?


    for me sense is one the biggest thing for buying HTC,

    wish HTC should offer better updates & upgrades so that enjoy latest version of sense ….

  • hostile_17

    “The technology should adapt to us rather than us adapting to the tech”

    Okay. Adapt to us! Please allow us to add our own news to BlinkFeed! 🙂

  • Tim

    Purchased the HTC One for my wife. She loves it, the only thing is’ it dials the last call in or out on it’s own. It does not connect to the called number, but rings on her phone. It will do this randomly any time. Gets annoying at 3am. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks

  • Jason Fowler

    I remember using HTC Home, the grand daddy of Touchflo 3D, on my HTC TyTN II. That phone secured my loyalty, and since then I have had 4 other HTC phones. Won’t even consider another brand of devices.

  • beacon037

    I’ve always loved HTC Sense and its predecessor, HTC TouchFLO 3D.

  • wameedh

    good htc