When the HTC One was announced in the spring of 2013, early reviewers gushed over the beautiful new hardware, in particular the aluminum design. Once they began using it, though, they turned their attention to the software, calling the HTC Sense 5 experience “innovative” and “refreshing”.
Learning from the Past
Easily the most significant evolution of HTC Sense since the original version debuted on the HTC Hero, Sense 5 rethinks almost the entire experience from the ground up. At the core, Sense is still about making it easy for people to access the people, news and content they care about.
“There was really an appetite for doing something different, something new with Sense 5,” explained Drew Bamford, HTC’s head of User Experience.
Scheduled for release on the HTC One, Sense 5 was an opportunity to incorporate the lessons of past versions, stay relevant to current users, and also redefine the smartphone experience for the future. Instead of minor improvements, the Sense design team began sketching out radical new ideas. In only a few months they went through dozens of iterations.
The centerpiece of Sense 5 is HTC BlinkFeed, which re-imagines the home screen into a constantly updating stream of your favorite content, from the latest news to updates from your friends. (Read more about the creation of HTC BlinkFeed.)
A New Sense of Style
More subtly but almost as importantly, the visual style of Sense 5 was a dramatic change from previous versions.
“Our goal was to create a unique modern aesthetic for Sense 5, but one that is also very human,” said Dave Brinda, HTC’s Executive Creative Director.
HTC designers had watched in recent years as part of the industry embraced a cold minimalism while others focused on a very skeuomorphic approach — one that replicates physical appearances in a digital interface, such as adding paper textures to a note-taking application. They saw a middle path, that reflected the clean nature of digital interfaces while being unique and inviting.
The Sense team drew inspiration from a wide variety of sources, particularly Swiss style from the 1950s that emphasized clean lines and readability, as well as editorial design, architecture, industrial design, and beyond.
While the worlds of printed magazines and digital smartphone interfaces may seem far apart, it turns out they are more similar than might be expected. Jesse Penico, a member of the Sense design team, has a unique perspective on the similarities. After starting his career designing magazines, Penico came to HTC as it was evolving the Sense user experience. He quickly began learning the intricacies of designing for smartphones.
Penico drew on his print experience for Sense 5. “Magazine design is actually very similar to UX (user experience) design. You use typography and other visual hierarchy to guide a user through an interface in both cases,” Penico said. A main objective for the new Sense was to embrace a modern aesthetic, to be achieved partly by removing superfluous visual treatments such as gradients and detailed illustrations.
Looking forward, Preserving traditions
In most cases, simplifying the design was straightforward, except for one important feature: the HTC weather clock. Long the “face” of an HTC device, the weather clock is an iconic piece of the company’s history. There was much internal discussion about how to treat the weather clock in Sense 5, with some arguing that it should be kept largely unchanged from Sense 4.
In the end, it was decided to revamp it in line with the rest of the interface, preserving a holistic experience across the entire experience. Penico designed all-new weather icons, each with their own unique flavor (including a few, such as a whirling tornado, that hopefully no one ever sees).
Yet the new design contains a nod to the past. If you watch the clock closely, you’ll see that the stylized numbers still “flip”, just as in the original clock from the earliest versions of HTC Sense. Sense 5 may look quite different from past versions, but, as Brinda notes, “it still echoes with those moments of delight, those elements that bring a bit of life to something that would otherwise be quite static”.
HTC’s designers are now hard at work on the next update to HTC Sense. Once again they are pushing forward the mobile industry while preserving the unique experience that has set HTC apart for years.