A Chat with the Designers of HTC Themes Freestyle Layout

Freestyle Layout in the new Sense experience is one of the quieter but more remarkable features of our updated user interface on HTC 10.* Up against elements like the camera and audio quality, how can the user interface compete? But it can, and it does.

Our Community Team in Taiwan had a chance to interview the designers of Freestyle Layout and learned that this feature, while understated, is quickly marching HTC into the future phone experience it truly wants to create.

The Inspiration

When asked what inspired the creation of Freestyle Layout, the designers said that they’d been thinking a lot about a few reports touting the creative benefits of a messy desk. In particular, these reports emphasized that people have unique processes that help them work more efficiently and effectively.

So the designers wondered: why hasn’t anyone wanted complete freedom to organize the apps on their phone however they’d like? Despite the variety of smartphones on the market, the interface of phones basically looks the same across brands – apps are organized in grids and icons take very similar forms.

“Gridlines are enemy number one. It’s rules like this that cause phone layouts to more or less look the same.”

And to that point, our designers believe that any true act of customization is a personal decision and shouldn’t have to answer to excessive or unnecessary rules; true customization doesn’t require explanation. The soul behind the move to “freestyle” is a push for a truly unique and custom experience that would as familiar to its creator as it is personal.

“It’s never just a matter of aesthetics, logic, or clear-cut UX practice. It’s instead a matter of taking back what should ultimately belong to the user and no one else. In this case, that’s the decisions and logic made to craft a true customization experience.”

Around the time Sense 7 was completed, the team decided they needed something really groundbreaking to further the concepts of Sense and Themes. And thus was born Freestyle Layout.

HTC Freestyle Layout Mooncalf design

Freestyle Layout Mooncalf sketches and one pane of the final design.

The Hurdles

The technical difficulties of removing gridlines from the user interface were challenging to resolve. There were also some complications to overcome in having stickers and icons overlapping each other – which, yes, can happen with Freestyle Layout. These couple issues cause difficulties with the logic behind every touch activation, as well as with the API calls underneath the layout mapping.

In addition to the technical complexity of creating the Freestyle Layout system was the difficulty in communicating a new layout construct that doesn’t adhere to any of the familiar elements of a phone UI. In Freestyle Layout there are no gridlines; there are optional labels and titles that users can choose to show or not, but no real rules or limitations. Apps are no longer bound to their specific icons and all known elements are now free to take any form. So how do we design an effective process that allows users to intuitively pick up this new system? The designers are still working on ways to improve this.

Interestingly, the Freestyle Layout design team was considering a compromise to keep the gridlines but introduce more flexibility and remove the ability for stickers and icons to overlap. The R&D team fought hard to keep the original vision of a completely customizable UI, though – and they won.

The Point of It All

One of the designers shared a story about her high school-aged sister sticking with HTC over other smartphone brands because of the unique, limitless themes from the HTC Themes app. With Themes she can truly make her phone her own. This not-so-uncommon opinion has led our designers to believe that HTC Themes is on its way to becoming an iconic element that makes up the very blood and soul of an HTC product.

“It’s hardly something incredibly innovative, nor would it help with hardware performance or the ongoing battle of the specs that comes with every new generation of phones. Instead, it’s a return to the basest desire to express yourself, and the ultimate will to celebrate your uniqueness through that expression.”

Through the Freestyle Layout feature, HTC Themes has attempted to take that freedom to the next level: to provide an experience that allows for true customization without rules, and one that, in embodying that freedom, helps users make something they believe is truly unique and worth cherishing.

*Freestyle Layout is available for HTC phones using Android KitKat 4.4 or higher and that have 1.5GB of RAM or more. Just update the Sense Home app and you’ll see Freestyle Layout within the Themes app.

  • frank ernst

    I have purchased every HTC smartphone. I just went out today and got the HTC 10. So now I have to use the google app instead of the HTC apps. I hope HTC goes back to there apps. Like the music app and the gallery app. Google apps suck. I guess I have to try a different phone. I have never purchased any other brand. But HTC. Really not happy.

    • radiotrib

      Most of the HTC apps are still available in the Play Store. All HTC have done is make them optional rather than forcing people to use them. I am also a long-term HTC user, I also have a 10 but i have the apps I want.

    • http://www.mysmarttv.ca PG Man

      You can still get HTC apps from playstore!!!

  • Brian Chu

    I don’t own HTC 10 (I do have a M8).
    – This particular article doesn’t help me to visualize what the new freestyle feature, so I have to turn to google search. Hope you can add video to demo it if possible.
    – Anyway, I love this idea, despite it is not really a new one per se: Absolute freestyle in UI is awesome when it works, but it is awful & confusing when it does not. Customization in the phone is pain, no matter how you do it. Downloading existing theme helps.
    – It is a ‘free’ style with the ‘restriction’ of the theme designer, so it is not really ‘free’. I call it ‘non-grid-style-theme’ home screen.
    – Where is the animation??? We need animation to spice thing up (e.g. animation when notification, oh wait, it can only link to an app)
    – To me, the determination of the successful of this feature is how easy *I* can create a theme like that.
    – From developer point of view, the real problem, is Android home screen widget. I never had an easy ride to use home screen widget API anyway (that’s other story). I don’t see any new API to integrate Freestyle Layout feature.

  • http://www.mysmarttv.ca PG Man

    Since TouchFlo3D, HTC has left everyone else in the dust.