Android Influencer: TouchLab's Liam Spradlin talks design

You might know Spradlin from his blog posts at Android Police, but he's also a major advocate for what he calls 'mutative design' in user interfaces.

liamspradlin

Liam Spradlin is an influential voice in the world of Android design.

Credit: Liam Spradlin

If you’re a diehard Android fan, you might know Liam Spradlin from his prolific days at Android Police. Spradlin currently works as a lead designer at New York-based Android development studio, TouchLab. He was also recently bestowed the title of Google Developer Expert in the categories of user interface and user experience. And now he’s working on his own side project, called Phoebe, which explores the possibilities of mutative design in user interfaces.

I’ve been following along with Spradlin’s exploits and I’m curious about how he chose his career trajectory, how he landed the coveted titled of “Google expert,” and why it’s Android’s interface paradigm that resonates with him the most.

Greenbot: I want to first offer my congratulations on becoming a Google Expert in UI/UX design. How did you manage to snag that title, anyway?

Spradlin: The process seems mysterious, doesn’t it? Basically Google’s guidance on how to become a Google Developer Expert (GDE) says to get in touch with a local Googler, or Expert, to discuss your qualifications, involvement in the community, and so on. From there, you move on to fill out an official application.

After that, the process differs depending on your field. For me, I went through an interview process and then eventually got to attend one of Google’s Launchpad events to mentor startups on UI and UX design. Based on that, I was accepted into the program.

Greenbot: What inspired you to want to fill out that application in the first place?

Spradlin: I wanted to join the program because I felt like it would allow me to connect to more people in the tech community than I would otherwise—Incidentally, that’s turned out to be true!

As someone who designs for Android every single day, I felt deeply that Android offers some really awesome opportunities for UI/UX design, so I wanted to drive the process of realizing those opportunities as quickly as possible—and meeting, guiding, and working with as many people as I can is one way to do that. 

Some people on Google+ have joked about a future with “LiamOS,” where I’ve helped design every app that’s installed on a device. While I think that’s hilarious, the spirit behind it isn’t outside the scope of my motivation to [bring] great design to Android. Plus, the program offers Experts closer contact with Google, so we are empowered to help out where we can [while receiving] guidance and help from Googlers behind us.

Greenbot: What are some of the responsibilities associated with being a Google Expert? And is it that once you’re an Expert, you’re considered one forever?

Spradlin: I think the biggest responsibility is continuing to be an active participant in the community. Whatever field you specialize in, be a supportive, contributing member of that community. That can mean different things for different fields, whether it’s producing video content like Chiu-Ki Chan’s Android Dialogs, speaking at conferences, mentoring startups and other members of the community in your field, or even providing code or design resources and tutorials.

As far as falling out of the program, I think as long as you continue to be a part of the community and keep up with GDE activities, you’ll stay in the program. I don’t think I’ve heard or read an official policy on that yet—let’s hope I don’t have to!

Greenbot: You have a pretty impressive resume, having worked with clients like GE Appliance, AllCast, and Nova Launcher—to name a few. How did you get started working on interface design with such reputable brands?

Spradlin: During college, and immediately thereafter, I was involved with a few advertising agencies in Louisville, KY. And since GE Appliance is based there, I was lucky enough to work with a couple of agencies on projects with them, and with other clients.

As for the apps I’ve worked on, I think that my real entry point to the community was Android Police. Being a part of that team gave me exposure to a lot of members of the community and allowed me to explore more Android-specific design disciplines. Writing not only lets me share ideas—and news— but it also helps me process and explore those ideas. When I’m writing a long dissertation on some obscure design principle and suddenly realize that my fundamental idea was flawed, I consider that just as much of a success as if my ideas were right and I had immediately published them.

Eventually, I got the chance to help design some high-profile applications, and from there, my name got around to other developers. I feel incredibly fortunate to have worked on so many great apps, and to have invented a few new ones like Focus.

Whenever someone asks me how I got started, I reply with the cliché response to just do something. Really, everything I’ve ever done started with me just doing something, and then doing more and more of that, and then getting feedback on those things from my mentors, friends, and family, as well as studying other people’s work. But first, you have to do something to open the door.

Greenbot: How did you come up with the idea to meld together your love of design and the Android interface? It’s a pretty niche subject matter, but it seems you’ve caught on at the right time.

Spradlin: Why I picked Android is easy: That’s the platform that powered the smart devices I started out with—not counting my old Treos. I love the platform’s “be together, not the same” mantra and message. I love the warmth and dynamism of Android design. Design and Android are two things I already felt passionate about, so it made total sense for me to explore this overlap between the two.

Greenbot: What about user experience? When did you realize that this was something you were particularly passionate about?

Spradlin: In school, I studied Sociology, Anthropology, and Studio Art. The connection between those particular subjects and design is maybe not the most obvious, but I believe that designing anything involves knowing—both qualitatively and quantitatively—how people have reacted to it and will interact with it. I knew that I was interested in design, and interested in human behavior and interaction, and at that intersection you have experience design.

Greenbot: What’s one thing that you see app designers do that irks you?

Spradlin: This is actually a tough one for me. It’s hard to say that a design decision is objectively wrong without knowing the context, so I try to avoid saying that outright unless something is obviously broken.

I guess, in a general sense, I would say that I see a lot of products eager to adopt certain [interface] elements or patterns for no clear reason. For instance, there are apps that seem to use 3D Touch [haphazardly] on the new iPhones, or floating action buttons on Android that promote an action without any a clear reason for it.

On a personal level, I feel consumed by email newsletter popups. However, I understand that [there’s] data that supports their existence, so I have an ongoing internal conflict there.

Despite all my rambling, I’m a minimalist. I like removing things, not adding them. So perhaps my response is just my bias showing through.

Greenbot: Let’s talk a bit about Touchlab: What is it you do there and is that currently your full-time job?

Spradlin: Yes, Touchlab is my full-time “day job” now. I’m a lead designer, working with some awesome developers and two fantastic bosses.

My job covers a pretty broad spectrum, which is part of why I love it. In many cases, I lead and execute design for applications. Our first design-only project, ClassPass for Android, is one example of this. Another example is ResearchStack, an open-source SDK and UX framework for building precise research apps for Android.

In other instances—and this is more common than you might think—I might provide creative direction to a client that has in-house designers who aren’t necessarily familiar with Android. These assignments are great because I get to do some in-depth thinking with other organizations, practice communicating design thinking—which is really a major part of any designer’s job—and evangelize the strengths of Android. 

I keep myself occupied with design around the clock. Between Touchlab projects, live streaming design, uploading to YouTube, podcasting, writing, and personal projects like Phoebe, I eat, sleep, and breathe design. Actually, I don’t know what it means to sleep design, but I am sure that I definitely do it.

Greenbot: How long have you been an Android user and what was your first device?

Spradlin: I’ve been an Android user since I guess 2010, when I got the Evo 4G. I think at the time it was running Éclair or something, with the very magical HTC Sense “thumbnail” launcher design.

Greenbot: What devices are you using these days?

Spradlin: These days, I stick mainly with my Nexus 6P and Pixel C. I had an iPad Pro for a while, but it didn’t end up fitting into my workflow the way I had hoped.

Other than that, I have a few devices for testing, including an iPhone 6 and an assortment of Nexus devices. The Nexus Q holds a place in my lineup solely as nostalgic decor.

Greenbot: What is one app you can’t live without?

Spradlin: I’m such a boring user that I never feel like I have a great answer for this. In reality, my most used apps are probably Google Maps and Google+. Living in New York with a terrible sense of direction, I rely on Maps pretty much every time I go anywhere new. And I like Google+ because I feel like there are great communities there, so I check it all the time.

If I had to choose a non-Google app, I would probably say Slack. I feel a little paranoid that they’ll reinvent the navigation model again at any moment, but I am part of way too many Slack teams, so I like being able to tune in when I’m away from my computer. And likewise with Google Hangouts—no matter what anybody says about it, I can’t not use it.

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