Unknown Android. Chapter 5: Matias Duarte

An advantage to some, a shortcoming to others, fragmentation is one of the most ambiguous properties of the Android open platform. You can take two phones from two different manufacturers and you’ll see two different interfaces and designs – two distinct Androids, really. In the previous decade Google itself experienced the problem of visual discrepancy between their products to such a degree that the company’s products looked completely dissimilar, and interaction between departments seemed non-existent.

While Page thought that Android and Google fit each other perfectly, Rubin couldn’t wrap his head around the fact that an enormous company like Google was still so distant from the idea of uniform corporate design. This lasted until 2010, when Google finally brought to light the issue of visual consistency between their products, putting usability and user experience on the throne.

Matías Duarte, however, isn’t worried about fragmentation at all and perceives the difference in custom firmwares like the difference in cars. “Think of driving a car - no matter whether it’s a Honda or BMW or a Tesla, it’s going to have a steering wheel, the brake on one side and the throttle on the other. They may have totally different dash configurations and styling - which is appropriate for their different needs - but you know how to drive them all, and frankly they’re all great cars”. These are the words of “the man who made Android beautiful”, as The Verge’s co-founder Joshua Topolsky introduced Duarte on his talk show in 2011.

Duarte is Google’s design VP and the person who introduced the very concept of user experience to the Android system, and he is certainly one of those people who have got style. The designer’s ethnic and psychedelic shirts have long ago become the talk of the town, made even more mysterious by Matías’ reluctance to comment on their wild look. At the first glance, he looks a bit like a pimp, a druglord or a porn star from the eighties. One can even notice an uncanny resemblance to the “Blood and Concrete” character known in the RU part of the Internet for his poignant invective speech. Basically, Matías has charisma.

Duarte’s family had to leave South America because of political turmoil, and, as most refugees, Duarte still embraces the ideal of America as a land of opportunity. Having obtained a bachelor’s in computer science in the University of Maryland, he successfully traded a job in the field for game development and moved to San Francisco. In 1994, still a student, together with Brian Wellington he created a game that was popular among Linux fans called XBill, where the player had to stop a horde of characters named “Bill” from installing a virus called “Wingdows” on Unix operating systems, Macs, PalmPilots and other devices.

In another game Duarte worked on, the player controlled a hovercraft flying between Greek columns, shooting enemies and setting trees on fire. The game was called Phase Zero and was developed for the Atari Jaguar console, but it wasn’t finished as the studio closed down. However, the demo that can be found on the Web might raise a few eyebrows, taking into account the year of its creation.
During the dot-com spree, Duarte went freelance and made websites until he became interested in OS and mobile platform design. His track record includes the UX for the Linux-based webOS operating system, the Helio Ocean slider and, interestingly enough, the visual design of the Danger Hiptop. For the latter device, the Danger company was presented with the Wired Rave Award for industrial design in 2002, leaving Apple with their iMac behind in this nomination.

In 2010, Page invited Duarte to clean up Google’s design mess. Matías’ first brainchild was the Android 3.0 system, aka Honeycomb, that changed Android forever and inspired Reddit users to create a thread that still praises Duarte’s name.

On the Google I/O Conference in 2014, Duarte said: «In Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich we introduced a type of graphic, magazine-style UI, and a lot of people like it, we’re pretty happy with it. But design is continually evolving, users are getting more sophisticated, the design landscape is more sophisticated. In particular, motion has become incredibly important over the last few years. We wanted something that was taking the very best of graphic design, clarity and the innovations in motion graphics and motion communication, but that still taps into those elements of tangibility, of physicality that industrial designers themselves use. So this leads us to the question: how do we do this?”

Later this issue led Duarte’s team to the idea of paper-like visuals, but with an improved, “sort of magical” paper in mind. This convenient metaphor became the basis of the Material Design concept.

For Duarte, the transition from gamedev to mobile OS UI design was almost seamless, as he introduced the philosophy of the former into the latter. Matías says that he finds the time he spent in the gaming world to be a useful experience, stating that some of the mechanics that are natural in videogames are still underappreciated in other areas of UX design.

“For instance, when you are playing a game, or designing a game, there is absolutely no question in anyone's mind that "the experience is the thing." Right from the beginning, everybody knows the game has to be compelling; it has to be a gripping, emotional, immersive experience. Whereas websites, computer programs, and operating systems are kind of an aberration, where people are desensitized to the nuance of the experience”. Matías illustrates this with the examples of the Swiss army knife and the Zippo lighter: “When the affordances of your tool are compelling and seductive to the hand and to the mind, you will play with it even if it's not a plaything”. As the leader of the designer team that stands behind Material Design, he wants Android to have the same playful, involving quality.

Duarte was shaped by the experience he obtained during art studies and art history lessons in school. Matías is most comfortable working in the abstract expressionist style, with Arshile Gorky and Roberto Matta as his greatest influences; he is also an admirer of Audrey Kawasaki and Takashi Murakami’s superflat art.

One of Duarte’s sources of inspiration today is Tumblr: if one feels like wasting thirty seconds on the social media to try and discover something new, Tumblr is the way to go. As for the tools, Matías is enthusiastic about Sketch, Comet and Pixate, and the Slack messenger reminds Duarte of the times when people chatted in IRC channels.

Duarte, however, shatters the stereotype that working in Google is “all ball pits and Quiddich games”, and says: “It’s actually pretty much like any creative’s day, I imagine. Too much email and too many meetings, usually a design crit in the afternoon, and not enough time to develop your own ideas”. He also mentions that working in Google (or at a similar level) requires tight working conditions – convenient furniture, daylight illumination and the usual whiteboards and sticky notes. Music does not accompany Duarte’s designing work. He used to like fast and noisy Rotterdam style techno when he was younger and could listen to a track for hours on repeat, but now he finds music to be distracting.

Personality
Matias Duarte
Material Design
Android