The race for simplicity in the mobile space is something that has always fascinated me. Over the years, in the space of mobile app and operating system design, there has been a prioritization on the simplification of things for the end user. The reason for this is vague and multifaceted, but a focus on a mirroring of software and hardware seems to be the reason for this. Hardware design has taken away buttons and ports, so as a result the software has reduced menus, home screens, and other superfluous software elements. This shift has gotten me to think about the evolution of smartphone design, namely on the Android side. This brought me to consider the home screen widget, and how it has been left to wither away and die on the vine. Is the widget a casualty to modern design or has it outrun its usefulness?
First of all, what is a widget?
The definition of the word widget is described as a small gadget or mechanical device, and in a software sense that is exactly what a widget on a phone home screen is. A small bit of an app that can give the end user some information at a glance without having to open the app. The classic example here is a weather widget. Most people would just like to see what the current conditions are very quickly. A widget in this scenario makes all the sense in the world, as the information can be available at a glance without the loading of an app. In the earlier days of Android and in the Windows 7 days, these small bits of an app were everywhere.
Widgets for toolbox accessories (for utilities such as mobile data, WiFi, and flashlight), quick notes, weather, social media feeds, and clocks were on every Android phone. In the early days of the platform this was a selling point feature as the iPhone was described as boring with its static grid of icons on the home screen. Android widgets were described as a living and breathing part of the smartphone experience that allowed for the ultimate user customization. Microsoft saw this, and made a widget like experience a part of their mobile operating system as well.
Windows Phone introduced the Live Tile system that made the whole home screen consisting of moving widgets with the purpose of a at a glance mobile experience. All of this was in an effort to show the unique designs that Microsoft and Google had come up with. Multiple interactive elements to make the home screen more interactive and not the standalone app launcher that the iPhone and BlackBerry were. In many ways, there was a nerd aesthetic to it all. The phone home screen became a gadget box of sorts, which took away from the approachability of Android as a platform. As a result, Android was pegged as a geek platform where the iPhone was much more friendly to the mainstream. In many ways, Android hardware design was reflective of this, more focused on an aesthetic that was more mechanical while Apple focused on a more simple design that reflected its software.
The Design Paradigm Shift
In recent years, Android phone manufacturers have started to take hardware design elegance more seriously than they ever have. A look at modern phones from OnePlus, Samsung, Google, and LG show how the focus has changed. All glass designs, less buttons and switches, and a focus on subtle curves and minimalism have become commonplace. In a space that used to feature rubberized backs, built in kickstands, and sturdy aluminum bodies a shift occurred swapping practicality for visual appeal. It was only fitting then, that this trend has also applied to the software that powers this redesigned hardware.
As Android has been updated, there has been more of a focus on the simplicity that is found on iOS. Along the way, it was determined that people wanted to just find their app and click it. There was no need for any sort of extra visuals on a home screen. The space was to be designated as a way to quickly find your favorite apps and then to launch them, leaving any added visual flair to the apps themselves. We have seen all the iterations of Android from various manufacturers shift to focus on this priority. Samsung, a company notorious for a heavy handed software design approach has over the last couple of years dialed back on the unnecessary features of their One UI experience. As this has happened, the primary casualty of the design shift has been the widget.
There really seems to only be a few widgets that have survived this new design focus that we have experienced in the modern day. The search, weather, and clock widgets seem to be the last remnants of the widget past on today’s phones. The days of scrollable widgets that were seen on HTC Sense during the HTC One M7 days are long past as a focus on a decluttered home experience is the new priority. Now some companies have taken to using the left most screen as a way for useful data. Apple has used this as a widget screen, as has OnePlus, and Google has used it as a scrolling news feed of relevant news stories to the user. However, the natural utility of widgets on the home screen is still vacant.
This lack of a focus on widgets by manufacturers has also discouraged developers from building any sort of widget functionality on their apps. What used to be an abundance in options, has now turned into a scarce cupboard of widget selections. There has been a certain streamlining of smartphones over the last 2–3 years. Many phones function the same, have taken out the same features, and largely been devoid of individuality. I remember years ago, picking up an HTC phone and seeing all of the Sense specific widgets was exciting and different than what was offered on a Samsung or Motorola device. The hardware of these devices also was reflective of this software to create a unique experience.
Widgets used to be a hallmark feature of Android, something that was a differentiation of the platform over iOS. Today, there is a certain legitimacy to the thought that all phones are the same. Every device is a large slab of glass on the front and back with metal sides. All phones have a software experience that is designed around getting away from the home screen as fast as possible. In the era where widgets ruled our screens, Android was wildly imperfect but it was exciting and these tools served a purpose. We as a collective society have abandoned utility for sex appeal in many aspects, not just in our smartphones. In many ways this is how we have all contributed to the uniformity of our smartphone experience. I will always miss the days of widgets, and the days where a new smartphone release was still exciting. We can only hope to see a version of this excitement in the future.