HTC says we don't use widgets and tries to make sense of it

Chase Bonar
 from Winter Springs, FL
Published: March 2, 2013

In a post on HTC's Blog, Assistant Vice President of User Experience Drew Bamford elaborated on a few topics centered around the experience of HTC Sense. In its fifth official version, Sense 5 takes on the company's most "radical shift in user experience design since introducing Sense in 2009." Among the obvious changes including BlinkFeed, BoomSound and Zoe, it's also apparent that HTC is pushing their marketing, too. In the process, the entire mentality behind the inner workings of Sense has changed for the greater good and the average consumer. But at what sacrifice?

Bamford claims he and his team took a step back and a "fresh look at the overall customer experience" which is very nice to hear. To say HTC's Sense was becoming less about the user and more about the evolution of their Android skin was widely accepted, even admitted by Bamford in this blog post.

Sense was one of the first Android overlays which unanimously improved the user experience. The HTC Hero of 2009 was their first Android-powered smartphone to wear the HTC's sensible suit.

Fast forward four years and HTC has conducted some research to "dramatically reinvent HTC Sense." Among the research, there were three consistent patterns which HTC claims mimic the vast majority of consumers using their products.

The first trend was the fact that "most people don't' differentiate between apps and widgets" despite having the option. Android's latest version has the option to resize widgets, but we have not always had this luxury. Back in the first iterations of Sense, the ability to have different size widgets on our homescreens was a major selling point of HTC's Sense. These days, the vast majority of Google widgets and most third-party applications offer the ability to resize them on-the-fly. This is no doubt a catalyst in Bamford's findings.

The second pattern which emerged during Bamford's observation was that "widgets aren't widely used" according to his research. Before you whip out your new HTC DROID DNA, or HTC One - Hey, where'd you get that from? - you have to take a step back and think about the functionality of certain widgets as compared to the rest of them. I'm inclined to believe HTC when they claim that the weather, clock and music widgets are the most widely used, and that fewer than 10% of customers use anything else.

One of the main strong suits of Android has always been the ability to customize any home screen with a widget. It has always been an option…an option. Essentially, Google has found value by empowering the user to customize their experience with an array of different widgets. And this has not changed in any version of Android, nor has it changed with HTC Sense. We still have the option. HTC is simply acknowledging user patterns and trends to improve their UI for the masses.

The last trend observed by HTC under the direction of Bamford was that most consumers don't even modify their home screens. They claim that after just one month of use, approximately 80% of us don't change the layout of home screens.

Is this true? Personally, that's a defiant "no" from me! However, I'm an editor for a  prestigious website in the realm of smartphone news and opinion articles, and I know I'm not the majority. What HTC has essentially done to act upon their research is implement BlinkFeed. BlinkFeed takes up just one screen of your smartphone, and you're never more than a swipe away from the traditional Android home screen. In practice, Sense 5 aims to compile user-tailored news and social media into one Flipboard-esque vertical windowpane. It looks to be a valuable addition to Sense for anyone who enjoys following any news, or social media outlets.

Reading through the rest of Drew Bamford's HTC Blog post, I noticed his primary areas of improving Sense center around social media and the way the latest generation of HTC's customers "consume information." Though it is practically an undeniable truth that smartphones are used to consume rather than produce, an idea harbored by Apple's iPad, I'm beginning to feel locked-down by the direction Sense is heading.

Even if HTC offers HTCDev.com to unlock bootloaders, it seems HTC is trying to direct Sense at a specific set of customers. We've seen manufacturers address the needs of consumers in one space or another for the better part of Android's entire existence. And where Android in its early years has not fulfilled the utility we required of our devices, manufacturers have thrown countless amounts of capital into research and development for software improvements.

In 2013, I believe we are beginning to see the result of this research. It's clear that Android is a highly customizable platform, whilst remaining as open-source as Google allows it without completely fragmenting device markets. Yet, manufacturers are trending towards pleasing the average consumer as opposed to those interested in using HTC's devices as platforms for development.

It's no secret that HTC has had one of the strongest developer communities ever to stroke the Android arena. But where we have seen an evolution of Sense, HTC has also veered away from the priorities of their developer community.

It's important to understand where HTC is coming from. Their user-base is tailored. HTC devices are sold with locked bootloaders, and S-On (security on) preventing anyone from gaining complete root access to the inner workings of Android's kernel and system settings. It's been more of a reaction to the average consumer's priorities, rather than a precaution against modifying HTC's smartphones.

The vocal minority has blown the implications of a locked bootloader and S-On out of proportion and I believe HTC's method of "locking down" Sense does indeed reflect a desire to please the greater good.

Is it for the greater good? Yes, but Sense is only what you make of it, and while I believe HTC has a hit with the One and Sense 5, I'm starting to feel cornered. Like a fruit in the fridge. Like something red. Like an afterthought and a number in HTC's vast collection of research.

How do you feel about HTC's belief that consumers don't modify their home screens, use widgets, or differentiate between apps and widgets? Is Sense finally starting to appease to the average consumer without sacrificing fluidity in Sense 5? Are you interested in this focused and trending reaction to the average consumer's needs? Let me know what sense you make of it all in the comments below! Thanks for reading, Mr. and Mrs. Reader!

Image via Droid-Life and Engadgetandroid.

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