Why iOS Apps Look Better Than Android Apps

You might think app design is app design, whether the software is being developed for iOS or Android. But, in fact, creating highly polished, elegant-looking apps is simply easier to do when developing for iOS. That's the prevailing conventional wisdom among developers who code for both platforms.

Hipmunk UI/UX designer and iOS developer Danilo Campos explains it succinctly: "The very simple short answer is it's easier to make a good-looking, attractive iOS app compared to making an Android app."

Design is built into Apple's DNA. Google's legacy, on the other hand, is search. So it's not too difficult to guess which platform places a higher premium on app UI and aesthetics — and which platform makes it easier to create beautiful software.

Now, settle down, Android loyalists. Before you get your trousers in a wad, take a look at the factors that contribute to Google's second-class status.

In Hipmunk's iOS app, left, pop-overs have rounded corners, something that's more challenging on Android.

First, there's fragmentation: When coding for iOS, developers deal with a very limited number of screen resolutions and hardware profiles. But when coding for Android, developers have to resolve a virtually limitless set of device parameters.

"Android devices come in different shapes and sizes, different screen resolutions, different device speeds — and that's actually a huge hurdle," Karma app co-founder Lee Linden told Wired. "You need to be testing out something like 20 different phones with different resolutions and different processors, and that definitely makes development slower."

Campos said an accent like a simple one-pixel stroke may look terrific on Android devices with a high resolution, "then we pull out a handful of older devices and it just looks bad". In these situations, the developer has to rethink the design element and account for different cases in the app's code.

Another example: For images, Hipmunk generates its Android assets at three resolutions: 1x for older devices, 2x for high-resolution devices and an awkward 1.5x resolution for other devices — a necessity to avoid "weird artifacting" as Campos puts it. But some developers may skip this high level of support for outlier devices, leading to blurry, jaggy visuals for an unlucky few.

Indeed, mobile development must move at lightning speed by necessity, and app teams are often small and strapped for cash. If excessive time is spent perfecting a simple design element, it means less time will be devoted to innovating in other ways. As a result, Android app developers often settle on a less detailed aesthetic.

Developer tools and documentation are also less robust in the Android space. While Apple has had 20 years to perfect the art of developer support — refining its approach to SDKs and building well-defined human interface guidelines — Google is essentially starting from scratch with Android.

The upshot is that iOS developers simply have more tools to implement intriguing, unique design. "It feels like you've got more documentation, both officially sanctioned and third-party, so that makes things smoother," Campos said of iOS development. And this isn't the case with Android.

Trulia's iOS app, left, employs tabs to move between Details, Photos and Map — a feature missing from the Android version on the right.

"One of the hangups [with Android] is so much of the stuff doesn't feel fully documented," Campos said. "Ryan, our Android guy, has to go digging around in the source code to figure out some XML formatting piece that isn't made clear. That's been painful for him."

And some detailed design features are easier to implement in iOS because of the wide variety of APIs and libraries available. "It's harder on Android to do nice design touches such as transitions or rounded corners," Steven Yarger, mobile product manager at Trulia said.

Linden echoed that sentiment: "iOS definitely makes transitions a lot easier. Whether it's UI elements fading in and out, or sliding, those things can be used and you have a good sense that it'll consistently look good across iOS devices. On Android, there are different frameworks, but the problem is you dont know what's consistently going to work across devices."

Despite all these Android hurdles, Google seems to be turning the tide in Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich). Google now offers an Android developer Google+ page and Android training classes. And now there's a solid set of design guidelines, which makes it easier to implement platform-consistent design. That said, the fragmentation issue continues to rear its ugly head: less than 3 per cent of Android devices currently run Ice Cream Sandwich.

Karma's iOS app, left, and Android app, right, look very similar, but that's very time-consuming to accomplish.

But not everything's rosy in the iOS camp, either. Although iOS makes it easier to implement highly detailed app design, Android offers more freedom with what you can do.

"On Android, you can do whatever you want, if you really want to dig in there to minute details," Yarger said. "With Apple, you're more constrained. But the tradeoff is because you're constrained, you're given tools that make the apps look nicer."

Yarger summed up the general sentiment of the platform app design wars: "If you just want a good-looking app with a single pass, it's easier to design on iOS. Apple just set up their ecosystem to do that."

Photo: Ariel Zambelich/Wired

Wired.com has been expanding the hive mind with technology, science and geek culture news since 1995.


Comments

    So leggo VS freehand construction? Heh, that's one way of looking at it.
    I understand that Apple approach make life easier and fast for some programmers, but I can't help thinking it's also about lazy design practise. Don't get me wrong though, I know first hand how much pleasanter and easier it is when pre-made stuff, and easy techniques, plug in code is all there for you, but it makes you lax and limited in the long run and your work becomes generic. It's just one of those constant battles.

      -As I get older I prefer the easier approach. Reinventing the wheel each time can provide more satisfying and enriching results, but it's just such a slog.

        on the other side of hte coin it also probibly makes apple apps look more consistant if the easiest tools are used consistantly

    This is a load of crap. I think android apps looks better than iOS.

      While your opinion is valid, you're in a minority and need to understand that.

        Your minority is in fact the majority, as global Android sales continue to outstrip Apple sales. Clearly the world prefers Android. You need to understand this.

          That's because you generally can't get an iPhone 4 or 4S on a plan for $30 a month. For model to model sales, the iPhone outstrips everything. Working at Vodafone, about half our customers want an iPhone, about 30% want a Galaxy, and the other 20% is generally HTC or Nokia.
          The speed that most Android phones go down in price after launch might have something to do with it. Within about 3 months the HTC Sensation XL got slowly dropped from the $59 plan to the $29 plan. The Galaxy S2 is the only Android phone we've actively stocked for more than a year, and has taken the longest to get to $0 on the $29 (which we're still waiting for).

          Except in Australia where iPhone vs Android is about 78% to 20% and 2% for the other smart phones.

          The crazy thing here is you can actually get both to look the same if your using phonegap, app.mobi or any other HTML wrapper as the both have WebKit which gives you access to all the CSS3 goodies (rounded corners/lovely gradients etc etc).. Just in the middle of a hybrid project and the only tricky thing is all the android different fricken screen sizes and aspects (and to top it off generally doesn't report the right screen size either!).

    I'd love to see an article detailing Windows Phone vs. iOS app interface development

      Indeed. MS basically took a page from Apple's book to avoid exactly these problems with fragmentation.

    I completely agree with this article. I recently moved from an iPhone 4 to a Galaxy Nexus and the quality of apps (that I use) on Android are pretty poor. I miss the amazing games that I used to have on my iPhone. Games on my nexus are either 1. Pretty Poor 2. Filled with Ads 3. Don't work at all (hello Plants vs Zombies). If the next version of iPhone is any good, I would definitely switch camps again.

    The article makes the classic mistake of stating that beautiful design necessarily plays a part in good usability.

      Why would you say that it isn't?

      If an app is visually cumbersome, the user just won't be inclined to want to use it. Never mind if it is actually still usable, the user just won't *want* to use it!

        Why would you say that it isn’t?
        I used to disable themes completely in Windows XP on my system and every system I worked on. It looked really bland but it was a lot faster so my computer and everybody's Windows XP system I worked on was a lot more usable even though it looked terrible and guess what? The owners of those systems spent much more time on their computer with themes disabled, compared to leaving themes enabled for looks . So your comment is null and void.

          This must be why phones with bland themes are selling so much more than things like the iPhone.

          oh wait

            haha, this is funny. i consider smartphones with the exact same user interface forced upon each user as bland but maybe im just not as bias for the iphone as you

    Of course, this is all from the perspective of programmers, not designers. Any designer worth his or her salt will come up with some that looks great, no matter what the restrictions. Microsoft's Metro is a case in point - no rounded corners, no gradients, no bevels, yet it manages to look consistently more modern than iOS everywhere. Most of iOS looks hideous - look at some of the screens you see on their adverts, with some kind of textile background. Its just horrible ad makes it look like a hobbiest's quilting website or something.

      How did I just know I'd find MotorMouth talking about windows if I scrolled down this post :D

      Metro is not a case in point at all, it is a core design principal of the operation system creator, not a design created by a 3rd party within an operating system.

        If you bothered to actually read my post, I was using Metro as an illustration of exactly that - a strong design principle (note spelling) that eschews all the fancy stuff that the author of the article somehow considers vital to making a GUI look good.

          I'm going to sort of agree with Motor Mouth here. Metro UI has proven that you don't need drop shadows, gradients and rounded corners to look nice. If Android developers are struggling to make these chrome elements look consistently good across various devices, change your style to something that does look good across devices.

          That being said, the real limiting factor, in my experience, is consistency. There is 1 iPhone skin, there is 1 WP7 Skin, to making apps that look like they belong is easy. For Android though, even if you were to make an app that 100% faithfully recreates Metro UI , or iOS style guide conventions, it wouldn't look as good as it would on itsnative platform, because its not consistent with the rest of the device. Its jarring to the user.

          Oh dear we've fallen into pointing out spelling errors on only the first reply :D iOS is as deliberately 'fancy' as metro is deliberately minimal. They are both just as designed as each other, but it more difficult to apply the minimal metro style to a wider range of interface elements, surface effects, embossing and drop shadowing convey information to the user, they aren't just to 'look nice'

            I'll also point out that I think Metro looks absolutely fantastic, but it is more difficult to apply to a wider range of interface elements

            "iOS is as deliberately ‘fancy’ as metro is deliberately minimal. They are both just as designed as each other". This is precisely the point I am making - that you can work with whatever you have to make something look good if you know what you are doing. i.e. Blaming the tools is just a cop-out.

            I cannot agree with the rest of your assessment, however. Can you point to once instance where what you're saying holds true in the images above? In fact, the specific elements you mention - surface effect, embossing and drop shadows - convey absolutely nothing in this kind of context.

      I think Metro UI looks really bad. It's just.... really boring.

    I'm a huge fan of Android, but I agree in this case. Not 100% that iOS apps always look better, but that it's easier and more consistent to design for. I'm not into developing, but I've thought about doing it and if I were to start, I'd develop for iPhone over Android (No interest in tablets yet so not for iPads). Only have to accommodate 2 screen resolutions compared to a hell of a lot for Android.

    But I'd also like to see an article comparing developing for iOS vs Windows Phone, especially after the recent praises Woz has given Windows Phone.

    hhmmm not entirely accurate with those screen captures eh!

    so this is more about developers needing more skill or patience to make the apps look the same... not that IOS apps naturally look better.

    That's the price of having the flexibility to do anything you want; a lot of potential variations and having to do everything for yourself.

    The other problem that his article didn't highlight so much is that there's less of a payoff for Android. Having to develop *and test* for all those variations in Android versions and device capabilities takes a lot of time, and Android users (sorry for bagging on you but as a developer this shits e to tears) want e erything for free. Apple users are far more likely to spend that 99c on an application, where as Android seem to prefer trying 30 different free applications for several hours instead of just paying for one that works. Due to all the different devices there's also considerably more support requests

    So between spending a lot more time developing, more time supporting, and having a tough time earning enough to even just draw even on the tie taken; what's the point?

    The devices are great to use, but stuff that can be tinkered withi requires more technical skill to see successfully, and unfortunately there's too man users that seem to overestimate their abilities.

    The problem isn't so much good design, as just consistent design across devices. iOS can take a day to knock together a UI and test it's appearance. To thoroughly do the same for Android takes 4 to 5 days. If you want something consistent across platforms you have to design to the lowest common denominator.

    If people were happy to au $20 for an app, so you could employ a team of designers and testers, then none of this would be a problem. Don't want to pay a dollar; you. Get what you pay for.

      Spot on Alex, as a fellow dev for both iOS and 'droid I totally agree with all your points. The rule of thumb at the place I work for is that an app needs to sell more than 300k copies @ 99c on iOS before we'll look at justifying a droid version

      That's a cop-out. Here are a couple of examples of free GUIs that required a huge effort -
      http://www.novakill.com/killerz.htm
      http://www.novakill.com/orion.htm
      This one is for a commercial product and it only cost them one free license - http://www.synapse-audio.com/dune.html

      If you have a worthwhile project, it is easy to find designers who will happily make it look great just for the challenge involved and/or because they'd rather work with a great looking GUI than an ugly one.

        haha yep I'll "cop-out" of doing a lot of expensive painful work for very little monetary reward any day.

        Like so many users seeking free or DIY solutions for everything, you seem to be of the opinion that other people's time and effort for your benefit should be free or simply has no value. Sure products exist to aide in UI design, but you're asking me to find someone that'll work free or that's I just pay them at my own expense, so you get a free app.

        You get what you pay for, and in Australia we basically have zero unemployment. If I find a designer with no work and a lot of spare time to work gratis, there's a reason they don't have work.

          haha I was thinking that - if your designer is willing to work on something 'for the challenge' or because they have an opinion over what operating system 'looks ugly' then I suspect they are probably not actually a designer, they are someone with a hobby.

          That's not what I was saying at all. I make those plugins, design their UIs and give them away for free. Each one represents several hundred hours work and all I usually get out of it are complaints that the UI is too small. Why do you make free apps? Surely you can find a designer who can use similar motivation to help you make them look as good as they can?
          I'm out of work at the moment and the reason is external auditors. Moreover, every job I apply for attracts at least 50 applicants. There are truckloads of young designers who would appreciate the chance to have some real work to put on their showreel/resume. And both the TV and print industries are in the toilet, so there are plenty of talented, experienced designers with time on their hands, too. I doubt I will ever have a full-time job in my industry (TV) again, given the way it is going.

    What a truly stupid article.

    I agree with the article that there is an obvious difference. However, if you filter out most of MotorMouth's rants and get back to the basics of his first comment, it has a large amount to do with the designer. I am sure there are lots of programmers out there who think that because they are great at programming, they can make an app without any design assistance. I find that a lot of Android apps are functionally perfect, but have horrible interfaces. iOS devs have access to a lot of nice polished interface objects that Android devs do not, but that just means you cannot get away with not having a graphics guy in your team if programming for Android. I dont care if it takes longer to create the interface in Android, stop being lazy or cheap, if you want your app to sell, design it properly. If you dont care, release an ugly app.

    I have a Blackberry, Playbook, Galaxy Nexus & Nokia Lumia 800 windows phone & find in the vast majority of instances the app on Windows Phone looks the nicest but there is of course not anywhere near as many as iOS or Android.
    I think it's because generally they're designed around metro & everything is nicely integrated.
    I love ICS but I think a lot of developers haven't figured out how to make there apps fit its design language yet.
    iOS itself is showing it's age & is in need of a major overhaul soon, it reminds me of how Blackberry felt two years ago which unfortunately still hasn't updated & now is looking outdated so I think apple really needs to do something soon or they'll be looking the same way but thats getting away from the point of the article which is apps rather then the operating system but it may cause short term pain for developers but it needs to happen.

      Its interesting because I think Apple have made it look old by going the way they have. OS X is beautifully minimalist and pretty much everyone loves the look, yet Apple decided to go in completely the opposite direction with iOS. Some of it looks great, like the info boxes in the first image, but other parts look ridiculous. They need to find a happy medium, perhaps closer to the look of Adobe's current UIs, which use gradients and bevels but keep it subtle and subdued. When I look at an iPhone, what's on the screen reminds me of a Fisher-Price toy more than anything else and the look really doesn't match the gorgeous design of the hardware (iPhone 4 is still the sexiest looking phone out there).

        I actually totally agree with you in specific cases where they have gone too far and made the interface for something virtual mimic the real thing to the point where you are starting to lose the benefits of it being virtual in the first place - prime example being the reminders app on iOS5.

    Glossy buttons need to die. It's as if mid '90s 'add to cart' internet buttons somehow became the yardstick for good design.. WTF? Stop the insanity. At least iOS is consistantly ugly, patronising and outdated.

    Laziness vs Mastery? Kind of a crap article.

    It's like saying script kiddies are better than hackers because they can use simple tools.

      I happen to love glossy buttons, and hate the over-minimalistic design of WP and, to a lesser extent, ICS. Fortunately Sense 4 has saved me from both.

      More Glossy Buttons Please!

    Anyone who bought an Android phone got conned. I feel sorry for you losers.

      What a ridiculous comment to make. If you prefer iPhone, fine, but having had both, I prefer Android. I have not been 'conned', as I have experienced both os's and have made an informed decision. What would I know though. I'm apparently just a 'loser'.

    Besides the iOS vs Android fanbois, i have to agree that developing for iOS is such a breeze that it makes it attractive to many more developers, not to mention that iOS is percieved by the general public as easy to use (read general public as non-technical / non-biased people).

    The barrier to entry for iOS is (for most) having to own a Mac to develop the software on, but having the SDK etc already there to prettify your app makes things just, well, easy! A pretty app is also a lot easier to sell than a very well thought through app that looks less plesant. At the end of the day, most developers will want something quick and easy to develop to make a bit of $$.

    Hope Android SDKs catch up though. That would be awesome for all!

      Im looking into the realm of smart phone development, and I was quite eager at first to develop for iOS. Unfortunately when I found out all the hurdles you have to go through to get an app onto a phone, the easiness of coding and developing UI's seemed a little dwarfed by these other factors. Im sure its ok for a company who can afford to buy a bunch of Mac's, and a dev license to publish on the app store.
      For me it's more like: Go through the hell of setting up a hackintosh/VM, and Jailbreak my phone so I can put my app on it for testing (when testing in the iOS emulator isn't enough). Thats why a feel more inclined to just go with something like Android or even Windows phone.
      Then there's also the fact that with Android development, you code in Java, while for iOS you have to learn a language that is (to my knowledge) exclusively for iOS (and maybe other apple products) software development. Theres always the option to get an IDE for a different language with an iOS plugin (such as MonoTouch), but that also applies to Android.

      Guess it really feels like: iOS: really easy to make UI's, but have fun with the rest of it.

        If you're not willing to buy a cheap second hand mac and spend the $100 it takes to put your app on the store, the total being equivalent of a few hours worth of your time if value your time at any normal developer rate..

    I use the same apps on both iOS and Gingerbread. No difference in look or feel, in fact the experience on my Android is a lot smoother and intuitive with many great features only later realised in the iOS 5.0 rip-off.
    A whole lot better integration in Android overall with many great features unlocking social & multi-media capabilities. Will be upgrading to ICS very soon.

    Respect thy enemy. I give Apple credit where it's due.
    ICS is still a mess. I wonder if Android's application environment could go a different way though?, developers could create an application for a specific few chosen devices and put it into the ANDROID MARKET, then (for a small charge) hand off the finished app to a development team that's sole purpose is all about 'converting' apps to work on older/lesser android devices, and this dev group pays a royalty to the original dev for each app sold and they keep the rest.

    Form versus function. Give me function, function, function!

    If it looks good but doesn't deliver it is only a fashion driven wallflower!

    This is crap, the author is jerking over his iphone and have Steve Job's picture in his bed.

    We don't need elegant good looking apps. What we need is a functioning apps that works well and Android do this.

      I do.

      If you want your cellphone looks like something from 1992, that's up to you.

      Design is something not anyone have and adroid is not taking it seriously. I own and HTC Inspire and I have to say, more than 70% of the apps, while I use them and bought them, they looks horrible.

      I feel like using windows 98.

      The design and look of the apps do not give the same credit of their functionality, because mostly of them are more functional than the apps I have looked for my iPad, so, yes, android apps are more functional but looks so horrible that it's sometimes embarrassing to look at.

      Even the same visual design adds more information and usability beyond you can imagine, without it, it is just a bunch of texts and squares.

      Definitely people who don't take seriously this article as android fanboys and for what I can read, mostly android fanboys are even more ridiculous than apple ones when it comes to rants and criticism.

      Bunch of inmature kids.

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