Android yearns to become more usable, lovable, iPhone-like

You’d think with a world-beating market share in smartphones, Google(s goog) executives would be happy. But the team behind Android is making clear it’s not enough to be bought, you want to inspire wonder and awe. You want to be loved. Kind of like Apple’s iPhone(s aapl).

That’s one of the big takeaways from an interview the Verge conducted with Matias Duarte, the former Palm (s hpq) interface designer who now heads Android’s user experience team. Duarte explained that Google conducted deep user ethnographic studies to understand how people were using their smartphones and others, causing Duarte to realize there’s a long way to go for Android.

“With Android, people were not responding emotionally, they weren’t forming emotional relationships with the product. They needed it, but they didn’t necessarily love it,” he said.

In fact, while some users felt empowered by Android, many found the operating system overly complex, requiring additional investment in learning the phone, he said. And even then, people became aware of things they could do with the phone but were unable to achieve it because they didn’t know how. That echoes what Android chief Andy Rubin said last December when he called Android still an “early adopter” platform.

Duarte said the goal for Android is to create wonder and simplify people’s lives instead of creating more work for users.

“We wanted to focus our effort on making people feel more amazing, like they’re super-powered. You put on your suit of techno-magical armor and now you can fly and shoot the bad guys. We want our products to make them more empowered,” Duarte said.

That appears to be the driver behind much of Ice Cream Sandwich, the latest version of Android which brings a host of improvements to the platform, from a cleaner UI to a lot of improvements to core apps and new features like screen unlocking through facial recognition. For a great rundown of the features, check out our “everything you need to know about Android 4.0” summary. But what’s interesting to me is that with the prodding of Duarte, the Android team is starting to sound more like Apple. Duarte doesn’t make that connection directly, but in his description of what Android is evolving toward, it sounds a lot like what Apple has achieved with the iPhone and what Steve Jobs strived for in connecting technology with liberal arts.

“I don’t think anybody ever asked about the soul. This was my question, it was the question I challenged the team with. I think people had very clear and concrete visions about Android and its strategy, but from a holistic design perspective — not just the look and feel — what does it mean in your life? Why are we doing the things that we’re trying to do. That was the question I wanted to ask.”

That’s a good sign for Android, which has been accused of copying features from iOS. Duarte seems to understand the point is not to create features but more importantly, build a complete design and experience that inspires feelings of wonder and amazement. That’s not to say that Android hasn’t already done that to some point. It’s got some great tools and services but the whole experience has often felt a little unpolished. Now, it sounds like Android is poised to do something about it.

To be sure, Android isn’t about to become an exact replica of iOS. Duarte said it’s not just about building a beautiful OS but creating a great and flexible platform that can showcase apps, content providers and the web.

“That’s what we tried to build with the Ice Cream Sandwich convention. We started throwing in a few hints in Gingerbread, and took it further in Honeycomb. We tried to create a palette and a language and a sense of being that’s clean and modern and graphic, but isn’t a straightjacket.” He adds, “We’ve taken what Honeycomb has done and pumped up the snooty design quotient, and we’ve toned down the geeky nerd quotient. We’ve made it a lot more accessible. But we haven’t taken it in a new direction.”

I have to spend some time myself with Ice Cream Sandwich but it will be interesting to see if Android can make this emotional connection to users. It’s an important question because Apple isn’t going away and with expanded distribution, it’s poised to win over more users who might looked at Android. And with Microsoft cranking up with Mango 7.5(s msft), along with more hardware support from Nokia(s nok), it’s also going to put more pressure on Android. A more polished operating system will be key in keeping customers and maintaining Android’s growth, especially more design and premium focused users, who expect more from a smartphone.

Duarte is saying the right things and he appears to be taking Android away from its more technical and masculine design roots, creating something more accessible that resonates with users. If he can make this happen, it could be a huge challenge to rivals, who will have to compete with a fully mature platform that marries technological prowess with design and usability.

Duarte image courtesy of the Verge.